Learning to Zip It in Twitter’s Dunk-Based Economy

When a client gets into a dicey situation on Twitter, sometimes the best plan is simply to “zip it" and say no more. PR professionals understand this intuitively, but many have clients that do not.

If a client doesn't understand why you're telling them to zip it, they may ignore you and follow their gut instinct to explain themselves (got ‘em). Even if they have the best intentions, that can make things worse, so I thought I’d try to explain where the "zip it" advice comes from in a way that anyone can understand.

A sample situation: You were having a conversation on social media and said something that was taken the wrong way. Or maybe you just straight up popped off into what you thought was the void, and it has upset some people and started to gain attention. Let's say that even though what was said was unfairly taken out of context, some high-profile people have begun to quote it as an example of what not to do. This in turn has started emotionally-charged discussions outside your original audience, and it may have even gone viral.

Twitter is a uniquely fast-moving place with a lot of dynamics, but one of the top activities for lots of accounts is scoring followers and influence by ruthlessly pointing out dumb stuff that other people say. This is, as my husband calls it, "Twitter’s dunk-based economy.”

Dunks come in many forms, from memes, to videos, to quotes, or just plain rants. Everybody enjoys seeing their enemies get dunked on. Dunks can create a lot of emotion, which makes it harder to respond in a sincere or rational way when you get in trouble.

You might want to respond because it seems like the dunkers are talking to you. They are quoting you, or maybe even attacking you personally, so it sure seems like this is about you. But it's no longer about you. This is the essential thing to understand.

In short, when in the midst of a dunk train, trying to explain yourself 1) often won't reach the large majority of your audience 2) won't convince most of those it does reach 3) is one of the few things that can recharge people's outrage to the level necessary to kick off a new round of dunks. This is a bad plan.

This is why it's important to zip it when you're in the crosshairs of the dunks, let things simmer down, and reassess the situation before responding or doubling down. It's easy to panic and maybe tempting try to backpedal out of a situation by attempting to explain yourself, but once the dunk train is rolling, the conversation you were having has ended, and your original tweet is now just “an example of x” (e.g. an unpopular corporate position, ignorance, what not to do, etc.).

If you’re still fighting the urge to clap back, the only move that has a lower chance of making things worse is also much less satisfying to your sense of injustice: apologize. This can still go wrong—you are dealing with an unsympathetic audience that might be looking for a chance to keep the dunk train rolling, so they may think you weren’t sorry enough, or sorry about the right things. If you’re considering this option, read Ed Zitron's piece on “How To Say ‘I’m Sorry.’”, ask your PR person for their advice, and… probably still just zip it.