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Nicolais: Twitter locked me out — for a ubiquitous cultural reference

The platform's algorithms flagged me for abuse and harassment after I paraphrased the classic myth of Oedipus

Forget Skynet or The Matrix. Social media algorithms have already come for me. Last week Twitter officially suspended one of my accounts.

Generally, I support social media companies cleaning up the cesspools of bile that proliferate on their platforms. I have been an ardent opponent of bloodlust rhetoric, support efforts to combat dangerous disinformation and condemn calls to violence.

But when algorithms and an army of reviewers cannot differentiate between such threats and metaphorical references to cultural touchstones, it presents a problem. 

Mario Nicolais

My exile started after I replied to a Tweet by Shea Serrano. He is one half of a four-time New York Times Best Selling duo (along with illustrator Arturo Torres — I own LOTS of his art) and a senior staff writer for The Ringer. He is also one of the all-time feelgood Twitter follows.

Serrano uses his platform to regularly encourage aspiring writers, artists and anyone hustling to make something of themselves. He randomly raises money to give away to people in need of groceries or behind on their rent. He is a master dog-trainer and opened his own publishing house.

More than anything else, Serrano’s Tweets demonstrate how much he loves his family. While incredibly self-deprecating when describing himself, all his missives about his wife or kids are filled with adulation and love. As much as I admire Serrano as a writer, I work every day to follow his lead as a husband and father.

So when Serrano issued a satirical press release about a game of “21” he lost to one of his sons, I replied, “All men must eventually kill their father. It is as it always has been.”’

The next time I tried to log in, Twitter greeted me with an ultimatum to either admit to abuse and harassment and delete the Tweet or appeal.

That’s right, I got suspended for making a reference to one of the most prolific themes in myth, movies, books, psychology, and sports. It is central to any coming-of-age tale or hero’s journey.

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Maybe you know some of the stories?

Sophocles wrote about Oedipus almost 2,500 years ago. Sigmund Freud later developed an entire psychological theory based on its premise. 

Not to be outdone, Shakespeare detailed how Hamlet murdered his stepfather two millennia later. Actors have played out those parts in school theaters, on local stages and under the lights of Broadway in the centuries since.

More recently, Luke Skywalker fought Darth Vader on several occasions and Kendall Roy’s attempts to dethrone his dad is the cornerstone of HBO’s “Succession” — his brother Connor literally says, “I’m not going to help kill dad” in one of the third season’s early episodes.

This is only the tiniest fraction of cultural references to the same theme.

On a deeper level, the metaphor can be touching. Read just a little bit of Joseph Campbell and it becomes evident that children metaphorically killing their parents — most often by eclipsing them in some fashion, like in a game of “21” — is a necessary stage of development. It is a rite of passage that transcends cultures.

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Good parents revel in their children’s growth. When a child learns to beat a parent fair and square, it is a source of pride for both. A momentary rush of victory for the kid, a deep and resonant satisfaction for the adult. Strong, confident children are the ultimate success in parenting.

And that is what my reply to Serrano meant. It is just another way of saying, “Congratulations, you have done a great job raising your kids.”

I DMed Serrano from another account after I got suspended to make sure he understood. I don’t think he saw the reply before I mentioned it — he was probably too busy researching or writing or napping or ordering enchiladas for delivery — but he reassured me he didn’t take offense. He is good that way, too.

Whether Twitter understands or not is another question. 

My appeal still has not been ruled on. Maybe my jury should catch an encore presentation of “The Terminator” or “The Matrix” in the interim. After all, machines killing their creators is just another take on a very familiar theme.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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