What I Learned in My Month Off Twitter
Note: I wrote the following article as October 2016 became November 2016. I had a busy week and didn’t find time for the last few edits I had planned to make before Donald Trump unexpectedly won the Presidential election on November 8th. The world changed in that instant, that news fully occupying our collective consciousness — and my own thoughts — for days and weeks afterward. Further, given how his own Twitter usage is headline news more days than not, I decided to delay publishing this post until the dust settled a bit. (It now seems the dust will just keep coming, but at least there is a little time between November 8th and today.)
I decided not to rewrite my below essay from a post-Trump election perspective. Please keep the pre-election context in mind as you read the following.
I recently decided to stay off Twitter for the month of October. (I deleted my Facebook account two years ago and rarely use Instagram, making this a de facto abstention from all social media.)
Immediately upon commencement, I was smacked with just how much of a habit my Twitter use had become. I kept finding myself launching Tweetbot on my iPhone without having consciously decided to do so. I scrolled a few times,
faved a few tweets, replied a few times, and tweeted @ two companies for tech support.
I found it illuminating to fight the urge to tweet something. My first reaction was always sadness I couldn’t immediately share this thing with “the world,” but quickly I would ask myself how necessary it really was to share it, what sharing would accomplish, and if there were perhaps a better alternative. Once, I logged in to Buffer and scheduled a tweet for early November. Rarely, I’d send whatever it was to a friend or two directly. Sometimes I’d just “recommend” an article on Pocket instead. I made a short list of things to consider tweeting when the month was over. And of course, a lot of these thoughts, especially snarky ones, will never see the light of an LCD screen, which is probably for the best. (I just re-read this paragraph and realized it doesn’t explain how any of this was illuminating. It was that thought process of really thinking about whether something was tweet-worthy that was provocative. As my self-imposed exile ends, I hope to maintain as much of that reflective pre-tweet analysis as possible. After all, many of the best — and most-followed — Twitterers use Twitter judiciously and narrowly, and that is worth emulating somewhat, even though I don’t want to become a celebrity Twitterer; I value the friendships I have formed through more casual Twitter use. Shout-out to @bbirdiman and @command_tab, both of whom I had the pleasure of meeting IRL recently.)
I realized that I need to spend my time more intentionally. I had hoped that by cutting out Twitter, I would automatically blog more. (I regularly have ideas I want to share here despite rarely following through.) That wasn't the case. I played more video games, spent more time on Apple News, and basically continued to consume much more than I create. This was a great reminder that it’s easy to blame things for my behavior, when change really needs to come from inside to a large degree.
What I Missed
@bloomcounty! I had the pleasure of going back and catching up on a month of Berkeley Breathed’s iconic strips.
@alexjc. I’ve been following Alex since he made a Twitter bot that would paint AI-powered “forgeries” in the style of a famous artist based on photos you tweeted at it. His account is quite information-rich and such an effortless way to be informed on the latest neural net news.
News & trends, both in my industry and generally. I actually missed this a lot less than I thought I would. I still have websites, Apple News, and co-workers on Slack that filled much of this void. This used to be my primary justification for my heavy Twitter use, but I don’t think it stands up anymore.
What I Didn’t Miss
The utter lack of context most tweets have. This is a constant on Twitter, and I kind of hate it. I’ll see a tweet I don’t understand, and it’s because there is some news item I haven’t seen yet, and I have to look at replies or follow a thread or whatever to figure out what the hell is actually happening. Worse yet, it’s not even a news item so much as the outrage of the day, which I still typically spend time investigating, only to regret it.
The time spent on the service. I’m going to be resisting the urge to feel “caught up” on my timeline. I’ll also be unfollowing some accounts to reduce the volume there.
The lack of nuance and empathy. 140 characters is tough. While fitting a full thought into that space can be a creatively inspiring challenge, it also seems to reinforce a lot of the worst in humanity. Do you think something is problematic? Forcefully condemn it and shame anyone who might see things differently (or in less black & white terms than you do)! Go over the top! Your followers already agree with you, so don’t hold back! Ugh. Groupthink is reason #1 I can’t stand Reddit, and Twitter seems to be bifurcating into a 140-character alt-right Reddit and a 140-character regressive-left Reddit, albeit with slightly fewer in-jokes and meme references. Rational thought, empathy, politeness: All dead in the realm of the little blue bird, sacrificed to summon those impulsive retweets by those who see your “fire tweet” and think, “THIS.” I’m so tired of seeing people I mostly respect reflexively endorse the most vapid, unhelpful, non-constructive vitriol just because it agrees with their peer-group ideology. I’m tired of silently objecting, “but the situation is more complicated than that” as I feel my brows furrow. A great example of this from before my month began is a retweet I saw of a link to an article entitled “I’m voting for [my party’s] candidate in November because I’m not a garbage human.” I redacted the party because it’s orthogonal to my point. If you are a Twitter user, please consider unfollowing some of the people with whom you agree most strongly but who don’t make you think and following a few accounts that you do disagree with but who might help you see things from a new perspective. I don’t need you to change your mind; I just want you to hate “them” a little less.3
I was reminded also of why I use Twitter despite my strong dislike of so much of what I see there.
The biggest draw is how Twitter enables serendipitous discoveries of really awesome things.
For example, @cabel routinely sees & tweets really interesting and remarkable things, which probably sounds facetious but which I actually believe. He tweeted these monstrous and glitchy ads seen from his hotel window:
The 15 story tall LED ad outside my hotel room is glitching out in the most perfect cyberpunky of ways pic.twitter.com/vqDmPpyFFu— Cabel Sasser (@cabel) October 29, 2016
And that was pretty interesting. But then the situation intensified with this absolute gem:
computer, increase cyberpunk dystopia by 250% pic.twitter.com/rxCyvtp1u0— Cabel Sasser (@cabel) October 29, 2016
I can hardly believe that’s real. It’s disturbing in at least three ways I could enumerate. Cabel, man, you really have a talent for broadcasting what’s weird and awesome around you.
Someone retweeted a user I don’t follow, @ChappellTracker, who had shared some of her favorite Vines in the face of its impending execution by Twitter, Inc. I scrolled through them, and I’m glad I did.
Unmute this and enjoy two Owen Wilsons enjoying the view:
And here’s a masterful microdrama with a little je ne sais quoi to play us out:
Update: It’s been two months since my experiment ended. I am definitely using Twitter less often and more conscientiously, and I am very glad to have done this experiment. My perception that Twitter is no longer a pleasant place to spend time has further solidified. As a user since summer 2007, this is a sad realization for me, but not enough to make me leave completely!
Thanks to Faith Hanna, Catherine Hogan, and Greg Hogan for their feedback on a draft of this essay.
I’m hardly innocent of succumbing to the temptation of being a jerk online. One of my cheat tweets, which I had forgotten about until now, was a totally unsympathetic reply to Dinesh D’Souza, a public figure and a charlatan whom I truly despise for reasons that involve ideology but also go much further than that. His own tweet was despicable, but I managed to stoop to his level and to make no point outside of becoming a hypocrite. Earlier, back in September, I made a sarcastic reply to someone else’s reply to a funny tweet. I regretted the tweet — a little! — right away, because it’s just not kind. I didn’t think more than one person would see it, but I was quite wrong. I would get push notifications well into October [Update: Make that December!] telling me that someone else “liked” my tweet, which has become probably one of my top-10 most popular tweets of all time, out of over 25,600! That’s messed up. With such rewards for negative behavior, it’s no wonder we give in and treat Internet strangers in a way most of us wouldn’t treat people in person. ↩︎