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it's complicated

That Goddamned Blue Bird and Me: How Twitter Hijacked My Mind

I joined Twitter, with very bad grace, on March 5, 2010. I was a few months away from publishing my first book, and my agent, editor, publicist, and assorted other media-savvy types sat me down and informed me that if I cared even an iota about its commercial fate, I would make a book trailer and set up an author website and get on Facebook and sign up for Twitter. Having just spent four years essentially living alone in a cave, with what I privately referred to as my panther and publicly, to seem sane, referred to as the book I was working on, I found all these suggestions disorienting, un-me-ish, and silly. But I was new to the publishing industry, and I am (despite certain indicators to the contrary) something of a good girl at heart, and so I did what I was told. 

The book trailer, which I made with a filmmaker friend, turned out to be a very fun, very pointless project. The website now functions chiefly as the place from which I poach my own bio when I’m called upon to provide one. My interest in Facebook lasted a month, then lapsed into profound, unbudgeable boredom.

But Twitter, man. The medium I mocked most. The one I joined last, and was sure I’d quit first. The hardest to initially understand, and the most seemingly inane. The one so easily vilified from afar as antithetical to nuance, substance, elegance, depth. The one most at odds with my own country-mile prose. Also: the one I adore. The one to which I am addicted. And the one that, over the course of the past three years, in tiny nibbles exactly the size of this sentence, has proceeded to eat me alive.

This essay is not a renunciation. For good or ill, I have no imminent plans to stop tweeting. Nor is it a vilification. I love Twitter, a complicated love that includes agape and occasionally some eros and for sure the capital-P Platonic love of fine minds meeting, and also, who knows, probably sibling rivalry and Stockholm Syndrome. In fact, this piece is about love. It’s an attempt to understand why I fell for this particular medium, and what doing so has meant for all the other things I love in life. And it is also an attempt to understand what Twitter has done to my mind, not neurologically — let us for once in the twenty-first century not go there — but phenomenologically: that is, how Twitter has changed the way it feels for me to think, write, and simply exist in today’s world.

I owe an apology to anyone who was following me those first few months after I joined Twitter. On the good side, that includes almost nobody. On the bad side, I signed up under professional duress, and it showed. My book was about being wrong, and my handle back then — @wrongologist, which I can no longer type without cringing—tells you everything you need to know about my early Twitter persona. For all of 2010, my feed was wrongness-heavy — and, because I joined so reluctantly, tweet-light: 28 of them in March, 23 in April, 13 in May.

I know those numbers because I recently downloaded my Twitter archive—which, in addition to the actual tweets, comes with a month-by-month usage breakdown. Here’s mine:

Thirteen tweets in May 2010, 553 tweets in May 2013. I am, on average, tweeting 45 times more per day than I used to. Put differently, I somehow went from 370 tweets in all of 2010 to 5,167 in the first ten months of this year.

That huge quantitative shift began as a subtle qualitative shift. In November of 2010, already privately a bit bored with wrongness, I broke form — or, more aptly, began to find it — and tweeted a video about cephalopods. Then came an intrepid nineteenth-century nurse and her irresistibly titled book: On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers. One evening in December, on the train home from a literary event, I tweeted a handful of imaginary book-band mash-ups: Pale Arcade Fire. Rabbit, Run DMC. When Bad Things Happen to Good Village People. A stranger tweeted back at me: Jane Eyre Supply. Ha! I thought. This is fun.

That was the beginning of my Twitter fall, or rise, or whatever direction I’m heading here. What I can tell you is that by January of 2011, the wrongness tweets had all but disappeared. By February, I’m tweeting about Libyan politics, lenticular cloud formations, hand-carved tombstones in Transylvania, and the mesmerizing weirdness of Robyn’s video for "Dancing on My Own." By April, forgive me, I tweet my first cat. In October, I finally drop the @wrongologist handle in favor of @kathrynschulz, but that is an ex-post action if ever there was one. On Twitter, I’ve long since become myself.

Or rather: I have become myself with an addiction. This is something of a paradox, since having an addiction feels quite a lot like not being me. I don’t smoke. I average maybe five drinks a month. I’ve tried the predictable range of drugs, most of them exactly once. I’ve steered clear of things like online Boggle and Words With Friends, well aware that they could torpedo the productivity of a writer who works from home. I’ve never before gone mad for any type of technology. Even the Internet did not particularly seduce me before the Twitter portal. I used it only for e-mail, and for targeted research; as recently as 2009, I probably spent, on average, under 30 minutes a day online. I didn’t have a cell phone until 2004, didn’t have a smartphone until 2010. I only got addicted to coffee three years ago. But then along came that goddamned bluebird, which seems to have been built with uncanny precision to hijack my kind of mind.

In the book-nerd circles where I hang out, the most famous Twitter-hater by far is Jonathan Franzen, who has accused the service of being “unspeakably dumb,” “a coercive development,” “the ultimate irresponsible medium,” and “everything I oppose.”

I love Franzen’s work, but reading him on the topic of Twitter drives me bidirectionally bonkers. Direction one: His opinions are bad-tempered, incurious, oversimplified, recklessly arrived at (he has no idea how Twitter works), and, in many respects, flat wrong. Direction two: How can he be so petulant, so dogmatic, so uninformed, and — in the deepest ways, where it matters most — so disturbingly right?

What Franzen is wrong about is what actually transpires on Twitter. It’s not unspeakably dumb; the problem, in fact, is that it’s sufficiently smart and interesting that spending massive amounts of time on it is totally possible and semi-defensible. (Caveat Tweetor: This might not be your experience. Twitter’s half-billion users produce nearly 60 million tweets per day, which puts me in the position of the blind man and the elephant — or, really, the blind man and the Bronx Zoo. I can’t tell you anything at all about what Twitter looks like elsewhere, or in the aggregate. I can only tell you what it looks like to me.)

Collectively, the people I follow on Twitter — book nerds, science nerds, journalists, the uncategorizably interesting — come pretty close to my dream community. They also function as by far the best news source I’ve ever used: more panoptic, more in-depth, more likely to teach me something, much more timely, cumulatively more self-correcting and sophisticated. Additionally, they’re immensely generous with their time and knowledge; in contradistinction to most Internet agoras, the Twitter I know is helpful, polite, and friendly. It’s also a meritocracy; say enough interesting things, and other people will begin to engage with you. Surprisingly often, that engagement crosses the digital barrier into real life — and, without exception, the people I’ve befriended on Twitter have turned out to be terrific. (Twitter’s social aspect can, of course, cross other lines as well. As a friend once said to me apropos of texting, back when that was the breakthrough technology: It’s hard to hate any medium so optimized for flirting.)

One other thing to which Franzen is interestingly blind: Whatever else Twitter is, it’s a literary form, which goes some way toward explaining why I find it so seductive. A tweet is basically a genre in which you try to say an informative thing in an interesting way while abiding by its constraint (those famous 140 characters) and making use of its curious argot (@, RT, MT, HT). For people who love that kind of challenge — and it’s easy to see why writers might be overrepresented among them — Twitter has the same allure as gaming. It is, essentially, Sentences With Friends.

Wide-ranging, intellectually stimulating, big-hearted, super fun: Wait, so what exactly is the problem here? For many people — those who use Twitter in moderation, dipping in to check the news or post a thought or pose a question — there isn’t one. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people, chiefly because I am way too susceptible to that other Twitter IPO: its Infinite Procrastination Opportunities. And here is where Franzen got it right. I am convinced that steadily attending to an idea is the core of intellectual labor, and that steadily attending to people is the core of kindness. And I gravely worry that Twitter undermines that capacity for sustained attention. I know it has undermined my own: I’ve watched my distractibility increase over the last few years, felt my time get divided into ever skinnier and less productive chunks.

More disturbing, I have felt my mind get divided into tweet-size chunks as well. It’s one thing to spend a lot of time on Twitter; it’s another thing, when I’m not on it, to catch myself thinking of — and thinking in — tweets. This is a classic sign of addiction: “Do you find yourself thinking about when you’ll have your next drink?” etc. In context, though, it’s more complicated than that, because thinking in tweets is only a half-step removed from what I’ve done all my life, which is to try to match words to thoughts and experiences. The job of a writer is to do that in a sustained way — a job I find brutally hard, and, when it works, deeply gratifying. The trouble with Twitter is that it produces a watered-down version of that gratification, at a very rapid rate, with minimal investment — and, if I am going to be honest with myself, minimal payoff, and minimal point.

I began this piece by noting that writing my book involved spending four years in a figurative cave. In my experience, and the experience of most writers I know, that cave is the necessary setting for serious writing. Unfortunately, it is also a dreadful place: cold, dark, desperately lonely. Twitter, by contrast, is a warm, cheerful, readily accessible, 24-hour-a-day antidote to isolation. And that is exactly the issue. The trouble with Twitter isn’t that it’s full of inanity and self-promoting jerks. The trouble is that it’s a solution to a problem that shouldn’t be solved. Eighty percent of the battle of writing involves keeping yourself in that cave: waiting out the loneliness and opacity and emptiness and frustration and bad sentences and dead ends and despair until the damn thing resolves into words. That kind of patience, a steady turning away from everything but the mind and the topic at hand, can only be accomplished by cultivating the habit of attention and a tolerance for solitude.

Twitter — endlessly distracting, endlessly social Twitter — is also a habit, and a far easier one to fall into. To a significant extent, habits are private things, ours to form and break, and I don’t think I’m off the hook for changing my own behavior. But I never had much trouble exercising self-discipline in the name of writing before Twitter came along, and I’m not sure its creators and the culture that sustains it should be wholly let off the hook, either. Even Clive Thompson shares my qualms here, and he is a technology champion whose new book, Smarter Than You Think, argues that services like Twitter “change our minds for the better.” “The one complaint about the Internet that I wholeheartedly endorse,” he said this week in an interview in The New Yorker, “is that most of these tools have been designed to peck at us like ducks. … [T]heir business models are built on advertising, and advertising wants as many minutes of your day as possible.”

In other words, the addictive nature of Twitter is a feature, not a bug. But, with apologies for changing metaphors midstream, it feels like a bug to me. There is a class of parasites in nature that hijacks the nervous system of other creatures, causing them to behave in ways that are against those creatures’ best interests but in the interests of the parasite. A flatworm called euhaplorchis californiensis, for instance, takes over a species of fish and makes it swim to the surface and wiggle around, thereby rendering it highly visible to hungry birds passing overhead: bummer for the fish, but great for the flatworm, who dreams of an afterlife in an avian gut.

I sometimes think that Twitter is such a parasite, and that I am one of its hosts, so effectively has it hacked my brain. Ask me what I love most in my life, and how I want to spend what limited allotment of it I have, and I will tell you that I want to be around friends and family, or reading, or writing, or in the outdoors, body and mind at play in the world. Ask me what I did today, where all the hours went, and — well, check out that chart.

I have a friend, an outdoorsy type, who was born and raised on a ranch in Wyoming, went to college in Montana, then lived for a decade in eastern Oregon before moving to Brooklyn in 2009. A year later, she came to spend the night at my house, which is up in the Hudson Valley, in a quiet spot set back from the road and surrounded by trees. The next morning, she woke up, stretched, listened for a moment, and then called out to me from her bedroom, “Hey, what’s that bird sound?”

It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how susceptible we are to our context, how radically and rapidly our environment can change us. I laughed at my friend that morning, and have been laughing about that moment ever since. You can take the girl out of the country, as they say — and, contrary to popular wisdom, it seems you can also take the country out of the girl. That bird sound was a bird.

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Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images/Getty