In the past few months, both my colleague and friend Abraham Riesman and I quit Twitter, washing our hands of that micro-blogging service, which served as a perfect second screen for big-event television, a megaphone for self-promotion, and a platform for the oppressed and the oppressors.
We weren’t the only ones, either. Taking a break, stepping back, or giving up is a ritual that must be nearly as old as Twitter itself. And users’ lack of interest or even outright distaste for the service has become a problem for the company, with people spending less time on it and overall user growth stalling. A Deutsche Bank survey of former users pulled in complaints about redundancy, information inundation, and a lack of filtering, which Twitter is tackling with features like its Moments tab and nonchronological tweet displays. But I doubt those features would be enough to lure me or Abe back: The problems with the addictive, enigmatic service run deep. Here, we talk social-media abuse and personal enlightenment from the safety of our Twitter-less browser windows.
Annie: Let’s start at the beginning. What was the deal with you and Twitter?
Abe: Before we go any further, let me be clear: I am fully aware of how insane this discussion must sound to any sane human being. Twitter is such a microscopic part of the human experience, and I suffered no grievous trauma there, so why have I bothered to think about my relationship to it so much? I’m not sure I have the answers, but let’s give it a shot.
One hundred percent agreed on the insanity of this discussion. I have rarely spent so much time contemplating my own navel. (Innie, by the way, and a highly productive lint farm.)
So, the deal. I signed up for my account in April of 2008 and started using it in earnest somewhere around October of that year; after that, my use increased month after month, year after year. It was the only constant in my life over the course of those seven years, which is pretty sad and weird to say.
I get that, though. The only two constants in my browser window for a very long time were Gmail and Twitter. More on that later. So, this all came to an end …
On October 21. However, there are still some quasi-essential purposes that it serves for my professional life. As such, the conditions of my exile are as follows: (1) I don’t read my Twitter feed; (2) I don’t access my account for anything other than checking the occasional direct message from someone who doesn’t have another way of contacting me (which I do by very briefly logging in to my account on the web version of the service); (3) I allow myself a single tweet to promote any given piece I might be promoting, and when I do that, I tweet it via a social sharing button rather than direct use of the site (I accidentally forgot this rule and sent out one tweet via the web platform to promote an article a while ago); (4) if I need to monitor some breaking news, I can use a dummy account I built that has no followers and only follows news organizations. I know that sounds like cheating, and I suppose it is, but it’s hard to deny that some Twitter use is pretty important for a working journalist in 2016. I also use it to reach out to interview subjects that I can’t contact by other means.
Yeah, my rules are pretty similar. I deleted Twitter on my iPhone and removed its link from my bookmarks bar. I do not check my feed. I do not check my mentions. I use a widget to tweet out occasionally. I guess I’ve checked out the site a number of times since imposing the holiday. I tweeted the debates and the State of the Union this week. I didn’t go totally cold-turkey. But for the past few months, Twitter has mostly been a megaphone for me, not a chat room, and much less of a megaphone than it used to be, at that.
What prompted it for you?
My “epiphany” came in two parts, both of them pretty bland. I’d tweeted something about Star Wars, and someone I don’t know somehow saw it and tweeted a link to it with a snarky comment attached. At that point, a notorious asshole whose name I won’t mention saw that person’s tweet and retweeted it. All of a sudden, dozens and dozens of the asshole’s followers decided to hurl insults at me and do weird stuff like “star-fucking” me, which refers to the process of favoriting every tweet a person has tweeted until the star-fucked user catches wind and blocks the star-fucker. It could have been a million times worse (after all, I’m not a woman, so no one threatened to rape me), but it was pretty demoralizing and ruined an otherwise pleasant day.
But the final straw didn’t come until my aggravation was compounded the next day. In the mid-afternoon, I picked a fight on Twitter with a cultural critic. It was someone I don’t know personally and whom I had nothing to gain from fighting with, but I still somehow felt compelled to start an argument. I wasted nearly an hour doing so and found myself exhausted afterward. A few hours later, I was still upset about that kerfuffle and still had residual jitters about the Star Wars rigamarole.* I tried to just un-follow and mute a bunch of people to make it easier to get through my Twitter life without stress, but quickly realized that was like putting an ACE bandage on a gangrenous infection. I sent a petulant little tweet saying Twitter sucks and that I was going away for a while. I haven’t gone back.
What prompted me to do it? A thousand incidents, and then one. Over the years, as an official woman-on-the-internet, I’ve encountered some truly insane garbage on Twitter. You write a story about Social Security reform, and then someone tells you to swim out into the ocean until you’re too tired to swim anymore and you drown. There’s also the persistent nagging by the godforsaken lunatic assholes, like the Obamabots, for instance. But that’s not really the stuff that bothers me. It’s the little stuff. The mansplaining from well-intentioned friends. The forest-for-the-trees criticism of my grammar. The sincere complaints about my vocal fry every time I go on a radio program, podcast, or television. (Read this in a suuuuupper-scratchy voice? Go fuck yourselves.) The constant, degrading references to me as my husband’s wife.
Finally, I decided to wash my hands of the whole thing when I wrote something about poverty and proceeded to get a flood of nasty, sexist tweets and emails — just days and days of it. It was impossible to defend myself, and impossible to work, and impossible to focus, and I just wanted to leave the internet forever. It really messed me up for a few days: Why put things out there if you’re not going to be able to have even a semblance of a good conversation about them? Why put things out there if people are going to attack you rather than the work?
How on earth were you getting through your days when people were hurling that shit at you? Like I said before, I was significantly shaken after an extremely minor cyberbullying incident; anything worse than that would have kept me off the internet for days.
I guess I’ve gotten used to it? It’s a hell of a lot easier to ignore if you’re just not on Twitter. That’s kind of part of why I wonder whether I’ll ever go back.
I don’t have any expectation that I’ll go back. I thought it would be hard to walk away from my Twitter habit, and the first two days were somewhat agonizing, but since then I have had no desire to return. Indeed, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach when I think about all the dumb bullshit that I’m not seeing. I’ll occasionally hear about how something stupid or awful went viral on Twitter, and I get a thrill at knowing I wasn’t there to see it happen. Seriously, a physical thrill! That doesn’t speak well of my mental and emotional relationship to the service!
I know! Every once in a while, I’ll try to check Twitter on my phone, and I just … can’t. So I’ll look at Instagram, and then I’ll check my email, and then I’ll read on the Kindle app. All of those things feel a little better to my psyche than Twitter does.
I … guess my Twitter disappearance has helped me? I think of it in the rhetorical terms used by the Obama administration when it was defending its countercyclical anti-recession push: It didn’t really make things good, but it certainly made things less bad than they would’ve been otherwise.
That’s a perfect way of thinking about it.
Yeah, I’m reminded of that fact when I read Rusty Foster’s Today in Tabs email newsletter on weekdays. Foster does a good job of summarizing the most-talked-about garbage that people in so-called “media Twitter” got worked up about in the past 24 hours, and I’m always glad I missed out. Think of all the stupid, half-baked attempts at wit and commentary I would’ve consumed and created in the past few months! I would’ve felt compelled to shame people for retweeting that awful story about the sex workers in Florida; I would’ve tried to scream puns about Twitter changing its star icon to a heart icon; I would’ve felt professionally obligated to say what I think about the latest Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer … the mind boggles at all the potentially wasted minutes and hours. No one would’ve gained anything from any of it, least of all me.
And, of course, I would’ve had no one to blame but myself. I don’t want anyone to think this is a “Why I’m Leaving New York“–style screed where I talk about what a bad place Twitter is and how the Twitter environment was making me a warped and sad person. No one was making me tweet, or even really pressuring me to. It was a compulsion, but it was one I chose to continue indulging, time and time again. As Walter White so eloquently said, “I did it for me. I liked it.”
Yeah, I think part of my compulsion to use the service was as a way of avoiding the blank page. As a journalist, it’s always you and the blank page. Twitter gives you a way to do “research” on what other journalists are doing, and to trawl for ideas, and to promote yourself — all without really doing anything. At first, when I quit Twitter, I just shifted that idle work time to other platforms, compulsively checking my email, looking at Facebook, writing stuff on Slack, texting, etc. But I do think that leaving Twitter has helped me recognize those greased grooves for what they are: a way of keeping my mind occupied with something that is not work, and is especially not the deep terror of the empty document. I mean, there’s been so much written about how perfect of a distraction engine Twitter is — even more so than email, Facebook, etc.
My overuse of Twitter was part of a larger set of issues I have. I have a deep hunger for information, distraction, and activity. If I slow down my stimulation or creation, I start to feel useless and confused. Throughout my life, I’ve usually satiated that hunger with cultural consumption and work, but Twitter gave me the chance to feed it more efficiently — and even more unhealthily. Feel like you’re not learning enough about the world? Hop on Twitter and you can get a limitless stream of (mostly worthless) words and data points. Concerned that you’re not writing enough? All it takes is a few seconds to squirt out a tweet, broadcast it to thousands of people, and wait for the faves, RTs, and replies to roll in. Worried you’re using Twitter too much? Just tweet about how Twitter sucks! Before you know it, the day will almost be over and you’ll have the low-level buzz of information overload keeping you company and distracting you from your problems. It was a soul-draining process that fit my neuroses like a glove.
So have you just squeezed the balloon? Spending a lot of time on Reddit now?
I’ve certainly upped my use of Facebook. I check it pretty compulsively in mobile and desktop format, and that endless scroll of words and pictures massages a familiar ache. I know it’s still unhealthy, but I take comfort in two things that make Facebook different from Twitter: (1) The mysterious Facebook algorithm tends to favor posts that I actually want to read or see, as opposed to the cacophony of Twitter’s flat-system free-for-all; and (2) for whatever reason, I feel less compelled to actually write any posts for Facebook. I’m not sure why No. 2 is the case, but it is, and that means I’m embarrassing myself far less often these days.
How’s about you? Have you reached peaceful enlightenment? Do you suddenly have long stretches of placidity in which you can reread Gravity’s Rainbow?
“Reread!” At the risk of sounding like a complete jerk, it’s been part of a broader strategy to help me increase my focus and get into flow a little more. Meditation, priority-assigning exercises — stop every two hours and think about what is the most important work thing you could be doing — reworking my work space, it’s all been toward the same end. Together, I do think they help. I’ve created a lot more of a creative hermitage for myself. Any similar changes in Abe-land?
Yeah, my departure from the Twits also ended up being part of a larger campaign in my life. Meditation historically hasn’t worked for me because my thoughts get too loud when I turn off the noise of the rest of the world, but I’ve been trying to write detailed journal entries every night, and lots of them end up being about how hard it is to focus. The Twitter fixation was very much a symptom of that issue, and though I haven’t fixed it, I’m trying to outline its shape as much as I can. Hopefully, that’s the first step toward preventing myself from falling into whatever stupid service supplants Twitter in a few years.
I think that I have finally come to appreciate it for the imperfect, wonderful, terrible service that it is. The bon mots! The breaking news! The dumb haikus!
Man, my break has not made me appreciate Twitter at all. My resentment has only festered and spread. Maybe that’s temporary, though. Perhaps this is like when you have an acrimonious breakup and, a year later, find yourself wondering what your old flame is up to and secretly lusting after him/her. But right now I’m very happy to have Twitter dot com in my rear-view mirror.
Wait, I take it back. There are some solid surrealist jokes on Twitter. Luckily, BuzzFeed writers compile them so you don’t have to actually go on Twitter to read them.
This discussion was edited for clarity.
*A previous version of this article framed the incident that led Riesman to leave Twitter in a light that was, in retrospect, unnecessarily harsh in its characterization of the other person involved.