On Sunday, September 3, 2017, while sipping coffee, doing a crossword on my iPad and scrolling through Twitter, I read a tweet that prompted me to retweet it with a profane and irreverent response. It took me about as long to think of the response as it did for me to type it. Within a few days, that tweet had gone viral, soaring past two hundred thousand “likes” and eighty thousand retweets. I pinned the tweet to my profile, and every now and then it has experienced another minor surge of likes and RTs. When I last checked in September 2020 (as the screen shot here captures), that tweet had 220,300-odd “likes,” about 80,500 RTs, and had generated 446 responses. Twitter analytics says it had registered 16,992,033 “impressions,” five “media views,” and 350,611 “total engagements.”
These are very large numbers, if you know anything about the Twitterverse. I have been on Twitter since March 2010—92.1k tweets!—and nothing else I have ever posted has come close to this performance. It stands as a singular, outsized achievement, evidence of the power Twitter grants individuals to rapidly propagate thoughts, opinions, wisdom, bad puns (guilty), and pet photos (also guilty) around the world. When you are a writer and a historian, with an art gig on the side, and you are accustomed to investing years in researching, racking your brains about, and then publishing books that often exceed 100,000 words and might be purchased by a few hundred people in the case of academic presses, reaching 16,992,033 people (with a few bots I’m sure mixed in) through a tweet to which you devoted about eleven seconds of thought is a heady experience.
I never expect to repeat that performance. In large part, that’s because the tweet plainly tapped a global zeitgeist of concerns about the rise of the extreme right, in a way that made people smile. But the other part is the fact that I have decided, for the indefinite future, to pull back considerably from Twitter, without actually leaving it, despite several attempts in the past to do so. I no longer plan to use Twitter the way I did for a decade. I’m redefining its role in my life, because I don’t like the role it had taken on.
This isn’t my first rodeo with problematic social media. I had joined Facebook around 2009. I limited my circle there to a few friends, family members, and colleagues in graduate school (I think a grand total of thirty people), and was never on it much. A year or two ago (I can’t remember exactly when), I decided to pull the plug, unhappy not with my personal experience of it, but rather with where the platform was headed as a disseminator of toxic ideologies and truly fake news. I had decided that whatever I wanted in the way of social media engagement, I could get it through Twitter. (I also left LinkedIn. I have an account at Pinterest, but I can’t remember the last time I used it.) I was also operating a personal website, and had been for some time. Between the website—this website—and Twitter, I thought I had plenty to keep me busy in engaging with the rest of the world.
Quitting Facebook cold turkey was easy, but didn’t alleviate my social media angst. I have twice suspended my Twitter account, knowing I could reactivate it in a month, to force myself into a Twitter break. On both occasions, I came back in a week or two. At other times, I have deleted the app from my phone or iPad to limit my access for a time. In September 2020, I began to have serious thoughts about really leaving Twitter. Instead, on September 13, I announced my Twitter sabbatical, and my intention to dial back my presence to posts about my professional activities. And that is the course I’m hoping/planning to stick to.
There are many things I can say that are good about Twitter, and I don’t know that they bear repeating. One of them, anyway, was staying engaged in an informal manner with people I know who are now far from me and I’m unlikely to see for much any reason—and which in the age of covid-19 is seeming even less likely. I also liked connecting with other scholars, and following what they were doing. But I’ve become more concerned about the things I don’t like, which have come to be so concerning that they have compelled me to give up the good, in order to rid myself of the bad. I have been unable to figure out how to keep the good and expel the bad, because the bad, in my opinion, is encoded in the DNA of Twitter—a feature, not a bug.
More than once, I have tried to remind myself of what life was like before social media came along and became such a significant part of my daily routine—that is to say, what life was like circa 2009. I increasingly began to wonder if it were possible to get back to that unplugged point in life. And I realized that many people that I know, family, friends, and colleagues, are not on Twitter, and have carried on their lives happily in that Before Time, with me fitting in wherever and whenever I did. We could go months without meeting or conversing, but we were still friends and family. On the other hand, there were people on Twitter I had never met, whose names I didn’t know, that I was engaging with every single day.
A fundamental bad is that Twitter is a timesuck. Like social media in general, it conspires to monopolize your time, to keep your eyeballs glued to the site, to keep scrolling, to keep tweeting and retweeting, to keep liking. The insidious nature of its format, the “endless scroll,” has been decried by its own designer. There is no bottom to the Twitter feed, nor is there a beginning. You can keep scrolling down ad infinitum, and for the entire time you’re doing that, newer posts are piling in from the top that you need to go back up to and check. There is no natural place to stop, and you are constantly catching up on the content of a site that is dedicated to the idea of the breaking, the new. The site by nature makes you collect accounts to follow, and the more accounts you follow, the deeper, broader, and thicker the content of that endless scroll becomes. You are always catching up. It is very difficult to say, “Well, I’ll just check in for thirty minutes.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s not like visiting the home page or app of one of the media companies (New York Times, Toronto Star, Guardian, La Presse, CBC) I subscribe to or follow, to see what’s new. I found myself checking in, off and on, through the entire day. At times, Twitter was consuming my attention for the better part of an hour or two, especially in the evening, when I wanted to wind down and found looking at Twitter while listening to music was a potent combination. Twitter was displacing other things I used to enjoy doing, above all, long-form reading. When I crashed out of Twitter most recently, I downloaded the Caroline Alexander translation of The Iliad. It’s good. I’ve moved on to the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Aeneid. It’s good too. And for kicks, and to keep my French in trim, I went to the Internet Archive (which I support monthly), and started reading Paul Signac’s D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-Impressionisme (1911). Did you know Delacroix declared: “L’ennemi de toute peinture est le gris!”? I should probably tweet that.
The worst aspect of Twitter, for me at least, was its propensity for fuelling anxiety and anger. As public life goes into the shitter, I found it was compulsively simple to retweet (amplify) every angry if articulate voice, to post your own agitated comments, to reply/retweet to politicians or public figures you loathe. Things are bad in many aspects of life. They have been bad before, and they will continue to be bad. But they cannot be allowed to be all-consumingly bad, for the sake of one’s mental health, and I felt Twitter was contributing to that state.
One strategy I tried to follow as much as possible was to keep my own posts light and irreverent and usefully informative. But if you’re on Twitter, you’re exposed to the rest of what the site is churning out. The resulting experience of “doom scrolling” meant I was seeing an endless Tweet barrage by people about Very Bad Things. Many of those things were unquestionably bad, but I had better ways available to be aware of them, process them, and respond to them. I also feared that my own anger, when expressed on Twitter, was only making life harder, mentally, for other people, and at one point I had pledged to try to stop tweeting so much about American politics, out of respect for the coping capabilities of American friends and followers.
When I embarked on my latest Twitter break, I found myself doing a thought experiment, as I kept up on what was going on in the world simply by reading my online news sources outlined above. Ruther Bader Ginsberg has died and Trump is going to replace her asap? Oh my god, I thought: that must be creating an absolute firestorm of rage in the Twitterverse. If I was still active on Twitter, how would I be responding and behaving? Don’t get me wrong: her death is sad and her replacement is of tremendous concern to many Americans who fear for the future of their democracy, but for starters, I’m not an American. Immersing myself in a stream of anger and anguish, off and on, for hours, over days and who knows how many weeks, was not going to change anything about American life, one way or another. It was, however, probably going to inculcate a sense of doom about life in general that would impede my ability to function, and to be a good person with friends and family.
On issues closer to home, I came to similar if less arm’s-length conclusions. Stuff is happening that you don’t like, but spending hours a day reading about it, and commenting sarcastically or angrily about it, is not going to bring about a practical solution, and is just making you miserable. I am well aware of the power of Twitter to move public policy, but the personal cost was too high. Without dismissing or denying the importance of issues, I needed to find other ways to engage and respond, with a longer view in mind.
I had also become dissatisfied with the nature of much of Twitter engagement. Twitter is a place, generally speaking, where people post things they want other people to like. Most of us are not there to pick fights, and are not looking to have their opinions or positions challenged. Twitter is in no way, shape or form a grad studies seminar, where people who know each other—and can see each other—push back and forth on interpretations of readings and whatnot, without sinking into rancor. It is very, very difficult to challenge opinions or positions of total strangers (who aren’t looking for that challenge) without sounding confrontational. Twitter is bad at tone, and at accommodating discourse, in no small part because there are jerks out there who are offensive, and delight in being so. It’s too easy for simple comments on a stranger’s opinion to receive hostile reception and a swarming by supporters (which happened to me once, and caused me to block someone), as much as I loathe the idea that Twitter is a place of mob rule. More than once, I found myself thinking, “That statement ought to be challenged, but frankly I can’t be bothered, because I don’t want the grief that might rain down on me.” And so Twitter was, for me, a place of selective engagement on selective issues. There were (and are) for me, subjects beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse within the Twitter forum. At the worst, Twitter can become a place of posturing, because you are only willing to engage positions that feel safe, in terms of your followers and follower’s followers. When a platform encourages discourse but is bad at facilitating actual discourse, it becomes part of the problem of a collapse of political and social activism across the spectrum into self-reinforcing niches. Consensus can build around topics in more robust ways than actually exists, because contrary opinions or challenging questions cannot be expressed within a respectful debate.
Another longstanding disquiet I had about Twitter was the extensive use of aliases. People on Twitter can be whoever they want to be, or claim to be. For some, the anonymity of pseudonyms allows them to speak frankly and freely without fear of repercussion from employers, family or social circles, and I respected and appreciated that empowerment. But I still had no idea how many people were who they said they were. It’s not just Russian bots—it’s people pretending to be who they are not. At one point I said I was going to unfollow accounts who did not submit a telephone number as part of Twitter’s verification protocols, but too many people I knew and respected said, “Well, so long then,” because of their legitimate concerns over personal data.
So where am I now with Twitter? There’s no user manual or account agreement that says you have to use it in a particular way. And as I’ve outlined, the particular way I was seeing so many people use it wasn’t healthy, at least for me. So for now, I have decided that Twitter should be a bulletin board for notifying followers of things that I’m up to, full stop. If there’s a new blog post on my website, out goes a Twitter notification. If some of my art is in an exhibition, or some of my writing is appearing in a particular forum, those events merit Twitter posts as well. In the process, I’m severely reducing my public pronouncements to things I’ve taken some time to compose and share. I’m also considering scheduling perhaps an hour a week for logging in, reading, and engaging. I will miss the vast majority of the endless scroll of the rest of the week—which is the point. That means less of day-to-day “me,” but Twitter was making day-to-day “me” a different person. It had become impossible to share who I am without that act of sharing, and all the problematic engagements balled up with it, changing who I am.