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After a Month-Long Twitter Break
It’s obvious that Twitter has benefited my life a lot. For one thing, it’s directly responsible for most of my current relationships, personal and professional. Also, it’s been fun and has introduced me to ideas that have influenced my life in a really positive way. However, after taking a month-long break from Twitter, it’s more obvious that it was having a potent negative mental effect on me—it has been net good for my life by being extraordinarily good while also being quite bad.
To say it’s “distracting” undersells it. When I hear “distracting,” I think of a fire alarm going off or a pebble in your shoe; something annoying that gets you away from being in the moment but that is fairly easily resolved and pretty simplistic. Twitter is far more seductive and multivalent—it’s like seven simultaneous fire alarms that you can’t stop listening to.
At this point, when I’m about to send a Tweet, I am aware of the following things:
Which people are likely to enjoy what I’m saying, and how that could play out
Which people are not likely to enjoy what I’m saying, and how that could play out
The degree to which I am being ‘on-brand’
The degree to which my brand of expression is and isn’t congruent with my most authentic self, at that moment
The possibility that I’ll accidentally strike a nerve, and 10-1000 people will start hating me
The possibility that I’ll be dragged into a stupid internet fight about, for example, whether marijuana has good aesthetics
The possibility that this Tweet will earn me a better reputation, more friends, more esteem
The fact that a bunch of dopamine is about to come in, but I don’t know how much yet
The fact that none of my Twitter expressions will feel ultimately satisfying
This is too many things to know. This is exciting, juicily complex, but also ugly, tension-filled, a slimy encumbrance. It totally maxes out the relational part of the mind, especially since the reputational danger here is real danger. (Having an anonymous account probably makes this somewhat better.) As of my break, I had 18,000 followers, and that is too many people to think about talking to, especially if they’re capable of rapidly circulating your speech acts to any one of the other 186 million users on the site, or at least the English-speaking portion of that.
And one impact of that, of course, is less time spent thinking about real relationships. Maybe there are some people out there who can scale up their relational thinking infinitely; I cannot. Every brain cycle I spend on thinking about the social impact of a Tweet is one less to spend on relationships with people I love in the present.
And this doesn’t just happen in the moment of sending a Tweet, because when I’m an active user, I could always, potentially, be sending a Tweet. Maybe I’m walking outside, it’s autumn, the leaves are turning, the experience is subtle, textured, without obvious rewards or punishments except those provided by the sensuousness of existence and the background flow of thought and emotion. Meanwhile, in my pocket, the party is always going on, a huge part of the world is there, and, depending on the noises I make, the whole thing could turn towards me, either in praise or attack.
Of course, this is not an argument for avoiding Twitter completely, it’s just an argument for not Tweeting, or Tweeting less. What about just reading Twitter? Twitter is a great way to stay informed, and there are a lot of fantastic accounts that I miss somewhat when I’m not paying attention to it.
But a consumption relationship with Twitter also has some effects that I’m not fond of—they’re a little more subtle, but still quite noticeable.
Twitter is a meme engineering lab. Constantly, every cultural event gets chewed into pieces by tremendously witty people, who, together, essentially compete to make the best quips. Thus, the world is formatted for you into little resonant chunks, which typically, in a given cultural moment, end up coalescing around the couple of possible viewpoints that are most Twitter-ready. This is a great gift, a no-cost subscription to a really amazing and weird publication written by some of the world’s most interesting minds, but it has a couple of strong negative effects as well.
The world comes to me heavily pre-digested into mentally contagious units; if I want to have an original thought about something that’s being widely discussed, I first have to resist adopting a bunch of catchy thoughts provided by other people, and, even if I can do that, the inbound cognition places me in a reactive stance.
It just feels bad out there, in a general way. Given that the platform rewards more intense and controversial expression, getting news over Twitter makes the world seem much more intense and controversial—there is an energy of confrontation, grabbiness, and volatility to the overall atmosphere that is, as far as I can tell, an emergent property of the platform.
When I spend a significant amount of time on Twitter, my brain starts thinking primarily Twitter-shaped thoughts: shorter, more simplistic, more forceful—it gets a little harder, in the near term, to think in terms of gradations, exceptions, and juxtapositions.
The third part is optional, theoretically. Reading Twitter doesn’t obligate me to inflect my mind in this way. But it’s a strong tendency. It’s kind of like someone coming up to you and saying “knock knock” and looking at you expectantly. You aren’t obligated to respond in the scripted way, but just the possibility sculpts your mental experience.
I have often wondered why a couple of prolific, excellent Twitter users I know don’t spend more time on longer-form writing that would be more enduring and complex than their Twitter stuff (and more rewarding, long-term, in material terms). There’s an answer I don’t like, but find increasingly plausible, which is that the mental state induced by Twitter is inimical to more subtle forms of expression. Clearly, it’s possible to be super active on Twitter and write deeper stuff—there are people who are prolific in both respects—but I suspect it can increase the activation energy. You could argue that the timelines of the great accounts are themselves long-form works, kind of like books of aphorisms, in the tradition of Lichtenberg, or Brautigan’s shorter poems, and I would agree with this argument. But aphoristic work of this kind has some hard limitations.
All of these impacts can be reduced by moderating one’s relationship with Twitter. Fifteen minutes of Twitter use a day seems reasonable, an amount that can keep you plugged in without making you too Twitter-brained. However, the difficulty of enforcing that reasonable dose, itself, is a cost. It’s like managing your relationship with cigarettes by being a mild smoker: possible, sure, but definitely trickier than just not smoking.
None of this is to say that I won’t spend time on Twitter in the future. I’m just more aware of the costs I’ll be paying if I do, which is a positive development.
One last point. Twitter makes itself hard to disengage from because it seems really important. And to a certain extent, it is. On Twitter, fortunes are made, reputations are ruined, and scandals play out. Lots of famous, influential people are acting on social reality there, all the time. It feels like an especially wild place right now in the wake of the Elon takeover and the FTX scandal, events that are ideal canvases for Twitter-based citizen journalism. But—and this is maybe staggeringly obvious, but isn’t from the inside always—Twitter still is not the world.
I’ve been lucky to spend some time, recently, with people who have a large impact on the human species, both locally and globally. And most of them don’t seem to spend a ton of time thinking about Twitter. Sure, a lot of them notice what’s going on in the discourse, at least in a cursory way. But they do real things—collaborate on complex endeavors that take a lot of heads-down work. Twitter is the worldwide royal court, a social theatre that extends over an impressive amount of today’s society. But the court is not the whole of the kingdom.
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