No, this is not one of those pompous why-I’m-leaving-twitter-and-why-anyone-should-give-a-toss posts. I want to drastically change my relationship with this, um, fascinating internet innovation, and writing it down makes it more likely I’ll stick to it, that my friends will yell at me if I don’t, and also maybe I can write some vaguely interesting reflections.
Twitter is an extremely handy tool for sharing information and articles, for giving a platform to ideas and voices that are otherwise marginalised, to make global connections, to link journalists and activists together, and to find events or protests or actions to turn up to. It’s also not the ‘echo chamber’ it’s often misconstrued as: as if there was a golden age where we were all spending time engaging with differing opinions. Indeed, the evidence suggests we’re hearing a broader range of views than ever because of social media.
It’s also a cesspit, an addictive cesspit at that, which is incredibly bad for our mental health. And who of us is going to lie on our deathbeds thinking, ‘I wish I’d spend more time debating with @andrewNOTOPC84536 about whether I am indeed a Britain-hating Communist conspiring with ‘the Islam’ to establish a global caliphate’?
There are some cliched critiques of Twitter that I don’t really buy into: like somehow it’s driven the political polarisation of the last decade or so. Basically we had an economic crash, people’s living standards took a bad hit and their optimism was ripped away, and they looked for radical answers that departed from the status quo, whether in the form of right-wing populism, the left, or national independence. Sure, Twitter amplifies that polarisation, and probably feeds it in certain ways — but often the same people who decry it as an echo chamber are the same people who claim left-wing people sending rude tweets swings elections.
There’s also a ‘barbarian at the gates’-type mentality, that journalists, politicians and public figures suddenly have their work marked by the ungrateful masses. Abuse is conflated with ‘politicians being challenged over policies they’ve implemented which affect millions of people’ and ‘journalists having their work scrutinised’. Much of the British press whip up hatred against minorities — Muslims, refugees, migrants, benefit claimants, trans people: the consequence is to fuel abuse, bullying, hate crimes, and even violence.
Yet because social media is one of the few platforms the left can use effectively, and the left are portrayed as a disorderly thuggish rabble (while actual fascists rampaging around the streets while declaring their loyalty to Boris Johnson are generally ignored), this is where the scrutiny lies. I’ve experienced this myself: I’ve been accused of orchestrating ‘pile-ons’ for defending myself against a homophobic ‘joke’ of a Times columnist or sharing the work of an investigative journalist highlighting the links between a pro-water privatisation MP and the private water industry (one twitter user compiled an amusing list of examples, ranging from me challenging someone for celebrating me being abused by fascists to literally just replying to defend myself against bizarre quote tweets, a common occurrence). Everyone from anti-Muslim bigots (‘you’re smearing us as racists and Islam is not a race!’) to anti-trans obsessives (‘the only possible reason you show solidarity towards a particularly besieged minority is misogyny!’) portray themselves as the true victims who are having hatred whipped up against them. Not to dismiss genuine abuse or get out a tiny little violin (oh, out it comes), but having being repeatedly targeted and attacked by far-right activists in the streets, I find the whole ‘PILE ON!’ cry, like the bird scene in The Crucible, a tad eyebrow raising.
Personally, I’ve found the online abuse a tad wearisome, and the threats of violence and worse more so, but it’s mostly just the waste of life involved. We could all be reading so many more books, talking to more people, spending time with people we love, doing something, anything else, than arguing with strangers on the internet. And maybe, just maybe, you don’t need to spend so much time scanning through a Twitter timeline to always see what’s going on in the world in realtime: you can just catch up later and cut out all of the noise and things which actually turn out to be totally untrue when they’re properly checked, not naming any names or anything.
So this is a really long winded way of saying that I’ll still use it to share articles and videos and the like, to share my occasional thoughts — take them or leave them — but delete twitter off my phone, use this app called ‘Freedom’ which blocks websites, only log in when I need to, and spend more time working on my articles, videos, books, and not getting randomly annoyed when I’m having a pint with a mate and checked my timeline when they’ve popped to the loo (whhyyyyyyy). Also I’m going to read The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour.
So see you around. On Twitter. But less regularly. You should do the same!