How Twitter Stole My Life (And How I’m Taking It Back)

If you’re like me, and you have an addictive personality, you’ve learned to stay away from all kinds of things that could potentially trigger an addiction and take over your life. My mantra has always been to simply not try things I knew could hook me. I’ve successfully avoided alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs, gambling, and many more things all my life, but a type of addiction I never expected to take hold of me managed to sneak in under the radar: likes, followers and retweets.

It started out small: after years of rejecting twitter as just another social media trend that I wanted no part of, I made a twitter account, to promote a now defunct youtube channel I was launching at the time. I was tweeting a few times a day and had a few dozen followers. Within about 6 months, that grew into multiple accounts for different youtube channels, a personal account with nearly 20.000 tweets I had grown to over 1.000 followers, a private, locked account for ranting and controversial opinions, and more.

Those numbers appealed to me, they excited me. Every like was validation, every follower was a stand-in for the friends I never had growing up, every retweet amplified my digital reach. When I fell into “gay twitter”, the subculture of twitter dominated by emancipated gay men who openly tweet about sexuality and flirt with each other in both playful and serious ways, I suddenly started getting a number of compliments for my looks that was completely unprecedented for me. I got what the overweight kid in high school was always looking for. I was never “twitter famous”, I wasn’t even the largest account between my so-called “mutuals” — people you follow and who follow you back — by an order of magnitude or so, but having 100 people tell you you look attractive or laughing at your jokes does something to your brain.

A few of my tweets — mainly political jokes and pictures of beautiful men I was gushing over — went viral, amassed thousands of likes and retweets. This constant stream of (mainly positive) attention was the perfect incentive to keep going. The next tweet had to be bigger, better, outrageous, be seen and shared by more people. I went from being excited that my tweets received any attention at all, to being disappointed when tweets didn’t instantly receive 10 or 20 likes. This is one way in which twitter turned sour for me. At some point, and I find myself unable to trace that point down, twitter turned from a fun self-confidence boost into the opposite. It started feeling like a job I wasn’t being paid for and I wasn’t being successful in. I started interpreting unfollowers — people who used to follow me but do not anymore — as a personal insult and any tweet that received no (or simply too few) likes as a reflection of the disappointment I saw myself as. This is, of course, a completely irrational way of looking at a social media network, but the good times on twitter became overshadowed by self-doubt. More and more, I found I shaped myself into what I thought my followers wanted to see, rather than who I really am. I became an impostor for attention. For the most part, I calculated my tweets to be safe enough as to not offend too many people, but “edgy” enough to get attention.

I had spent significant amounts of time on websites before, most notably a few forums I amassed thousands of posts on in my teen years, but nothing that provided the instant gratification and streamlined experience of twitter. In other words: nothing designed from the ground up to draw me in for hours every day. The first thing I did after waking up was checking twitter, every day. Walking to class, sitting at work, even laying in bed with my partner, I often found myself either wondering how a particular tweet was doing, or what to tweet next. In my time using twitter, I feel like I slowly but surely distanced myself more and more from the people in my life, the ones physically close to me. Where I used to write a friend when I thought of something funny or wanted to talk about a new TV show, I now took it to twitter. But not only did a lot of my social interactions that would otherwise be in person, privately with friends, or on other parts of the web, move to twitter, they also became incredibly shallow.

As great as a 140 character limit is for snappy jokes and sharing articles, it is utterly impossible to discuss anything of real value within such extreme restrictions. Opinions became generalized because there was no space for nuance. Discussion never took long to turn into name-calling, turning the days of everybody involved negative when we could have had a spirited, respectful discussion in a different setting. In fact, I blame much of the current political climate where everybody seems to hate everybody else and nobody wants to hear anyone with conflicting opinions out partly on twitter. In just a few years, we have been trained to think in absolutes even more than we did before. Every day, we see opinions on incredibly complex issues reduced to 140 characters, and we start assuming that those 140 characters are all there is to these issues.

So, twitter has taken over much of my day, messed with my self confidence, ruined discussion, and weakened my relationship to my friends. Now what to do? Realizing that I wouldn’t be able to quit cold turkey, I’ve decided to go for a radical, but not complete shift in my social media presence: deleting all my current twitter profiles and creating just one new profile in their place. A profile under my real name (rather than the internet pseudonyms I used before) to stop myself from saying or doing anything I wouldn’t be proud of, and to remind me to be myself. A profile I will spend less time on. I’m putting an end to fractured impostor personalities and instead putting my face and name to something that truly represents me. I am cutting down the fat and greatly reducing the number of people I interact with on the site, mainly moving over the really interesting people I have met on the platform to the new profile. I will also schedule my time on twitter, starting by not always having it open in a background tab, so I can focus on the things that are truly important in my life and use twitter to share those things with the world, rather than have twitter itself be the focus of my time.

It will be hard to stop myself from falling back into old patterns, but I believe this is the way for me to do it.

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