Why I (mostly) dropped off twitter
It’s been six months since I dropped off using twitter under the @getify account. I continue to get questions as to why, and some people lamenting my exit, so I figured I would explain why I left.
In doing so, I’m going to make some observations about twitter (and other social media) from the perspective of someone who was practically addicted — I averaged at times over 100 tweets per day! — and who has now, slowly and painfully, broken that addiction. These observations are not intended to judge others’ use of these platforms, but I do hope maybe these thoughts cause some to introspect on their own hows and whys.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Twitter and other similar social media platforms are a mirror of society; they reflect and amplify not just the good in us but also the bad. Unfortunately disproportionately, the latter is more toxic and pollutive than the former is helpful and empowering. This isn’t a buffet line where you get to pick and choose; you get both effects whether you like it or not.
One thing I’ve realized, and only recently could articulate, is that the more disconnected from and uninformed on a topic you are, the more incentivized you are to inject your opinions — in an inverse relationship. After all, you have less to lose and more to gain by speaking up than those who are already at the center of it.
Those who understand a conversation’s full context, when they discuss such publicly, practically beg others to come in without that context and yet be co-equal participators. This viral multiplicative effect means that the informed voices are often quickly drowned out, and many who are most invested and central will eventually quit discussing the topic in public, exhausted. Those left have “no dog in the fight”, surviving the fallout and feeding on the scraps.
If you’ve ever tweeted some quick thought, then spent 50+ more tweets, hopelessly, defending and clarifying it against people who misunderstand, you’ll know exactly what I mean. My twitter experience over 7+ years was largely just that, repeated over and over again.
The more you have to say, and the more you try to say it, the less that any of those reading along will get.
Moreover, these mob discussions in short increments demand quick, pithy, caustic, and inflammatory blurtings instead of slow, careful, thoughtful, and empathetic dialogue. That clearly polarizes the discourse, usually into two diametrically opposed camps. From either side, anyone speaking up who’s not obviously in your sphere of agreement looks like just the “other side”, which only heightens the polarization.
If you try to participate “in the middle” and make moderating/compromising/productive comments, there’s a very good chance that neither side is going to appreciate or accept you. With very few exceptions, you don’t fit.
The effect was often in my experience, “If you’re not with us, GTFO.” I rarely find myself on the extreme side of any topic worth discussing, so that message rings loud and clear.
So I can’t have productive, context-full discussion and rely on others to do the same. And I can’t share nuanced and moderated views on any topic, because the only people who care are those who are already polarized.
That’s, above all, why I finally GTFO’d.
In a sense, the fact that I had to begin this post with “The Short(ish)” to summarize my thoughts — IOW, leave out valuable context because people are impatient at reading online and expect a TL;DR — is the problem. If you’re still reading, I hope it’s because you would actually like to know more about what I meant above. But let’s be honest — most readers haven’t stuck around this far.
Some people effectively navigate social media by compartmentalizing themselves. I hear many say, “well, I just talk about tech on twitter”, and they claim to be able to ignore politics, religion, and any other potentially controversial parts of societal experience.
Every so often, someone would tweet me during one of those rants and say, “Unfollowed because ___” or “I wish you’d just stick to JS”. I always bristled at this external policing of my stream of consciousness. My account is mine, and me, so you get what you get. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t hurt my feelings at all, so you’re welcome to unfollow. In fact, I am not sure why most of my 30k followers even follow me anyway.
What I didn’t realize all along is that at some point, my public persona stopped being purely just me as an individual and became a sort of pedestal, platform, identity, and brand. In short, I’ve become, more through notoriety than popularity, a kind of very minor “celebrity” in the JS world. Very minor, I should reiterate. I don’t even have my own Wikipedia page.
I didn’t set out to do that, and I truthfully didn’t even spend much time thinking about it. But it’s a fact, nonetheless. And I should have thought about it introspectively a lot more than I did.
If I had, I would have realized that means my “audience” has a different sort of expectations from me. With the larger amplified “voice” came a set of norms and restrictions on what I could do with that platform. I should have realized that it would be far easier for me to “offend” and become a target to take down off that pedestal. That’s what we do all throughout society: build people up and them tear them down. It’s not at all surprising. I basically almost asked for it by putting myself out there so publicly.
So, on my son’s birthday back in January, when I set out to share some thoughts (in a 20+ tweet rant) about the hugely inflammatory topic of healthcare in the US, I offended a bunch of my audience. It was their right to be offended, because I was off-brand at that point, speaking as a person and not as a JS celebrity.
The thing is, what hurt and cut so deeply is that I was completely and totally misunderstood. The vast majority of responses assumed I was saying one thing, when I was actually saying the opposite. And specifically, it wasn’t just randos on the internet who I have no connection with. The people whose negative responses hurt the most were those who I’m actually friends with, not just online but actually IRL. They are people who know me, and should have known I wasn’t saying what they read. I have, or thought I had, an established track record that should have informed the interpretation of my thoughts. But it didn’t.
I was really, really, really hurt by this. I left twitter in anger, and “shut down” my account as a “pointless waste of time”. It finally snapped. Why on earth am I doing all this, when none of it counts when people should know better?
I planned to leave twitter for a month and cool down. Boy, that addicition kicked in over the following few days.
I was checking twitter fourteen times an hour. I was fighting wanting to say things on all manner of things I was reading, and having to keep remind myself I had “left”. Gradually, I checked in on my feed less and less.
Then a few weeks later, I went in and purged my following list, cutting out about 75% of them. If I was going to read any twitter at all, I needed a feed that was vastly more narrow. I needed to cut out all the voices, even from people that I like, that had things to say which compelled me to try to speak up.
I used to advocate that you should follow a lot of diverse voices, especially those you disagree with, so you avoid creating an echo chamber. And here I was, basically betraying all that advice and narrowing my feed to a pure echo chamber. I only wanted to read from people I wasn’t likely to find any issues with.
I muted people who shared thoughts that angered me. I blocked people who had ever disagreed with me in even the most mildly disrespectful way.
But it didn’t work. I kept finding more and more stuff in my feed that urged me to speak up. It was a constant battle to read twitter but not chime in. It seemed like every time I read twitter, within 60 seconds I found some self-important asshole’ish conversation that I wanted to tear into and then tear my own hair out.
Months went by, and I got myself down to only checking twitter once or twice a day. By that point, I feel like I’ve broken my addiction to twitter. But it took me coming to terms with exactly what I was addicted to, and why.
I realized that what I was addicted to was inflating my own ego, tiny bits at a time, by feeding the idea that my opinions — on anything — were informed, intelligent, reasoned, and useful, and that any conversation that I read could benefit from me poking my head in.
I mean, that’s what twitter is all about, when you think about it. Right? It’s about seeing something that others are discussing, and inflating that discussion with your own two cents.
Why am I so strongly compelled to do so? Because my ego needs it. I need to be important. I need to be respected. I need to be appreciated. I need to be admired.
Twitter feeds that ego like a drug addict is fed by a dealer.
It took a long, long time before I could admit this. And it took me leaving so I could see it more from the outside. It took me looking at the “mirror” of my social media persona and realizing that I had built this, brick by brick, tweet by tweet. I did this. All of it. I created the momentum of a habit that would continually draw upon the worst parts of my own nature. The more I came to terms with that, the more I was disgusted with myself.
About 20 years ago, I was having some health problems that I suspected might be related to my really high daily intake of caffeine. Like, drinking 8–10 cokes per day, high. So I decided to take a month off caffeine, cold turkey, to reset my system. That month was the worst most miserable month of my life to that point.
I had all kinds of physical withdrawl symptoms kick in. I mean, sweats, nausea, digestive unrest, headaches, etc. The whole thing. I’ve never actually been addicted to controlled substance drugs like cocaine, but I imagine that in my little slice of the world, I was experiencing a hardcore physical pushback from my lack of caffeine.
It didn’t take long for me to realize, horrified, that if I was actually that addicted to caffeine, I’d need to never have it again. There was no safe level. There was no moderation. Just like there’s no safe level of cocaine.
20 years later, and I’m still 100% caffeine free. No coffee, no tea, no caffeine drinks, nothing. I guess I get small amounts in the occasional chocolate or whatever. But I don’t consume any concentrated amounts of caffeine at all. And I’m much healthier as a result.
6 months may be too early to tell, but I believing for now that in the same way that I needed to drop caffeine, I also needed to drop my addiction to ego inflation through twitter.
A lot of people that know me IRL tell me that I’ve been a lot more calm and even tempered since leaving twitter. I hope that’s true. I still have a long way to go to unwind my negativity and ego-inflation habits. But I’m encouraged that I’m at least headed in a better direction.
I use LinkedIn now, and to a lesser extent, Google+. LinkedIn works for me for now because I only post once a week or so, and even then, usually only on something business/tech related, since that’s the expected norm for this platform.
I rarely comment on others’ discussions, and certainly in no ways do I do so if it’s something inflammatory or controversial.
I self censor. I still regularly have thoughts and ideas that I would like to ego-inflate by sharing with the world — you know, THOUGHT LEADERING! But I keep them to myself, usually.
I’m drinking caffeine-free drinks like sprite or lemonade. They’re not nearly as addictive. I still have to keep them in check, but it’s a lot easier to do so.
But the effects of dropping twitter have not been all positive.
I’m sad, and lonely. I feel deeply disconnected from a community that I think I helped to build. I feel saddened because I want to be able to have the good parts of twitter without being taken down by the bad parts. I feel like I’m less mature and less capable of that kind of responsible usage than I’d like to be. I’m jealous of others for being able to do so, apparently effectively.
My OSS life, which used to be a huge part of who I was, is now a hollow shell. I have built a couple of libraries since leaving twitter, but almost no one has heard of them, because I have no platform to publicize myself. I mean, I occassionally post on LinkedIn and Google+. But together, those aren’t even a drop in the bucket compared to what I did on twitter.
My motivation to finish my book writing, or work on my OSS projects, is at an all time low. I don’t care anymore. Why work on all that, if I can’t keep calling attention to what I’m doing by tweeting about it? I recently built (OSS’d on github, of course) a library that I think could be a really important part of the ecosystem, and it’s basically irrelevant. All the docs and tests I wrote, they mean nothing because the project has like 10 stars. No one will ever hear of it or use it. And I won’t likely ever do any more to add to it.
And I’m also deeply saddened at a noticeable downturn in my business. I built my work in large part on the platform of @getify. I relied on being able to offer a public workshop, tweet about it a few times, and virtually always sell out tickets. Now? I’ve had a string of utter failures in public workshops, with ticket sales being so low that I’m having to cancel or — worse — run them at a net loss.
I also struggle to drum up new corporate training work. I got a lot of those leads in the past from my regular public community presence, and as I’ve retreated from that community, fewer of those leads are coming in. I’m having to dig for and find work, and it’s getting harder and harder. I don’t know if the pipeline will keep working, or if I’ll have to eventually change my work entirely.
On the whole, is it better that I give up on twitter and lose all these other parts of my career/endeavors, but I regain my own sanity and peace of mind?
I don’t know yet. But since I don’t know, the worst thing I could do would be to keep feeding those worst parts of me haplessly. Unless I ever figure out some way to balance these pros and cons more effectively, I feel like I’m better off staying on the sidelines.
Until then, I hope you’ll come connect with me on LinkedIn.
And whatever you do, be good to others online. They’re more than just the pixels on your screen. On the other side of that pixel is a real human being, with all manner of hopes and flaws. Remember that the next time you feel the urge to tear into them after reading a tweet you don’t agree with.