What I learned when I gave up Twitter for Lent

So I abstained from Twitter from Lent and, like abstaining from alcohol, it’s easier than you think. Also like abstaining from alcohol, you might have the odd little snifter but not count it as breaking the rules. I checked the Norwich City team news more than once during my six weeks off and also loaded the ‘westminster bridge’ search during the terror attack. I never logged on though, which I think is the key metric in deciding whether I was successful (and I’m sticking to it). This is what I learned while I was away

Twitter stresses me out

Let me say first off that I get stressed quite easily*. But there is no argument that in my six weeks off Twitter the thing I realised most clearly was quite how stressed it made me. It provokes anxiety in me on several levels: firstly the kind that is produced when you are following developing news stories through Twitter’s hyperbolic prism (this applies SO much to Donald Trump); second the intrinsic status anxiety (I became less self-critical and less envious during my break); thirdly, in the compulsive need I develop to refresh everything, to consume everything, to know everything that is going on. That’s without even mentioning the ubiquitous venom that is perhaps the platform’s defining characteristic. The effect it has on users, even those not directly experiencing it (though I suspect, to some degree or another, most are) is real.

  • I am, however, resolute by way of compensation.

Twitter doesn’t inform me as much as I like to think

I gave up Twitter for a short while because I believed I wouldn’t be able to. Since the events of 2016 I have often been found extolling the value of Twitter as a tool for making yourself better informed in a time of great complexity and some danger. That’s not how I feel at the end of my abstinence. During my break I would often have conversations with fellow Twitter obsessives and we’d talk politics or culture or whatnot. I never found there was something they knew that I did not. I’d even ask them explicitly if they’d found anything interesting on Twitter that I might have missed (not just information even, but funny memes!). There was nothing forthcoming.

I feel I’ve been kept just as well informed by reading just the Guardian/NYT/BBC (and reading them more because I’m not on Twitter). In fact on the day of the Westminster attack, what quickly became obvious was how difficult it was to learn anything from Twitter because there was so much rubbish (speculation, wilful misinformation) swirling about, even from journalists and other ‘respectable’ sorts. The TV news was clearer, simpler and much more accurate.

By the way I’m not saying there won’t have been things I have missed. And I especially include in that the serendipitous links that pop up on topics unrelated to those you are normally interested in. In the areas I am already interested in, however, once I’d dumped more sources onto my feedly list I don’t think I lost much at all.

Nothing happens on Twitter

This is an extension of the previous point really, but just to observe that the outcome of those daily tides of obsession, fury, scepticism and (occasionally) mirth, never really add up to much. More often than not Jeremy Corbyn’s position within the Labour party is the same at the end of the day as it was at the beginning, regardless of how voraciously he’s been criticised or defended in tweets. The same goes for the Daily Mail’s editorial policy and identity politics of millennials. Not only does nothing change but most of the contre-temps are forgotten by the end of the week. Donald Trump’s foreign policy could, I accept, be an exception.

Twitter is not representative of the real world

By this I don’t just mean *your* Twitter and all that filter bubble bollocks, I just mean everyone and everything on Twitter. Social media, I now think to myself, is just as many cynics have always painted it; a digital bucket that collects those desperate for attention. Of course I count myself amongst that number; I have to admit that that is at least partly why I am on the platform. Most people don’t really feel the need to perform or to get people to watch them perform. These people are probably quite dull, but they do form a far greater number than those who want other people to pay attention to them. And that means when you’re outside of Twitter it’s quite easy to view the whole thing as just a load of show offs shouting at each other.

The media pay too much attention to Twitter

After a while I feel I developed quite a good sense of which story on a news site was inspired by a social media frenzy. The Australian TV presenter who made a silly face, the NZ premier who ate tinned spaghetti pizza, the whole United Airlines thing. One of my key ‘tells’ for working it out would be that the news story was never simply reporting something, it was always reporting ‘outrage’ or ‘outpouring’. Simply put, each of these stories were not important in and of themselves, but a widespread social media reaction had made them so. After initially chasing down the initial image or clip that had provoked the reaction, but finding them almost always less revelatory than the story had suggested, I started to filter them out.

Next steps etc

Is there a conclusion to all of this? I wouldn’t have thought so. It seems most likely that I’ll end up on Twitter just like I always have been, checking for information, craving gratification and looking for a sense of validation. But if I do change, and I don’t quit in one giant act of high-handedness, there is one tactic that has struck me as worthwhile. In all my 12 years on Twitter I have sought to be authentic, to be me, not to use the platform as a basis for selling myself or a product. After my Lent off, I’ve changed my mind on that. Promoting stuff is what Twitter can do most straightforwardly and if I am still looking to become the subject of global adulation, which I surely am, then maybe I should look to take advantage of that function.

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