Bye Bye Birdie: What I learned about my Twitter habit in a week without Tweets
I’m sitting in a cafe with my son. I’ve packed a dozen amusements for him, and none for me. He’s busy drawing a castle, so I do something I’ve done thousands of times before: I pick up my phone.
And then I do something I’ve not done so much of: I put my phone down.
You see, I’ve already read The Guardian, I’ve gawped at Instagram, I’ve over-enthusiastically contributed to my Slack and WhatsApp groups. I’ve kind of “done” today’s Internet.
And sure, there are other things I could be doing on my phone, but I don’t like sport, I don’t care much for Facebook, I haven’t had an RSS reader for years, and I don’t have any games installed. I’m not working today, so I’m not looking at email, and I’m too old and uncool for whatever else it is everyone does. But none of that usually matters because — for the last ten years — I’ve been On Twitter.
I’ve had a pretty good time on Twitter. I’ve made friends, got jobs, started a company, won awards and co-created works of art. And more importantly I’ve read millions of tweets and thousands of linked articles.
I’ve listened to and learnt about people, ideas and problems I wouldn’t have encountered without it. I’ve laughed at jokes, cried at injustices, signed petitions, produced an opera, been in reading groups and otherwise been an absolutely perfect focus-group participant. I could do a fantastic vox pop about how Twitter changed my life and everyone would agree that, yes, this was definitely Time Well Spent. I’m a model Tweeter who’s somehow managed to block less than a thousand people and still have a good time.
But for at least the last five years, I’ve also been On Twitter almost all the time — if not actually physically, then subconsciously.
My physical Twitter habit is pretty bad. I buried the shortcut on the third page of my phone’s homescreen about a year ago, but whenever I picked up my phone, my thumb would go straight to Twitter. Without thinking, I’d pull down, my eyes would skim every tweet, and I’d keep going and going till I saw something familiar, all the time favouriting and clicking on links and yes I’m definitely listening to you, but maybe I should send that to my work Slack? And wow, just hang on a minute, I need to reply to this, and what am I using for bookmarking these days — that article looks great. And oh, here I am again, pulling down, because someone must have said something important in the last thirty, fifty, sixty seconds?
But when I stopped being On Twitter (which was only a week ago), I realised the physical act of being On Twitter was the least of it. In reality, I’ve been subconsciously On Twitter all of the time.
I deactivated my Twitter account for #deactiday (because Nazism is intolerable and the fact that Donald Trump is given free reign on Twitter makes my heart and brain ache), and within an hour or so, I noticed that my brain was mostly a rehearsal room for my Twitter account. Nearly everything I read, heard, saw, and — who knows — maybe even everything I thought was continually being tried out and discarded as a Possible Tweet.
And while my thumb stopped ghost-walking to the place the app used to be, I carried on making off-the-cuff observations to myself for days afterwards. Then for a few days, I made extra anodyne Instagram stories and over-posted in closed communities. Once or twice I even laughed aloud at things I was reading, as a new way of acknowledging a response.
I love communicating without talking to anyone in particular, and listening without being directly spoken to. I love tossing thoughts into the ether and seeing how others respond. I love the fact that someone, somewhere will be entertained by something weird or obscure I’ve stumbled across, or be able to identify a mystery vegetable I’ve seen. I love the (vintage) Twitter discipline of 140 character aperçus.
And Twitter is a very liberating place for someone, like me, who wants to exchange ideas but hasn’t entirely mastered the art of conversation. (Like Kathy in Olivia Laing’s Crudo, who “needed seven hours weeks months years a day totally alone … it’s why she spent so much time on the internet. So you like talking but you don’t like it when people talk back her husband said rudely, but that wasn’t quite it.“) And that, perhaps, is the problem with so much of 2018: the thickness of the talk, and the lack of connection.
So this is not a tale of woe. If I’ve been addicted to anything over the last few years, it’s probably wisecracking, and even I can’t muster self-pity over that. And it’s been fine. In fact, better than fine — I picked up a pen and paper in a cafe and, rather than refreshing my Twitter feed, I wrote this down. Rather waiting for information to happen to me, I gathered my thoughts. I like not being on Twitter. My head feels quiet.
But these are the dog days of August. I’m on holiday from work. I’ll be back next week, and maybe I’ll need the pound of my Twitter feed to get me through my daily commute, and the distraction of scrolling to see me through the longueurs of conferences and overly long meetings. I’ve reactivated my account, but hopefully I’ll keep the little white bird off my phone, and instead read more long form, get more newsletters and newspapers and find new ways to signal boost others. If nothing else, the carpal tunnel in my thumb is getting better now I’m not refreshing Twitter so much. Perhaps I’ll also build my mental muscles so I can be on Twitter sometimes without, subconsciously, being On Twitter the whole time.