Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

An illustration of a blue Twitter logo with a white bird and several stick figures climbing a top it into a human pyramid, some falling off, and two people on the other side of the illustration having a conversation.
Twitter requires level 20 wizard communication skills and I don’t have them.

I’m (mostly) leaving Twitter

I know what you’re thinking: the Musk acquisition, the pervasive harassment, or perhaps she’s following Philip Guo and getting off social media. Others still might be thinking of my recent conflict on Twitter, where my sloppy tweet reading and writing led to me being called out and publicly shamed by several in my community. Or, maybe it’s part of my sabbatical plan? But none of these are quite the reason I’m stepping back. I’m writing this for myself to help disentangle why I think it’s time to greatly narrow my use of the platform. And I’m sharing this writing publicly, just to hold myself accountable to resisting this addictive, problematic platform. It might also be helpful to others in reflecting on how they use it. Thanks for reading!

I remember getting my first email account in my first year of college, in 1998. It wasn’t the first time I’d communicated online — in the early 1990’s, I had lurked on Compuserve CB and had frighteningly intimate conversations with strangers on AOL instant messenger chats. But those experiences were mostly anonymous novelties, like peering into mysterious private worlds through a peephole. They were not community, nor were they particularly social, because there was no identity.

Email was different. That first year of college, I knew exactly who was writing me, and they knew me. We had relationships in real life, student to student, teacher to student, student to teacher, student to staff. Most of my email in those days was broadcast and informational; someone needed something from me, I needed something from someone else. And amidst the dot-com boom, an increasing number of those relationships were commercial. Despite the massive growth of the internet, email (and the occasional coordination over ICQ) remained a minor part of my interactions with people. Most of my time was face to face, with friends, peers, and teachers, laughing, crying, bored, curious, and puzzled together in physical space.

This mostly didn’t change until Facebook launched in 2004, two years into graduate school. It was the first platform where I felt like I could directly engage with people I knew online. I friended college friends, family, colleagues, and more. My Facebook friend hygiene was fairly rigid: I would only friend someone I’d had a conversation with in person and I wouldn’t friend my teachers or advisors. I don’t think I really had a clear rationale for these rules at the time, but something about growing up only really talking to people in person made me skeptical of the idea of having meaningful conversations with someone I’d never shared physical space with. And so my friend list grew at the speed of my in-person networking, which was paced to a few academic conferences a year and meeting new peers.

While it was good for a time, things turned sour pretty quickly. There were two problems: one was that I had friended many of my evangelical aunts, uncles, and cousins, and they would regularly post sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and sometimes racist things. I would regularly see these posts because they were highly liked by my family’s networks, and so the news feed algorithm brought them to my attention. As a feminist, an ally of many marginalized by their race, gender, and sexuality (and as someone aggressively hiding my own non-conforming gender identity), the familiar compulsion applied: someone was wrong on the internet, and so I replied.

This was mostly a disaster. I would engage in weeks long arguments over hundreds of posts with family members, and they would surface all of their worst, misinformed beliefs, I would debunk them with evidence, stories, counter narratives, and opposing values, and we would always converge to the same impasses about God, abortion, and guns. Context collapse destroyed our already fragile familial bonds, and bystanders walked away disoriented. By the time I started my first year as a professor in 2008, I was committed to leaving the platform, and the world was starting to see the same problems. I stopped posting as much and returned to the relationships I could build in real life.

Around the same time, I started a Twitter account. I wasn’t thinking of it as a replacement for Facebook, but rather a way to see what others were thinking, and potentially share some of my own thoughts in my new role as a professor. In my mind, this was a different social context: it wasn’t about conversations with people I knew, but rather sharing ideas with people I didn’t. I started quite slow, mostly reading and following, and as I invested more in blogging, started to use it as a way to share my writing. I quickly learned to value these two core things: it helped me share my perspectives, but also exposed me to new ones. As long as I followed the right folks, I didn’t have to worry too much about encountering toxic views, and since I didn’t really have any followers, I didn’t really have to worry about harassment. While much of the world was seeing its amazing power to amplify bad takes, broadcast misinformation, and call out toxic behavior, my little curated corner of Twitter was mostly a bunch of political takes, cat memes, and the occasional like of one of my early Wordpress posts.

As I finally came to terms with being trans in 2016, however, my needs changed. I couldn’t connect with people in real life without risking being outed, and so I had to turn online for anonymous connection. In the early 2010’s, many of the online transgender discussion forums were dying, moving to Facebook and Twitter. But Facebook wouldn’t work for me: I had to use my real name, which would out me too. And so Twitter became a place were I could have an anonymous second account and lurk in all of the trans discourse. It was a way for me feel like I had a community, even though I didn’t, because I could see trans people living their lives, having relationships, laughing, crying, thriving, and struggling. It was trans Twitter that showed me that it might just be possible to be myself without dying.

After years of therapy, coming out to family, and finding enough courage to accept myself, I started planning how I would tell others. There would certainly be a few in-person conversations with colleagues. But mostly there was a lot of email to write, and three posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. My goal was to try to tell as many people in my community all at once, to minimize the pain and awkwardness of having to come out over and over to everyone I knew. Social media was my biggest megaphone, and so I in September of 2019, I shouted into it as loudly as I could, “Hi, I’m Amy.

And people heard. I got love, affirmation, support, recognition, and surprisingly little hate or harassment. This was particularly true on Twitter, where my follower count exploded, and I was finally free to follow and talk with others on Twitter, as myself. After more than 30 years of feeling like I was hiding myself, I was suddenly seen, and the raw amplifying power of Twitter began to erase that dissociating feeling of being invisible. It was restorative, empowering, and affirming in all the best ways. I don’t think it’s overstatement to say that the platform kept me from self harm on my worst days over the past two years.

As the world moved on in the next few months, I spent most of my time trying to find my footing, as a woman, as an out trans person, and even more awkwardly, as someone with power, which was isolating. I didn’t really have any friends prior to coming out — other than my wife — because being closeted had meant I’d intentionally avoided genuine connection to avoid being seen. But I was also overwhelmed with name changes, catching up on work after a wave of thousands of emails and outreach from trans folks and parents of trans youth asking for support. I spent a lot of time writing about my experiences on Medium and sharing them on Twitter, helping me process my own transition, but also hoping that sharing my experience with others would make space for others my community to be themselves. And Twitter was there to affirm: every time I expressed some struggle, my community was there to offer support.

It wasn’t until February of 2020 when I really felt like the overwhelming wave of labor after coming out had subsided enough that I really felt I could start building a community. I had ideas for community work with homeless youth in Seattle, who are largely queer and trans; I started searching for ways to connect with trans parents; I started meeting with other trans academics on campus. By March, I was feeling like I was just at the beginning of connecting with real community for the first time in my life, I was full of hope. Twitter, which had been a kind of bootstrap for my coming out, was no longer feeling essential.

We all know what happened next. A virus, lockdowns, the murder of George Floyd, economic collapse, an insurrection, the repeated loss of trans civil rights, and continued inaction on racial justice. While these events stirred me to greater action than ever, they also shattered any hope I’d had at building genuine relationships. And these isolated me, as they isolated so many of us. Home, alone, 16 hours a day, while my wife was a primary care nurse managing the constant overflow from hospitals, I sat in the same chair in the same room talking to no one and seeing no one in person for two years. Twitter, the endless two dimensional Zoom calls, and the occasional fatigued Slack or Discord message was all there was. And so I felt my relationship to Twitter shift from one of anonymous support to one of advocacy, using the bullhorn I’d built to be seen to instead be heard.

My social media advocacy was a mess, just like on Facebook. I raged about the right; I spoke out against anti-Blackness and policing; I wrote pleas for trans justice; I tried to organize around disability justice in CS education. The platform for me shifted from being a critical but temporary part of my self care to tool for angry/despairing shouting. Of course, as anyone who uses Twitter to advocate knows, with this comes all of the worst things the platform has to offer: harassment, doxing, bullying, hate speech, death threats, and more. I built very thick skin, and spent much of my time in the arena naming injustice and bracing myself for arrows. I was not fun, and it was not healthy, but it did feel right. It also felt like all I could do, trapped at home.

And as much as it might have built some solidarity, I just wasn’t very good at it. All of those bad argumentation habits I’d learned on Facebook carried over to Twitter, where there was an even bigger and more anonymous audience, and even greater risk of context collapse. My writing style, which I experience as wavering wildly between vulnerable, authoritative, melancholy, and overconfident, rarely felt like the right fit for the diverse audience of Twitter followers, the vast majority I had never met or had a conversation with, and didn’t really know how to read the emotions behind my words. All of those rules I’d followed for interacting on Facebook I had abandoned on Twitter, which often led to chaos, miscommunication, and hate as much as it did understanding and community.

Somehow, though, all of that felt manageable in 2020 and 2021. Even though I was isolated and alone at home, my response to the stress of the pandemic was to invest a lot in self care. I committed deeply to good sleep hygiene, to exercise, to breathing, to walking. The only in-person conversations I really had were with my loving, clever, and wonderfully supportive wife and my patient, insightful, and reassuring therapist. And so as tumultuous as life on Twitter was, it still felt like a place of affirmation and justice, and home felt quiet, supportive, and calm.

This last academic year, however, has been different. I started it off with one of the most invasive surgeries one can have, and spent most of my recovery period more alone than ever, as my wife cared for family out of state. Administrative life got more complex than ever, with the constant uncertainty and crisis of opening campus back up, and years of student trauma and depression thrust overflowing in the classroom. The threat of infection grew as mask mandates were lifted and everyone around me started testing positive. And since I was not able to get teaching release for surgery, I had to double up on teaching this Spring, leading to one of the busiest, most complex, and most emotionally demanding quarters of my career. I spent much of the past 10 weeks right well past burnout, working from 7 am to 7 pm each day, sometimes later, trying to stay on track, while keeping just enough time to eat, sleep, and recover.

No one should tweet in this state.

But after the Uvalde shooting this past week, I did. After the past two years of loss of civil unrest, this past legislative session of loss after loss of trans rights, the looming threat to abortion rights, the millions unnecessarily dead, all I could think about was how little love there was in the world right now. The right seems so hateful, so disregarding of anyone’s basic ability to live. I thought about the shooter and all of the things that must have added up to that decision to murder so many, and saw a country that denies safety, health, love, affirmation, justice, while making it so incredibly easy to buy guns and bullets designed to kill. What should we expect? Our country sometimes seems like its designed for death and despair.

And so I wrote a tweet, expressing that grief, and used a horrible choice of words, “we get what we give”, to express the idea that the racist, white surpremacist, sexist, ableist right is getting what their asking for: a country in which no one feels safe. Of course — and understandably—that’s not how it was read. Some people called me in privately, demanding I delete it; others called me out in public on Twitter. As soon as I realized that it was being read as sympathy for the shooter and/or blame of marginalized groups (as opposed to despair), I deleted it, and apologized, and tried to clarify my intents, so people wouldn’t think that I was supporting the shooter. But of course that was read as doubling down, and the usual Twitter spiraling happened, with everyone shaming me for writing the tweet, for trying to clarify it, and for not expressing sufficient remorse for writing it, piling a sense of shame on top of my despair.

But then I made it worse. One person who had asked me to delete the tweet had also called me in on not expressing public support for someone on Twitter in March, on an unrelated topic. I replied, apologized for not expressing support, and explained that I had felt I had been told to stay out of it. They forwarded the message to the person I had not supported publicly, who accused me of lying and demanded an apology. I wrote back, apologized for the confusion, and explained that I had tragically misinterpreted a tweet in March and that’s why I hadn’t spoken up, and instead put my efforts behind the scenes trying to educate, repair, and support. She didn’t believe me, accused me of lying on Twitter, and a second wave of public shaming ensued. And then, of course, came the anonymous DMs, emails, and tweets calling me a racist, a white supremacist, a toxic leader, and more. It was a week of shame, of regret, of possible lost of respect and community, and real damage to a community that means so much to me, all triggered by my poor choice of words.

I made so many mistakes in all of this:

  • I shouldn’t have written a poorly worded, poorly timed tweet about my despair.
  • I shouldn’t have tried to better explain my despair when people expressed that my words had done harm.
  • I shouldn’t have read that tweet out of order and out of context in March and let it drive my inaction; a closer read would have prevented a lot of suffering.
  • I shouldn’t have tried to explain my lack of support over email; I should have just accepted that I didn’t act and apologized.
  • After many people reached out to see if I was okay, I shouldn’t have answered that call publicly, because it directed community attention away from the harm I’d done.
  • I shouldn’t have written another apology online that coupled my belated support with a bunch of whitesplaining about our collective responsibility to be anti-racist.

I really should have just said nothing. I wasn’t in a good state to communicate, the world was in pain, and it didn’t need my sloppy sad words or ideas. And back in March when my community was in pain, I should have paid better attention spoken up with public support, but I didn’t. There are simply no excuses for these mistakes.

While Twitter was part of the mess above, the real problem was me and how I’d chosen to use Twitter to communicate. Over the two years of pandemic life, trying to be seen, but then also trying to help by being heard, I’ve realized that my use of Twitter as a place to share my thoughts is deeply problematic. I think my misuse of it boils down to a few things:

  • There’s never enough context. No matter how long the tweet or the thread, it’s simply not a good medium for sharing the history, position, perspective, values, commitments, or motivations behind an idea or perspective. I’ve seen this over and over as I fail to successfully communicate on the platform, and as I fail to successfully interpret what people’s tweets mean. We must know each other to know what we mean. But that’s not possible on Twitter alone.
  • Context collapse exacerbates misinterpretation. When I say something unclear, it’s bad enough that the people who know me in real life might not know what I mean. But Twitter makes this worse, by showing tweets out of order when in “recommended” mode, segregating tweets that convey critical context in combination, providing little visibility into who is being spoken to or about what. I rarely know who I’m talking to or who anyone else is ever talking to — even when I’m talking to someone I know directly, there are other strangers who are listening—and so any attempt at conversation tends to reduce to misunderstanding. Calls to “read the room”, which are totally reasonable in an in-person small group setting, are nearly impossible on Twitter, where everyone sees a different room, has different context, and is hearing different things.
  • Twitter is a hollow way to be seen. It helped me a lot as I came out and was in deep need for gender affirmation. I think that was truly valuable and necessary for me personally. But it is no substitute for genuine relationships. I started with very few of those after coming out, lost many of them during lockdowns, and have only just begun to rebuild them. As much as Twitter can help start relationships, is not the platform on which to build them (and honestly, neither is Facebook, Slack, Discord, email, or even Zoom). I will build trust in the old fashioned way from now on, in-person when possible, with all of the messy challenges of turn-taking and listening. That’s hard enough to get right, and I think far more meaningful.
  • It’s too easy to take up space. Sometimes when I tweet I’m broadcasting to a very specific group of people. In my early days on Twitter with a few hundred followers, only some of whom saw what I posted, that was workable. But as my follower count has risen, I keep forgetting that every time I post, there are at a minimum, thousands, if not tens of thousands of people who will see it, most of whom I’ve never met and don’t really know who I am. That’s way too much space to be taking up; my voice is simply not that important. And the platform is largely designed to incentivize taking up space. That’s not the incentive I want.
  • It is not a place for repair. Calling in is a necessary part of a healthy community; we have to be challenged on our ideas and words, to make space for learning. None of us understands every perspective, every problem, or every need — certainly not me—and there has to be space for that learning, otherwise nothing changes. Even calling out has a place, especially in public settings where the harm of not calling someone out outweighs the harm of public shaming. But Twitter is primarily designed for calling out, and it leads to forms of calling out that are abusive, destructive, and often invisible to the crowd, and often vastly out of proportion to someone’s mistake, and even when there was no mistake. I want to build community, not destroy it, and so I don’t want to participate in that abuse. (And of course, I don’t want to receive it).
  • I’m not myself in tweets. On my best days, my sense of how I am when talking in person is someone who is a kind, patient, curious, and vulnerable listener. I don’t always succeed at that — when I’m stressed, I’m sometimes impatient, assertive, authoritative, or oblivious in harmful ways—but overall, I feel like I’ve learned to be a constructive communicator and build trust when I talk to someone face to face. But online — whether email, Facebook, Twitter, Slack, Discord, DMs—most of those listening skills are lost, and all that’s left of me is the impatient, assertive, authoritative, and oblivious person I first saw on Facebook interacting with my extended family. I’m my worst self and I hurt people.

So I’m (mostly) leaving Twitter. If we already know each other, online communication is a fine supplement to our in-person interactions. But if we don’t, and you want to have a conversation with me, let’s find a time to meet in person (or on the phone or in a video chat if we’re far part, recognizing that those don’t quite build trust in the same way, but are an okay substitute). Relationships take time and I’m recommitting to building them, at human scale. I’m very fortunate to have a sabbatical this coming year and I plan on using that added flexibility in my schedule to do it.

As part of this, I want to apologize to everyone who’s ever read any of my tweets and felt ignored, unseen, abused, misunderstood, angry, frustrated, shamed, judged, deceived, gaslit, or any other horrible feeling that social media can create or amplify. You didn’t deserve those feelings and I shouldn’t have used the platform to create them, whether I new I was doing it or not. If that describes you and you’re open to a synchronous conversation, I’d love to make the time to apologize, listen, learn, and begin to earn your trust.

Finally, let’s talk about that “mostly leaving” I’ve hinted at throughout this post. There are a few things that I think Twitter is useful for, so I’ll be keeping it around for a narrow set of purposes:

  • To amplify others. I recognize that I have a platform and that it has value. When there’s work I find that I want to be seen, I will amplify it. If you want your work seen, and don’t have a platform of your own, send me a note, and I’ll amplify it. My account is a resource that can be valuable to reach others, so let’s use it that way.
  • To share. There are things that I write (like this mea culpa) that I want to be read. I’ll continue to use it to share writing, or resources, or other creations that might be helpful to others. But I’ll be sticking to media like long form writing, carefully curated talks, and research papers, where I give myself time and space to think about what I’m saying, and ensure it has enough context to make my ideas clear. Written and spoken communication deserves time, reflection, and iteration, and Twitter encourages the opposite.
  • To listen. There are still so many voices on Twitter I want to hear from. I’ve learned so much in the past 13 years on the platform from Black folks, from people with disabilities, from trans and queer communities, from people globally facing unseen tragedies, and from countless thought leaders who’ve reshaped how I think about the world. I still think it’s a powerful platform for listening when we purposefully use it in that way. I just think I should all be a little more thoughtful before I say something, and a little more careful when I read.

So what should you do if you want to chat and we don’t already know each other? It’s okay to still DM me on Twitter, Facebook, Discord, Slack, or email to start a conversation; these conversations are great ways to start a relationship. They’re just not a good way to build them. Expect me to reply with an offer of my time to have a conversation. I’m committed to making the time.

Thank you for reading, take care, and hopefully we’ll see each other in person soon!

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

6.6K Followers

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.