Life off Twitter
Anyone on Twitter has had quite a week, watching Musk’s chaos slowly reveal what has always been obvious: the site is nothing without people. People tweeting, of course, but also people building and maintaining the platform, people paying attention to what people tweet, people in the press holding tightly on to the illusion that what happens on Twitter somehow reflects the broader public’s — or even an individual’s — beliefs, concerns, and actions. Now that the people are leaving, we all have a chance to be reminded of these facts, as we contemplate whether to jump to other platforms or just quit altogether for a while.
To help you decide, I thought I’d share a bit about my experience (mostly) leaving Twitter back in June. At the time, I left for many reasons, partly Musk, partly to avoid causing and participating in harm in my communities, and partly for some much needed peace. My hope was that reducing my usage down to just broadcasting long form writing and amplifying other voices would bring all of these things.
So what happened?
For some of these things, its been really clear. For example, my life is a lot quieter. My wife, my cat, my daughter, my family, a few friends, and the small circle of scholars in my professional life were always the bulk of my interactions. But that broader conversation of scholars, celebrities, journalists, activists online? They’re talking, but it’s like murmurs in the background at a restaurant. I focus in on some keywords occasionally, but mostly I’m. focused on the conversation at my table. And I’m certainly not standing up on the table shouting out to the world. The drama is mostly gone.
In some ways, this is good. It’s helped me heal from several years in the fray, reduced my stress, improved my sleep. But it can also feel like I’m a wounded soldier, stuck in a hospital bed, eager to get back to the front where my people are, trying to defend against the onslaught of transphobia, racism, sexism, and white Christian hegemony that harms me and others I care for. I don’t know how much Twitter was an effective tool at resisting any of that, but it certainly felt like it was. And so as much as I’ve needed the quiet, it also comes with a lot of survivor’s guilt. Because not everyone has the privilege of stepping away from social media.
There have been other benefits. Because part of leaving Twitter was instead making time for more one to one communication, I’ve connected with so many people and had so many wonderful conversations over the past 5 months. It doesn’t rival the quantity of Twitter, but it absolutely rivals the quality. I’ve had heart to hearts with a hundred people, captivating intellectual conversations with scholars all over the world, and long dinners with friends and colleagues, learning about their lives, dreams, and joys. Most of this didn’t happen because I left Twitter — sabbatical and my profession are mostly to thank for these privileges— but as an intentional alternative to constant tweeting, the contrast and winner is clear: synchronous conversation is superior.
Through these chats, though, I have learned of some of the lost benefits of prolific tweeting. Some have mentioned that they only ever saw my tweets and not my longer writing her on Medium, and it was my presence online that inspired them to join fight. Now that I’m quieter, some of that inspiration has been lost. And those who have read my longer form writing have shared how much of a role model I am to them, and how me stepping away didn’t necessarily erode that, but it might mean I’m a role model to fewer in the future, since I’m less visible. That makes me sad; part of why I was online so fervently was to be less alone myself, and so the idea that me leaving might contribute to isolating others is worrying.
Another thing I’ve noticed is a shift in my ability to focus. Sabbatical is a confounding factor here, but I distinctly notice the lack of a nagging need to check my feeds, to reply to a reply, to share a thought, to contribute to the Twitter “discourse”. Instead, what I feel most is a desire to work on what’s in front of me: research with my wonderful students and postdoc, my art (my mysterious creative coding platform, a book publishing platform), and my many equity and justice projects in CS. The quiet activism, the playful making, the close collaborations with such a diverse group of thinkers get all of my professional attention. Some days it feels like I’ve traveled back to the most romanticized days of the Renaissance, centering art, science, and learning, just with more powerful lenses, an attention to power, and public funding instead of patronage. None of this has required Twitter, or social media broadly. It’s just meant you don’t hear about it daily, because I’m not tweeting about it.
Lastly is pace. Life on Twitter always felt a bit like being in a raging river, swiftly and chaotically rushing toward some ocean, at constant risk of drowning or head injury. It was riveting at times, but could also be terrifying and painful. And of course, all of this would happen while I was quietly sitting at the dinner table with my wife, when I was supposed to be preparing for teaching, or when I could have been enjoying a quiet ride on a train through the woods. Without Twitter, the pace of my life is human scale again. Things happen daily, weekly. I find out about the news through thoughtful analyses on podcasts, and by a morning ritual read. The rest of my day isn’t reacting to it or reacting to reactions, but just the diligent, quiet work toward my big goals. This slower pace comes with slower breathing.
With my community’s rush to Mastadon and other social networks, I haven’t felt a great desire to join in. I feel like I know what could be lost and gained, on Twitter or other online social spaces. I will do it to stay loosely connected and sufficiently visible, but more as a spectator on the riverside, inviting people to the campfire to dry off, have a bite, and few hours of conversation. And it’s by no means lonely here in the world: after all, most of the world isn’t on Twitter.