Why I've quit Twitter for good

Say hello to a world where you can just do stuff, without talking about the stuff you're doing!

This week, I gave up Twitter. For good.

I'd been thinking about it for a while, but there it was: as of Saturday afternoon I am just me, and not @stebax (formerly @antonvowl). I won't be coming back; I'm gone forever. At least, that's the plan.

Hey, Twitter, we had good times, you and me. We followed a few people; we had some hashtags; we broke superinjunctions and called ourselves Spartacus. But I think it's time we went our separate ways. If it's any consolation, it's not you; it's me.

For one thing, I'm planning on becoming a teacher soon. As such, it's not good to have every single thought you utter out there for the world to see, searchable forever more, by the odd the rogue vexatious parent or and mischievous pupil. I'd rather not comb through everything I've ever said, or run the risk of starting all over and saying one regrettable thing.

It's a different world, this one we're working in now. If you're in the public sector, there are people who are out to get you, to snivel if you do anything other than flog yourself with a cast iron sign saying "sweat of hardworking taxpayers" during a lunchbreak. If you're in education, there are people who might want to see you done down, and could look for any excuse, in or out of the workplace, to do it.

Your Twitter identity is something that represents you, or so you like to think; perhaps it's just an imago of what you'd like to be, if you were someone else, a kind of Second Life. I had a tiny square avatar to represent my entire personality - first it was Kenny Everett's Spider-Man, stood at a urinal; then, it was Monsieur Tourette from Modern Toss; then, it was the Vietnamese stuffed monkey toy who sits watching me as a write at my desk at home; then it was my own large potato-shaped face. I became me.

As I did so, I emerged into a world of writing, a career and lifestyle where you have to adopt a kind of overly keen whacky 1980s Radio 1 DJ type persona in order to convince yourself that your pitches are brilliant and you have the brio to overcome your doubts. Those of you who do know me in real life will understand how uncomfortable that would make me be.

It's easier to maintain that artifice if you're hiding behind a pseudonym and other people's ideas of who you are, rather than their knowledge of every cough and spit you make. But you can't go from reality to anonymity and back again; and if you're not comfortable inviting everyone into your life, you can't do it anymore.

So, that's that. And so far, I've not really missed it. There have been a couple of times when I've been watching something on TV and I've thought to myself: "Ooh, I really ought to tweet something about this; it might get five, or even six, retweets." And then I've stopped myself and thought: "You know, you don't have to say anything. You really don't need to say anything at all."

I'll miss the feeling of creativity and instant fun, which is what Twitter could be at its best. And I'll miss the people. Some of them were friends already; some of them became friends through our @-mentions and DMs. Twitter is where you get to choose your friends by seeing what they're like, rather than being lumbered with the same old faces down the pub. Look at me, talking in the present tense! I can't let go yet, can I?

But I'm going to have to.

Goodbye grabbing the mobile every time I think about sharing something moderately observational about something I'm watching on TV with people I have and will never meet. Hello to a world where you can just do stuff, without talking about the stuff you're doing, or talking about talking about the stuff you're doing (except for this, of course, but this doesn't count).

See you all on Google Plus! Hashtag only kidding semicolon close bracket.

Where's @stebax gone?
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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