Why do I use Twitter? I’ve been asking myself that question again lately.
The internet is already littered with “Why I Quit Twitter” confessionals so I’ll try not to bore you with another of those. Such pieces usually speak of a multitude of benefits once the author steps away from the platform. His or her mood suddenly lifts, they become more productive and no longer have to bat off an army of trolls that have sprung into life following some performative misunderstanding.
And besides, I haven’t actually quit Twitter, even though I feel like I should. I’ve been through the same cycle more times than I wish to count. Yet I always return – as it seems do many of those who once wrote their Twitter epitaphs. We swear ourselves off, evangelise about the benefits of abstinence, and then, a few months later, we’re back, screaming at someone we’ve never met about something we don’t really care about.
There are lots of things to hate about Twitter. The unremitting bile is probably the most talked about of the unpleasantries. I’ve been stalked on Twitter – as have many others, mainly women. But the everyday undercurrent of tetchiness is depressing enough. People in real life don’t treat everything in bad faith like they do on Twitter. They don’t deliberately misinterpret an innocent joke or call you a piece of shit because you have a different point of view. In any other context such behaviour would be a sign of mental illness. On Twitter it’s considered par for the course.
There are more benign annoyances too. Why do so many Tweeters feel the need to tweet out a public statement – the equivalent of a press release – on every issue under the sun?
Because not to attach a “condemnation” or pledge “solidarity” to everything imaginable apparently constitutes an egregious violation of Twitter protocol. But is an authentic indifference not sometimes better than faux sanctimony churned out with an eye on boosting one’s Twitter “brand”? You are not an office of state or a corporate human resources department.
Much has been written about the addictiveness of social media, which apparently provides our brain with dopamine hits. Twitter is another of the contemporary digital toys which Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, refers to as the “thrumming, shiny knots of distraction pulling at our attention and manipulating our moods”.
Yet I suspect we’re also inclined to become addicted to the negativity that prevails on Twitter, with its invigorating rush of cortisol. I’ve often found myself scrolling through my feed first thing in the morning, sleep still in my eyes, seeking out something to become annoyed about.
At other times I’ve logged on to Twitter in a good mood only to see it fade due to the presentiment of impending doom that always seems to prevail on there. Contrary to popular belief we don’t always pursue pleasure in order to avoid pain. Sometimes we look for things that reaffirm the emotions we’re already feeling, whether that’s anger, joy, or just a general peevishness.
Perhaps this explains why Covid-19 Jeramiahs seem to have gained in prominence on Twitter even as the high tide of the pandemic (in Britain at least) has begun to recede. Even today, amid the success of the vaccine rollout, good news is invariably submerged by threads prophesising the worst. Or perhaps that’s another aspect of the sharp-elbowed egoism that prevails on Twitter. In his 2009 book The Morbid Age, the historian Richard Overy noted that the intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s “wanted to be at the front of the throng of onlookers if civilisation crashed, even if few wanted the disaster to happen to them”.
I’m aware that Twitter can help those who struggle to socialise in real life. I’ve made real-life friends on Twitter too. But there’s an old (and somewhat corny) self-help bromide that I think rings true: you are the sum of the people you surround yourself with. And the less I surround myself with the irritable souls who seem to spend their days embroiled in Twitter’s artificial, inconsequential dramas, the happier and less anxious I seem to become.
More importantly for me as a writer, however, is the fact that when I sit down to write I’ll sometimes hear the pre-emptive, imaginary objections of a baying Twitter mob. I’ll envisage a swarm of abusive trolls landing in my mentions, intent on ruining my life, sociopathic digital avatars who believe my political opinions render me a non-person, undeserving of the usual rules of civilised conduct. Self-censorship – the sworn enemy of creativity – inevitably follows.
In this sense Twitter is fostering a new age of conformity. The noisiest and most adept at harnessing the platform as a tool for self-promotion soon acquire the ability to unleash their accumulated followers as a digital veto over others. As the journalist Jon Ronson noted in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, his book about vitriolic social media mobs: “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”
And yet, I remain unable to fully sever my relationship with Twitter. I know that Twitter clout is something ephemeral: it quickly dissipates like steam from a kettle as soon as you stop tweeting. But in common with other members of the cultural precariat, I must retain a presence on the platform in order to share my work and to stay relevant.
In a sense, then, Twitter is the perfect millennial medium. Our lives are defined by the constant need to be doing something – anything – productive. Yet the end result of all this grind of frenetic movement doesn’t feel like progress – it feels like stagnation. We live amid a hum of activity while the machine we are feeding slowly immiserates us.