Show Hide image

Why can’t we just quit Twitter?

Twitter – commonly referred to as “the hellsite” – has the smallest userbase of the social media giants. With so few people using it, and so many complaints, why do we find it impossible to leave?

While walking home on Thursday night, I was having a panic attack. It was one of many I had last week after a shooting in my hometown, and days spent of obsessively Twitter searching “trump dayton visit” had fried my brain and body. Beyond running those searches, everything else felt impossible; I kept doing them despite it making me feel like trash. 

In between texting my boyfriend to ask if he needed anything from the shop and googling “how many panic attacks is too many” and “panic attacks vs nervous breakdown”, a friend DMed me an article on Twitter from Mother Jonesa group interview with writers Ashley Feinberg, Jenny Odell, Mike Isaac, and Jia Tolentino. In the piece, headlined “’This Shithole Made Me’: 4 Extremely Online Writers on How the Internet Broke Our Brains and How We Can Unbreak Them”, the writers talked about their fantasies of logging off forever, and cutting their most toxic internet habit: spending time on Twitter.

“Like, you guys know the feeling when you end up looking at Twitter too much too early in the day, and then for the rest of the day you’re just totally fucked?” Tolentino said to the others. “Like your brain is like a grasshopper, and it can’t sit still at all?” When all of the writers shared screenshots of their Screen Time analysis, nearly all of them had Twitter as their most used app. And nearly all agreed with Tolentino’s sentiment: it was easy to let Twitter take over.

Just a few hours after reading this piece, I was glued to a viral Twitter fight. Writer Roxane Gay had posted screenshots of an email from New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman where he was demanding an apology for Gay’s tweet about him misidentifying the race of a 2020 election candidate. The reason why this exchange became particularly viral – beyond the fuck-up from Weisman – was because Weisman had made this fuck-up on Twitter itself, a platform he has a fraught history with. In 2016, Weisman wrote his now-infamous piece denouncing the platform: “Why I Quit Twitter – and Left Behind 35,000 Followers”. Re-shares of this article were plastered all over the platform, with people encouraging Weisman to delete his account.

We are all painfully aware that Twitter users have a Twitter problem; they regularly denounce the “hellsite” but go on to spend hours, if not whole afternoons, obsessively refreshing the platform. Even I, as I write this sentence, have Twitter open in 3 tabs, and many of my closest friends, my boyfriend, and my job are all things I only got because of tweets. My Screen Time says I spent just shy of 10 hours on Twitter this week, and last week 2-3 hours more. I find myself regularly shutting the app on my phone, to absent-mindedly reopen it just seconds later. So on Thursday night, for probably the first time ever, I finally thought “why don’t I quit?” and on Monday asked my own Twitter feed if anyone else wanted to talk about their problems with quitting the platform. Within hours my inbox was full of 50 DMs. Nearly a day later, it had just shy of 100.

“I find myself looking for things that will upset me”, “it’s toxic and overwhelming”, “it allows for behaviour no one would accept in real-life” – these were just a handful of the hundreds of common responses I received about users’ relationship with Twitter. Users told me that it made them feel bad about themselves; it gave them anxiety and depression; and that, even if they'd originally enjoyed it, the app had become too much to bear. But the common thread that tied everyone together who messaged me was that no one – bar one single person – felt they could fully quit Twitter for good. Even those who had managed to quit at one point were still reading it or fully came back. Even those who wanted to couldn't do it. 

So what is it about Twitter that makes it so addictive? And why does it make us feel so bad? And if we leave, think it improves our state of mind, and feel it's a toxic environment, what is it that makes us want to stay?

*** 

“There is this phenomenon we call the fear of missing out," says Dr Sharon Coen, a Senior Lecturer in Media Psychology at the University of Salford. "And this is a phenomenon that seems to be particularly compelling with Twitter, but also Facebook and LinkedIn – places that offer the opportunity to like or comment on someone's post, and to share information about what's going on in our lives.”

Cohen says that while Twitter has many of the same psychological drivers that other social media platforms do, FOMO being the main one, there are a few things that make Twitter an especially alluring product.

"[Announcements] are personal on Facebook or professional on LinkedIn. But Twitter offers both,” she says. “And sometimes, even when we are in the company of others in a face-to-face environment, we feel like we might be missing out on something more intriguing, more exciting, more interesting, more important, happening online or being talked about online.”

Twitter is also unique in its fast-paced, colloquial style of communication. “It is immediate, and you can understand why it’s a compelling feature,” Cohen says. “It is one of the reasons why people keep going back – they need to see this, because they need to get their point out, and to find out what is happening around a particular issue at that moment.”

This colloquial style of speaking is part of Twitter’s positive appeal – it makes it easier to find like-minded people who share the same philosophies, hobbies, or internet fandoms. But even those who spoke to me and noted how many friends they'd made on Twitter said they found using the app wasn’t worth the toll on their mental health anymore. For many, it's the only thing keeping them logged on. 

“I think I haven’t quit because my friends still use it,” Dom tells me. A doctor in London, he says that the app was originally a place he loved for "memes, jokes, and videos". "We still have those moments of laughing uncontrollably at a tweet, and we send it to each other,” Dom says, "But now I’m constantly seeing things that are sad or frustrating or enraging.”

“I've made great lasting friendships on Twitter,” says Catherine, a writer and author based in London. “But I talk [to] them all elsewhere now, so it really doesn't feel worth it to be here.” Catherine also points out that the colloquial nature of Twitter allows for people to easily simulate a real-life conversation. “Twitter feels like the easiest way to generate chemical reactions (adrenaline, dopamine or whatever) in your brain that would otherwise only be generated by action,” she argues, “So it's the easiest way to do nothing while viscerally feeling like you're doing something by engaging with this constant circular rehashing of the most basic subjects.”

“I have Twitter friends on here,” says David (who asked to not include any other information). “But it’s like sitting in a pub with a mate as football fans have a riot around you while screaming that Julian Assange was set up by a Zionist cabal of Pizza vending child molesters.”

*** 

Part of why Twitter’s grip on its users is confusing is because relatively few people actually use the platform. Twitter is often compared to other social media giants, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat – likely because these were the first social media giants to ever exist. But while Facebook has over two billion monthly active users, and Instagram has one billion, Twitter has a tiny 320 million, even dwarfed by the active user numbers on new platforms, such as teen-favourite TikTok. At least part of the answer likely lies in who that userbase is.

In October 2018, the Columbia Journalism Review published the article “Do journalists pay too much attention to Twitter?” in which a new study found the answer to essentially be yes:

“Our results indicate that the routinization of Twitter into news production affects news judgment,” the researchers write. “For journalists who incorporate Twitter into their reporting routines, and those with fewer years of experience, Twitter has become so normalized that tweets were deemed equally newsworthy as headlines appearing to be from the AP wire. This may have negative implications.”

But for many journalists and writers, Twitter feels necessary to their job: rather than a place to simply self-aggrandise, many feel it is the only place for them to get new work. After Facebook’s algorithm infamously changed to stop pushing as much content from publishers, many publications and writers found their pieces started to do significantly less web traffic and failed to draw in as large of audiences as a result. Since then, many have turned to Twitter to push articles, finding that the thrashing echo-chamber can actually work well for clicks – even if the number of clicks is still fewer than those from Facebook.

“I'm so reliant on Twitter for work,” says Róisín, an editor based in London. “Whether that's connecting with other journalists or finding stories or whatever – it would be difficult to leave. But then I also have to weigh that up against the fact that being on the app is super depressing,” she adds.

“I've wanted to quit Twitter for over a year, but my publisher doesn't want me to because being seen to be engaging with readers and reviewers is now part of all writing jobs,” Catherine tells me. “I'm stuck here and it's the worst – even though it's demonstrably bad for my mental health,” she says. “I think it’s also bad for societal health in general.”

“I’ve been on Twitter for over ten years and, as a journo, it seems like a ‘good thing for work,’” says Tara, a journalist based in the Netherlands. “But I think journalism is possible outside of Twitter… I want to pause it for a year or so and see if it’s actually useful workwise.”

*** 

Above all else, though, people feel unable to quit because they are obsessed with Twitter. “My weekly screen time update is the most shameful moment of my week,” says Ian, a 38-year-old journalist in Glasgow. “I can’t stop looking at Twitter, I've become deeply invested in the lives of posters in weird Twitter subcultures," he says, "I've never had any contact with them and I never will.”

“I will sit there for hours sometimes just clicking through this stuff, not feeling able to stop,” Alex, a café-worker based in Scotland, tells me. “It makes me feel like shit afterwards, extremely depressed and worthless and disgusting. But I keep finding myself doing it, like it’s some kind of digital self harm.”

"It feels like I’m too addicted to it... on it too often for quitting to become a reality."

What nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned was this very idea – the fact that Twitter had become an addiction. While Cohen was cautious to use the word "addiction", many people used the word to describe their compulsive behaviour and habits that they were actively trying to undo. 

“It’s the most addictive product I’ve ever used,” Aman, a 35-year-old based in London tells me. “The addictive nature of the [Twitter] feed meant that it became the only feed I use for news or anything else and I end up using it 4-5 hours a day despite having a full time job.”

“Worst of all,” he says, “I’ve found most of my creative thinking stifled by it too. When I do get away from it, that part of my brain always wakes up again. But then the FOMO eventually comes back.”

“When I wake up every morning I HAVE to check it,” says Ben, a 21-year-old living in Australia. “I find myself getting really affected by things that have very little effect in the real world, and I feel like I constantly have to be all over an issue the minute it comes up in the cultural conversation.”

“I had a penchant for going online drunk and that made it much harder to tread the line between real emotion and performative emotion,” says Emily. A 27-year-old charity worker in London, she says she has recently come back to Twitter after a break because her behaviour would coincide with "a little drinking issue" that few people know about. 

"It was making me petty and ugly and jealous," she says, “I'm back on, but in a slightly more professional guise. I think the way it makes me feel less-than is a danger – I'm still uncertain about it.”

“I left Twitter in late 2017 and stayed away for about 16 months,” says Peter, a 27-year-old ex-tech journalist. “I just didn't want to be the same angry, toxic person who posted controversial things for likes and RTs, and I got exhausted by the grindstone of other people's grievances. It fed ugly, addictive behavior in me.”

“Now that I'm back I see that things haven't changed for the better,” he says, “Even though *I’m* different.”

“It’s become a depressing place to be,” says David, who asked not to have anymore information relayed. “It’s anxiety inducing. It has really affected my mental health, but I can’t stop using it.”

Ian tries to explain to me how his Twitter addiction looks, and says that it compares to traditional addictions he’s had before. “I used to be a smoker and I loved smoking," he says "and there were always individual cigarettes that I really enjoyed. But after a certain point it starts to feel like something you don't have control over, a compulsion rather than a choice which is harmful in not immediately obvious ways.  It feels quite toxic and shameful.”

“It's healthy to be able to just turn off,” Cohen says of Twitter addiction, “and you will see that those who succeed in doing that realise that they start having pleasure again. Because when you're driven by addiction, you lose the pleasure in doing things – when you're going there obsessively because you have the fear that there is something going on and you're not seeing it, you often risk that you lose the pleasure of interacting with others.”

*** 

I did speak to one person who had quit Twitter, a 27-year-old journalist and translator. After years of quitting, re-joining, and breaks from the platform, she finally deleted her account last month without word or warning.

“My mental illness was giving me like 4, 5 anxiety attacks a week,” she tells me, “I basically reached a point where I felt spied on and judged for irrelevant stuff. If you have 30ish followers it's fine because who cares what you’re doing, but around 2K everything is contentious – and everywhere is filled with bullies.”

I ask her how she feels since quitting. “I feel better simply because I don’t feel the need to engage with everything or have one or the other opinion on whatever is happening. A lot of the behaviour on that website is super toxic and you don’t even realise how much you participate in it until you step back.”

“I feel more empathetic now, to be honest.”

She thinks that she will likely never return to Twitter, but it's hard for many to say. Clark, a 40-year-old living in Dublin tells me he's quit Twitter for good, but still regularly looks at tweets via his wife's account on the platform. 

“I quit because it was eating into my life,” he tells me. “I was getting too engaged with the dilemmas of strangers, caring about people who I never met.”

“Since quitting, I've lost weight, I have a healthier family life, and we've managed to buy our first home! I still read Twitter, but I'm very happy to be on the other side.”  

*** 

In a Season 8 episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, the main characters become addicted to an online roleplaying game. In one scene, the group clown, Charlie, admits, “It's, like, when I'm doing good in the game, I'm doing good in life.” Another character, Dee, replies, “I want to make fun of you for saying that, but I kind of know what you mean.”

Twitter is not reality, but it can have an impact on our real lives. It can snag us jobs, give us information, and help us find people we truly, deeply care about – sometimes far more easily than we would in offline life. “If we’ve found ourselves addicted to social media… then there is something in us that is waiting to be addicted,” writes Richard Seymour in his new book The Twittering Machine. “And if, with all these problems, we still inhabit social media platforms…we must be getting something out of it… The dreary moral panic literature must be missing a vital truth about their subject.”

So maybe we can’t quit Twitter because there’s something about it not worth quitting. Maybe the depression, anxiety, and growing compulsion to self-harm by reading screaming tweets are the price we pay for more opportunities, better jobs, and more meaningful connections. But overwhelmingly it appears that people are having a toxic time on Twitter. And perhaps breaks aren’t the answer, but permanently logging off.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.