I feel the same way about social media, Pete
I’m in the middle of one of the more intense things I’ve ever done — I’m writing a book on a very condensed timetable — and to facilitate that, I’ve made my life incredibly regimented: I largely cut out alcohol and any foods that don’t make me feel great (for me this means I basically eat like I’m doing Whole30 all the time); my social life has ground to something close to a halt; I schedule going to the gym or yoga every day so that I can burn off this churning anxious energy; and I logged out of Twitter for January and deleted the app on my phone.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
There is almost nothing more boring that reading another “I quit social media” or “I quit my phone and it was so great” personal essays. So I won’t belabor this for too long, but I will say that I was stunned by how many hours I felt like I had back in my day when clicking over to Twitter every time I was bored was no longer an option. I knew I spent too much time on Twitter; I don’t think I fully appreciated how much it was a boredom crutch, and just how fast the minutes tick away when you’re scrolling.
I also don’t think I appreciated how much Twitter incentives bad behavior and internal ugliness.
I know, I know, Twitter can be great, too. There are a lot of people I like following and reading. It’s a way to break down the old information hierarchies and amplify the voices of the many in response to the powerful few. I learn a lot, and I expand my reading list beyond the usual list of publications I peruse.
But it’s also become a place where I feel meaner and less generous, and where the incentives point toward swarming and castigating perceived wrongdoers, sometimes to speak truth to power, but more often to demonstrate that they are bad and you are good. I do this too: Nearly every day, some tweet circulates that a bunch of people on Twitter have collectively decided is bad — and often it is pretty dumb — and then a bunch more people jump on to also mock it, or deride it, or disavow it. It becomes less about “this needs to be said” and more about “I need to say this to demonstrate that I am the kind of person who also does not like this thing.” I watch myself behave unkindly on Twitter, more concerned with the gotcha than with learning (let alone humility). I watch people I otherwise like and respect lean into cruelty and cynicism, and even act like flat-out jerks and bullies.
And Twitter is a place that I think is ultimately pretty bad for the mental health of anyone who spends more than a little bit of time engaging and reading their mentions. Yes, it’s just the internet, but I am not sure anyone can read hundreds if not thousands of pieces of negative feedback every day or every week and not have that affect you; I’m not sure anyone can see their words willfully and ungenerously misinterpreted over and over and over again by people whose primary goal is not discourse and understanding but instead proving something: That they are right and you are wrong; that they are good and you are bad. It’s a true bizarro-land that is increasingly less likely to foster real communication and seems more directed at crafting an extended digital Two Minutes Hate.
By not checking Twitter, I found a lot more clarity in my work, because I wasn’t writing from a defensive crouch, worried about what various anonymous avatars were going to say. A whole list of Very Online people suddenly did not matter at all in my life, and what a relief, given that none of them were actually all that relevant or useful to my life or work. It was a relief to spend the better part of my month not having to hear about how stupid and bad and awful I am on a daily basis — and not also checking for positive feedback, seeking validation from random people on the internet.
So why am I back?
Part of it is that I have to be on Twitter; editors expect I will tweet out what I write. And part of it is that I missed the better parts of Twitter — the interesting tweets, the stories I wouldn’t have seen.
A month of abstinence brought some good lessons, though. The first is that I’m keeping Twitter off of my phone. That necessarily limits how much time I can spend on the platform. The second is that I need to use a Twitter client that lets me delete the mentions option all together — I don’t actually need to see what people are saying to or about me, because for every interesting or useful comment, there are 50 that are pointless or actively deleterious to my mental health and to my work (and there are 50 more coming to my inbox, my Facebook page, and my Instagram, so it’s not like ignoring my mentions means I get no feedback). I can use Twitter for the best of Twitter, and it is actually ok for my to choose to ignore the rest (as angry as that may make the people who want to spend their time yelling at me). The third is that I need to check my own choices when I find myself sliding easily into dismissal and meanness, or needing to prove I, too, am good because I am also tweeting about this Bad Thing. Why make myself smaller, meaner and more afraid?
Not everyone is addicted to Twitter, but I suspect we all have our own things we do that aren’t actually serving us very well — things that give us a little dopamine pop but detract from our greater wellbeing, or things that encourage the worst parts of ourselves to come to the fore. I’m trying to be more thoughtful about how and where I dedicate my time. I’m spending more time asking: Does what I put in comes back in kind? Am I contributing good things and feeling nourished and energized in return? Or am I funneling my energy into situations that that deplete and exhaust me? That’s true with how I eat, how I move my body, how I relate to my loved ones, what I write, and, importantly, how I spend my time online.
You don’t have to quit Twitter (maybe you’re not even on Twitter). But it’s always worth assessing whether you’re spending your time and energy in alignment with your values and aspirations, or if there are spaces in your day that feel like they’re black holes — and if you’re acting like the person you believe yourself to be.