Dear Anne-Marie, you have been on Twitter for
6 years, 8 months, 7 days
(since 30 May 2011)
So says “Twiage”, an app which tells you just how long its been since the last day you didn’t take part in an argument online.
I jest, but …
That duration is inaccurate in my case. I’ve actually been a Twitter user since early 2008, where it seemed like the next logical step after discussion forums. So that’s ten years in total a twitter user, with a brief hiatus in 2011. That’s a story for another post; but my second inception has felt like a lifetime in itself.
And today is my last day.
I was always a bit of an outlier; the written word has since I can remember, suited me better than the spoken. Not the quickest thinker, typing over talking allowed me to formulate responses I wished I could have had on the tip of my tongue during actual conversations, not five minutes later. Always a bit shy and awkward, hiding behind a screen made me feel like an equal; more confident, less timid.
When the internet arrived in these rural parts, I was one of the first to embrace its unstable charms. A whole new world of music to download (painfully slowly), an infinity of chatrooms to navigate, new communities to become part of and crucially, an expansion of the thinking I’d been exposed to up til the age of 18 in a small town Catholic community. Anything went on the internet, and you could dip your toe, dive straight in or take a trip to the dark side if you wanted, all in relative safety. And if you put your foot in it, or found yourself in a situation in which you were uncomfortable, you could just disappear.
Discussion forums like boards.ie were like a magnet. So many people giving so many opinions on so many things. So much learning, but also, so much self-importance. Others, smaller forums, were places to hang out and share the day-to-day stuff and build friendships. Here, you could be who you wanted. The better, cooler, more confident version of yourself. Who’d know differently?
For a while, I lived in two separate worlds. The real one; where I quietly struggled behind a front with mental ill-health, loneliness and social awkwardness. And the virtual one, where I could forget about those realities for a while. Rarely did the two worlds collide. Real life, happily, is much better now almost twenty years on.
As the online space evolved, it became clear that people were craving connection. MySpace was the first big social network. Primarily music-focused, it paved the way for Bebo, the first artificial friending platform. It, with its love hearts and whitewall, felt like a playground. And then, Facebook. From the start it felt gargantuan, corporate, foreign. But in time, not to be there was to be missing out. And to this day, the fear is that without Facebook, you’re in a minority. That, freed of the big blue F, the “friendships” you’ve cultivated would collapse due to your falling out of the loop. An irrational fear, fed by our desire to be involved and “in the know”.
Twitter was different. From the start, it felt community-like, constructive. The access to people you’d never otherwise know made the world feel like a smaller, friendlier place. It was a leveller. The biggest journalists, actors, politicians in the world alongside the ordinary Joe and Josephine Soaps, all on the same platform, all engaging. It was easy to find people of interest, and because of the political focus and engagement by the media, it became compelling very quickly. A source of news and knowledge, delivered in bite-size portions.
We were part of a community, in the early days. We got to know each other; where we lived, what made us tick, what we were dealing with in our own lives. The mundane and the ordinary, that formed the basis of friendships. We evenutally partook in “tweetups” and met each other in real life. Mostly, I think, that was a good thing, even if it frequently resulted in the shattering of an illusion; that no-one is quite the best version of themselves they put forward on social media. We are human, with frailties and character flaws, capable of exhibiting exactly the type of behaviour our online selves would quite self-righteously frown upon. Some us are just assholes. And some of us are sociopathic; liars to the tips of our toes; wreaking hurt and destruction wherever we walk. That’s not just Twitter, though. That’s life.
I will always be grateful that Twitter provided me – and doubtless, countless others – with a platform on which to learn, over the years in which I used it. It opened a window to me to many other worlds, including the struggles of minority communities and the issues they face, and the ways in which those of us more privileged can become allies.
It taught me that language is incredibly powerful, and that we should never, ever underestimate the power of the words we choose to use.
It allowed me to engage with people whose views were alien – even abhorrent – and in those earlier days, debate was often respectful regardless of where you stood on an issue. A process that has stood to me and enabled me to usually empathise with the other side of an argument, even when I vehemently disagree.
It has, to my amazement, assisted me greatly in my professional life.
It has resulted in some hilarious situations down the years, running into people in real life and trying to explain to others how we knew so much about each other, despite apparently only having just met.
It has encapsulated the very, very best of Irish wit, even in the midst of collective anger, outrage and sorrow over a tumultuous decade.
And in an entirely unexpected twist, but no less importantly, as a GAA fanatic, it allowed me to meet some of the very best people with whom to share the exhilaration and the despondency of the Mayo GAA journey – people who, in real life, have become firm friends.
The turning point
As numbers grew over the years, the community feel of Twitter diminished and the experience deteriorated. Inevitably, probably – a packed hall will never be an intimate house party, no matter how many cool people have shown up. It feels now, though, like people have become crueller, more brazen, less empathetic. Any random stranger can take a pot shot at you and many frequently do. Rudely, condescendingly. Usually without revealing faces or names.
Twitter is, in all probability, a dying medium. Its user experience is mediocre at best, and the contempt with which the company regards feedback from users tells you all you need to know about who is steering the ship. Along with Facebook, it has enabled hundreds of thousands of right-wing extremists, misogynists and abusers, almost always under a cloak of anonymity to spread their hate and flourish, unchallenged, like the roots of an ugly, invasive weed, choking the goodness out of the world.
For me, while I’ve gained a lot, the balance has now shifted irrevocably. The benefits of the knowledge I glean are now far outweighed by the time spent mindlessly scrolling. The amount of bad news stories and injustices presented in my feed drains me to the point of feeling helpless. While I can still debate, my patience is not what it was; I find myself becoming frustrated, self-righteous and bad-tempered in my responses – the worst version of myself.
I am fortunate enough to have only rarely experienced serious abuse or harassment on the platform and I am grateful for that. However, it saps my motivation, sucking me into the vortex of thousands of hot-takes, each more urgent or righteous than the last. I emerge from my screen either bleary-eyed and grumpy, or stressed or upset by what I’ve read or sometimes, written. Worst of all, I find it hard concentrate on things for more than a few short minutes at a time, and I fear for my mind in years to come.
I don’t like who I have become on this medium, and I want my time back to read, to write and to be more constructive.
So for me, Twitter is over. I’ve left before on hiatus, and I’ve always been too weak to stay away, so I wrote this to ensure that this time, I am very much done. It’s a self-indulgent post, as many such posts are, and I doubt sincerely that my leaving will be any loss to the platform. But leaving is, oddly, a big deal to me. And I am hopelessly weak, lacking in resolve, and if I didn’t put it into words here, I wouldn’t see it through.
Leaving Twitter is leaving behind only one platform. Snapchat got the heave-ho a few weeks back, but it doesn’t really count; it was just too cool and this elder never really quite got it. Whether leaving Twitter is the first significant step in a greater digital detox, or the only one, I don’t yet know.
I will miss the people I have chatted with, learned from and laughed with over the years, particularly many of those I have been fortunate enough to form offline connections with. Thank you. I dearly hope we will stay in touch (the email button is to the right) and I intend to make an effort to ensure that happens.
Moreso, I hope that the environment in which we are all operating somehow changes for the better. I’ve always seen online platforms and social media as a force for good and for learning, but recently, the negatives of online interaction and addiction have far outweighed the positives. I feel blessed that I’m not a teenager in this Snapchat/Instastories era when it is all-pervasive and inescapable, bringing with it pressure I can’t even comprehend. Not to mention the materialism and vacuousness of the “influencer” landscape. I fear for the safety of young and vulnerable people. And, like Jeanne says, I worry about the surveillance culture that exists, where people wait to dig up something you might have said a decade ago, and use it against you, assuming that you or your thoughts are incapable of evolving or developing.
I hope we somehow realise that the way in which we engage with strangers online is often just not acceptable, and that somehow, we – and I – learn once again to be kind.
And above all, I hope I get my concentration span back.