I decided to quit* Twitter a few weeks ago, but it’s been a long time coming. I’m quitting because I believe that Twitter is harmful for individuals, harmful to the individual’s relationship to society, and is run in a malignant fashion.
Neutral Unto Malice
When I decided to join Twitter ten years ago, I was pretty ambivalent about the site. My first Tweet captures this sentiment:
2008-08-22 00:00:00 +0000: “I just joined twitter after disparaging it, hating it, not getting it and generally thinking it kinda sucked. Hell much colder.”
The following benefits pushed me to activate:
- Networking: Follow a thought leader, prospective collaborator and @-reply them. If they reply, you can discover a friendship / collaborative relationship. Or, your reply can help find other like-minded reply-ers
- Constant Novel Updates: Find out when my favorite performers, bands, movie theaters launch film-fests, etc. After Google killed Google Reader, this became more important
- Responsiveness From Institutions: Notifying police departments, airlines, service providers of where they fell short is a really powerful tool for the consumer / customer
- Low-Friction Blogging: While Blogger and Wordpress had made blogging easier, posting still felt “high friction.” I might not post about my near miss car accident, but to tap a quick tweet complaining about a tree blocking a stop sign felt reasonable. And Blogger and Wordpress aside, Twitter democratized (micro-) blogging
In my first several years of use, all of these virtues bore out. I can’t claim that most / many (any?) of my posts were revelatory, but many of the posts that engaged the benefits listed above had a measurable benefit on my life.
Pragmatically, Twitter helped change my career. It allowed me to start conversations with programmers in Austin and helped introduce me to the Ruby and Rails communities. It helped me make friends in San Francisco when Lauren and I moved there.
With time, however, many of the virtues above, metastasized into malignancy.
Metastasized Constant Novel Updates: Update Addiction
In the honeymoon days, it was possible to “read” Twitter. One could treat it like an inbox. Sorted in reverse chronological order, it was possible to reach the end, close app, and disengage with the app.
But Twitter realized this truth:
The most valuable resources in this world are time and attention.
Spurred by capitalism, they were incentivized to capture as much of our attention, behaviors, etc. as possible and resell that data for profit. To achieve this end, they use our own biological design and its flaws against us. Notification badges, alert sounds, “32 new updates since your last visit emails,” etc. are attack vectors built on our low-level hominid survival impulses (“Fear of Missing Out”, “Sunk-Cost Fallacy”).
They also broke the reverse chronological display so that the feeling of “done reading Twitter” became unobtainable. They were acquiring our time and attention. But what were they selling that kept us reloading?
Twitter sells the drug “not here; seeing something new”
I find that the effect of Twitter engagement is to throw my consciousness somewhere else and to bombard it with novelty. It’s not the case that it’s edification, mark well, i.e. that the content made me wiser or better off. The experience of novelty for novelty’s sake in a way that removes one from the present is the point.
I don’t view it as hyperbolic to liken this to drug abuse. It was perhaps the particular genius of David Foster Wallace to see, in his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, that the connected, sensually-rich, media-permeated future just on his horizon would actually be a painful place for the humans. He also saw that our means to cope with it would be nihilism, suicide, infinitely seductive entertainment, and substance abuse. Given that “newness received” triggers a dopamine hit, and that content is constantly reloading, Twitter falls into the “substance abuse” category as well as “infinitely seductive” entertainment.
But Wallace proposed an alternative. The alternative to these escapes was abiding.
In the path of abiding, we exercise the judicious restraint of the former addict who avoids risky confederates, risky places, and finds sponsorship in connection and empathy. And when the pain gets too large, the ennui too great, we must abide. It’s not an easy path. Wallace’s exemplar abider was the recovered opiate addict Donald Gately who, wounded by a gunshot, refuses opiates and grits his teeth through recovery. He faces the pain by abiding.
He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear… . It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real… . He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all… . But he could choose not to listen. 1
I contend that we must learn to abide through the moments of pre-Twitter reality while we go through dopamine hit withdrawal. For my part, I am learning to abide and to stay away.
But it is not the case that there is only “abiding sensory withdrawal” or “drinking from the fire-hose of stimulation.” There middle path of occupation is joyous and sustained millennia of civilization. It’s mindful, conscious engagement. I, for one, hope to use rediscovered space to provide openness to my wife and her rich world that, drunk on distraction, has not been afforded the fullest space it ought.
But there are countless other activities that guide us back to consciousness:
- Baking a cake
- Writing a screenplay
- Organizing a party
- Fomenting political change
Abide, mindfully live, write, swim, etc., but neither participate in nor contribute to the whirl of short ideas. I’m going to try to live up to that.
Metastasized Low-Friction Posting
Low-Friction posting in its initial form allowed the benign mundanity of “what I had for dinner” and “inane observation” tweets. It allowed the technically unskilled to be able to reach their audiences as well. But because of three qualities of low-friction posting, it has come to metastasize within Twitter as:
- Anonymous bad actors and “bots” posting / re-posting material
- Shared form makes the official and the awful “look” the same
- Old opinions are preserved forever
Anonymity and Bots
Due to the ease with which one can anonymously post to Twitter, there are no consequences for vileness or bad-faith activity. One can easily create fake accounts by the hundreds. They can be used to shout down the earnest or to propel the hateful.
Uses of anonymous accounts of bot accounts are these:
- Legitimate individuals menaced with death
- False content retweeted by bots, lending the patina of legitimacy
Bonding accounts to verifiable and verified identities would likely reduce this, but (as noted in the corporate malignancy section below), it’s not in Twitter’s financial best interest to do so.
In 140 characters, falsehoods from anti-Semitic literature are given the same look-and-feel as E=mc2.
Because of this, bot accounts can tweet hate and lies and have the same sheen of believability as someone’s musings on the weather in Juneau, Alaska. This serves to debase the value of truth:
- Roseanne Barr attributing “mkultra [brain-control] supporters call[ing] Trump a bigot” Source
- Anti-Semitism / racism / etc. (per usual)
- Alex Jones’ accusation of the Sandy Hook parents as being “paid actors”
Now, with the ability to create hundreds of anonymous accounts it’s possibly to “normalize” ghastly posts by surrounding them in legitimate-looking “conversations.” By training down the immune response, these plausible-looking posts serve to compromise our intellectual immune system.
Preservation of Old Opinions
A final problem associated with low-friction posting is that it leaves many to hold onto outmoded ideas to which they were only marginally attached before being labeled a “flip-flopper.”
A particularly pernicious development of 20th century politics, this label implies that the accused has changed their mind. Do we really want to force people to stand up and champion ideas that they might have had before years of experience might have nudged them to a more nuanced stance? Furthermore cognitive science suggests that, when challenged, the accused will strengthen their affiliation to the dimly-cared-for idea for not wanting to seem feckless. What a flawed creature we are!
I certainly said things when I was 16 that I’m glad to have left on the ash-heap of “dumb things I thought when I was younger, less-experienced, and more ignorant.”
Personal growth aside, hesitancy to break from recorded opinion and adopt new opinion is downright dangerous in the context of politicians. Politicians should be learning something new, reading new research, meeting a new constituent who moves their heart and voting record.
Being able to throw away bad opinions is a net positive for society. But Twitter keeps one’s less-informed opinions out for the world to see, search, and pinpoint so that the charge of “hypocrite” or “flip-flopped” can readily be tossed in one’s face.
And there are certainly times when individuals establish a pattern of selling out an ideological principle whenever it’s convenient, e.g.
The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012
The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2016
But absent it forming a pattern, everyone should have the chance to update their opinion and substantively explain why their reasoning changed. Software developers often extol the motto of: “Strong opinions, weakly held.” Twitter should let society hold its opinions less tightly.
From the metastases described above, some of their ills combine to become much worse than the sum of their parts.
The Drug is Distraction, Not Information
Under my observation, the addiction is not to the content of the new messages, it’s to the novelty itself. As such, the truth or accuracy of the content has only incidental value to the “hit.” A source that repeatedly delivers stimulation — even if the content is vile, foul, hateful, or intentionally false — is a preferred dealer. It’s a “newness dealer.”
In fact, if we grant that, for many, Twitter is an addiction, then is it any wonder that addicts display the rationalization, self-deceit, and arguing we associate with substance addiction when their supplier’s right to continue to ship is questioned?
Consider Alex Jones or Donald Trump, both of whom have shown themselves to be reckless with rhetoric on the site. When pointed out as violent or irresponsible and acting against the TOS, it’s no surprise that the Trump-Tweet addicts, who are a highly profitable segment for Twitter, rushed to cry foul. How could they survive without their favorite brand of novelty broker going offline?
Coddling of the Hateful
Here’s a fact with, with additional nuance added by Snopes.com built on the former virtues of “Networking”, “Low-Friction Posting”, and “Constant Updates.”
Twitter knows which accounts are hate speech and blocks them in Germany (where hate-speech laws are stricter) but does not in America.
Somewhere I, a Twitter user, fit into the same business model where hate-actors are tolerated. Just like coddling and flexing the rules to account for gigantic bullies (see below) on the site with “huge draws,” this is accepted for the business plan’s predictions. To put it plainly:
Twitte profits by creating controversy and abetting bad actors (white supremacists, ethno-state purists, sock-puppets, foreign psyops, etc.)
I do not want to be a part of such an endeavor.
Glorying the Bullies
Lastly, let’s mention the orange elephant in the room. Donald Trump has used Twitter as a tool to sow false information in his time as a private citizen and, more appallingly, in his time as the President. Trump has used the former virtues of “Networking”, “Low-Friction Posting”, and “Constant Updates” to plead for “Responsiveness from Institutions” in bad faith.
Below is an entirely false story. But it serves his narratives to sow this discord to emotionally reward those who want it to be true so that it supports their own personal narratives.
Twitter "SHADOW BANNING" prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
- I’d love to see the legal theory of “Discrimination” that this fits under
- It’s “illegal” to “shadow ban?” Can someone point me to the law where that’s written?
- Isn’t it the case that Twitter is a private service and therefore has the right to filter content as it sees fit, like Fox News does? Isn’t that the whole laissez-faire capitalism thing i.e. if a monopoly power isn’t behaving fairly then a competitor will out-compete and supplant it?
Or here’s another slice from the insanity-cake:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Proof? Any? Nope. Just noise undermining the belief in the institutions he is supposed to guide and defend.
Trump leverages the noise of Twitter and the ease-of-posting of Twitter to abet his false narratives and to distract or bully by pure mental assault. On top of that his posts usually fly under the cover of a fleet of sock-puppet robot, anonymously-owned accounts. He’s the worst of American culture using the worst of Twitter, supremely well.
On top of that he shows the propagandist’s keen eye for plausible deniability and media subversion. He’s rarely held to account for the false narratives he sows because he does so at a remove so that it’s never him, no, it’s just a rumor he’s re-sharing. Not his actual belief.
The platform that supports a man so bent on the undermining of standards of American culture should be policing him as well as they do breastfeeding activists, gender-equality activists, and political activists. But for various reasons he gets away with it. I don’t need anything to do with that.
Recently in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods I read a powerful metaphor where do-gooders replaced the sugar water in hummingbird dispensers with Nutra-Sweet water. The sugar was good for the birds, in their pursuit of life they used up all those calories. But now they flew, burning their energy, gaining nothing from the Nutra-Sweet water. They were starving while eating; dehydrating while drinking.
This is us with Twitter. It’s hurting us individually, socially, and is empowering the worst of us. It’s time to go.
Notes and Clarifications
I’ve not deleted my account because:
- I don’t want someone else taking over that identity and creating confusion
- I want to leave a pointer to this site
But I have:
- Unfollowed everyone
- Purged my history
- Removed all my Likes / Favorites
- Max, D. T. February 19, 2016. “Beyond ‘Infinite Jest’” . Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/beyond-infinite-jest