On 29 July 2012, more than 4,000 tweets laters, I got so fed up with Twitter that I decided to give it up.
In practice it took a little time to get out. Twitter had become my main mode of remote communication. Friends carried on asking me questions which I felt I should answer and on one or two occasions, particularly as the London Olympics continued, I found myself sharing my thoughts almost involuntarily. Eventually however, I left it behind.
It seemed at that time that half the internet was made up of people blogging about how they were giving up social media, whilst the other half was people on social media singularly failing to miss them once they’d gone. I didn’t expect anyone to care whether I was there or not and, indeed, no-one really noticed my absence.
Nonetheless I’ve been meaning to explain ever since, even if only to ask myself whether I did the right thing.
One thing in particular persuaded me of the value of Twitter.
It was the view expressed by Graham Linehan that the service’s value was in the provision of a view of the vast and unknowable internet, perhaps even the vast and unknowable world, filtered, interpreted and brought directly to you by people you specifically selected to trust and follow.
Three things in particular persuaded me it was time to stop.
When I started to get enthusiastic about using Twitter back in 2009 I remember feeling strongly that it could be a rewarding creative outlet, forcing me to think carefully about what I believed and what I wanted to say, opening me up to new people and new topics, allowing me to shape and curate a persona, if I wished. I guess that’s still true, it can be and do those things.
In reality it’s mainly true if your ambition is to be creative in the medium of Twitter. Some people do that really well, and they are fun people to follow.
For some people Twitter becomes the end, rather than the means. Saying something wise, insightful, funny, outrageous, unorthodox, or simply before anyone else, is difficult, but still it’s never enough. The real thrill is the dripping promise of possible approbation from your peers or, whisper it, someone famous. How many Twitter poets can honestly say they don’t spend the ten or fifteen minutes after they post each perfectly-crafted word parcel wondering who will retweet, reply, favourite or just quietly admire it?
Is that healthy? Isn’t it just showing off? Narcissism?
Which brings me to…
It’s a little box you plug into your computer. Every time someone retweets something you’ve posted, it gives you a sweet.
Is that… healthy?
Sure, it’s a novelty widget, but the first time I saw it I felt crystallise something which had been troubling me for a while.
Is this what we are happy to be? To do? To sit in front of our screens sending out words in the hope that someone, anyone, will like them (not necessarily ‘value’ them, or ‘be inspired by’ them or ‘cherish’ them or ‘learn from’ them) enough to retweet them so that we will be rewarded? With a sweet?
3. And then there was Tom and the Troll. Remember that?
Let’s be clear about what happened here. A teenage boy was horrible and abusive to a famous sportsman. Roughly speaking he was about as abusive as most football crowds are to opposition footballers week in week out. Let’s also be clear, he was being horrible, as are they.
If he’d been horrible to Tom Daly in the street, we would never have known and, most likely, nothing would have come of it. But he was horrible to him in a far less personal, far more public arena. And people climbed on his back. My Twitter feed that day, presumably like most Twitter feeds in the UK, was full of people calling this kid all the names under the sun. Being horrible. Perhaps he deserved it. Perhaps he didn’t.
And then people started shouting that ‘something must be done’. Because a teenage boy said something horrible.
And then, the next day, the police arrived at his house and arrested him. Arrested a teenage boy for being horrible to someone. How does that work, Twitterers? Should we be arresting every teenage boy who says something horrible? Because it seems to me that’s every teenage boy. It seems to me that’s what teenage boys do. Or do we only arrest those who say something horrible to one of the nation’s darlings?
A kid said something horrible and stupid, and twitter users, who are from all stripes and stances, but who in part pride themselves on being part of a free and open exchange of words and thoughts, who jump to follow and retweet any random revolutionary so long as they live far from where we live, couldn’t cope with it. And the next thing you know, the police are dragging him out of bed.
No. No no no no no.
There were other factors too. Like most frequent users, I became compulsive about checking my feed. Compulsion is the right word here. Particularly once Twitter became hard-wired into smartphones, there grew a palpable, physical urge to keep checking what was being said. It was irritating, but almost irresistible. I came to hate it, and to hate myself for caving in to it several dozen times each day.
Moreover, and more disturbingly, I was looking at my life as a series of things I might tweet about. I was experiencing significant events through some twisted, reflected third person perspective, no longer thinking ‘what did I think about that?’ but ‘how would that sound as a tweet?’ That’s pretty bad.
By Summer 2010 genuinely I found myself thinking in pre-packaged clumps of words. If I’d carried on, I suspect I soon would have been subconsciously counting the characters and ensuring my thoughts were below the 140 limit.
All this. So I gave up.
It’s been fine. Just another lack growing dimmer with time. I can’t honestly say that any spare time I may have accrued since has been filled by hitherto untapped wellsprings of creativity. I can say, fairly certainly, that a post like this would have taken twice as long to write before as I would have been checking Twitter repeatedly and getting distracted often. So maybe, all told, I’ve done more stuff.
I do still believe that Twitter can be a great place. When I think about it (and it’s impossible not to, it’s mentioned everywhere, all the time) I feel like an outsider, kicking about the car park whilst an amazing party is going on inside. The idea of being able to hear from fascinating, funny, thoughtful people, direct and unfiltered, and to communicate with some of them, is still hugely appealing. It’s really an incredible opportunity, a thing of wonder we’ve built in just a few years.
I also miss the playfulness, the jibe-trading, the keeping up with what my friends and colleagues are up to. I live near… no-one. Apart from when I’m in the office I don’t get to immerse myself in inconsequential chatter, which I believe is one of life’s great under-appreciated pleasures. Twitter can help with that.
But not for me. For all the eye-opening, inspirational, fun things it can do, I still can’t get over how it left me feeling in the Summer of 2012. I know I could go back, pick my follows more carefully, put Twitter in its proper place. But no. Not for now. Not for me. I gave it up.