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Breaking Up With Social Media

In which I commit to a kind of social media monasticism—because enough is enough.

June 13, 2019Filed under blog#attention#ethics#social media#writingMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: anyone willing to think hard about social media and its place in our lives.

I. The Itch

I began writing this post from our vacation bedroom in Jamaica, about five days before I could possibly publish it: before we left, I shut down the machines which can generate new versions of my site. I wished, as I started this post, that I had an equally effective measure for cutting off access to social media on this trip.

I tried, of course. Before we left on June 1, I removed Slack and Discord from my iPad (I had long since taken them off my phone). I likewise removed email from my phone, and I have also mostly been leaving my phone in our room. I kept an email client on my iPad, but I have checked my email only once a day or so—mostly in the interest of clearing my inbox, but also because the newsletters I subscribe to make for very good reading materials.

All of this preparation was good. It worked well. The first few days of our vacation were filled, blissfully, with mental silence.

Then I signed into Twitter on June 3, as news started breaking from Apple’s WWDC event. It was fun seeing people’s reactions, and I learned a fair bit about news which excites me a great deal—people were already digging into the new tools and tweeting about them! But it also flipped back on the part of my brain that has been trained (by 14 years of using first Facebook and then Twitter) to obsessively check social media. Mid-afternoon on June 7, I recognized the difference this was making in my mental life. (Yes, it took me most of a week to see it clearly; social media’s effects are insidious.) I signed back out of Twitter’s web client and committed not to sign back in until after our vacation.

I have felt throughout the ensuing days—especially the first—what I can only describe as a mental itch: and it can be scratched only by signing into Twitter, and skimming down through the things people have said, and clicking the little heart button on some of them, and seeing if anyone has interacted with any of my own posts along the way, and trying to say something clever or interesting to elicit more such responses, and refreshing the feed, and skimming down through the things people have said, and…

I dislike the feeling intensely. The itch itself is a distraction, and scratching the itch would produce only more (and worse) distraction. As Craig Mod described it recently:1

Something fires off in the back of the skull, and then again. No conscious complicity, all autonomous, micro-stimulations. Triggered by: A scroll, a reload, a pull to refresh, a like, a share, the right headline. I can now pinpoint this sequence of involuntary response to be the tiny physiological loop my body runs through when using Twitter or Instagram.…

I find the tiny loop problem to be terrifying. Tiny loops tend to be perfectly designed to satisfy the id’s raw impulses. That raw id is great fuel for creativity. The concern I have coming back and feeling the loops again for the first time in a long time is: if you’re not careful, tweets and their ilk can burn all your fuel with nothing to show.…

This pain is a withdrawal symptom. But if you get over that compulsion for info-stimulation, you are presented with an opportunity to replace the tiny loops with much more rewarding activities.

II. The Costs

I have long observed that my use of Twitter hijacks my mental habits in many other contexts.2 I find myself responding to a book’s ideas not with consideration but with ideas for clever or snarky tweets. (This happened to me multiple times on this trip, including after I had already drafted and repeatedly revised this post!) It is not only Twitter which can have this effect, of course: I have experienced it with blogging as well. But I find that this particularly twisted, distracted form of thinking increases in direct proportion to the amount I use Twitter, and much less so with other forms of writing.

Twitter misaligns my mind even when I am away from it. It discourages thought. As Mod put it, “if you’re not careful, tweets and their ilk can burn all your fuel with nothing to show.” Exactly that. I spend time on Twitter and come out feeling like I have done something but in reality the cycles spent there are pure waste. No thought. No writing. No learning.3 No time spent with my family or friends. Nothing but more fodder for the data factory and the advertisement money it generates.

The counter-arguments mount up, of course—as they do whenever we think of eliminating a pleasurable vice:

  • But how would I interact with other people in the Rust and Swift communities around ideas or questions I have?
  • Wouldn’t it be a waste of slowly-built-up influence in the Rust and Ember and TypeScript communities to be absent from that space?

…but it turns out, those are the only questions. Both of them are easily answered, too. The aforementioned communities exist, and exist in much richer ways, in contexts besides Twitter—forums, chat, etc. Those other contexts have their own dysfunctions (chat particularly so), but those I will address in their own ways. I can use what influence I do have in those communities more effectively by writing here, answering questions elsewhere, and building software or writing docs or the like. There is simply no sense in which I must be on Twitter for professional reasons.

Moreover, very little of what happens on Twitter is of any lasting import. There is a great deal of Thought Leading,4 but the medium discourages careful, rich, context-sensitive writing: just what is necessary for real work (and not just screaming mobs or fanboying). This is equally as true of software development as of theology. The medium dominates the message. Twitter threads, as I have noted before (and see also here and here), are much worse than something like a blog post for their intended purpose. The defining feature of Twitter—the reply—is a bug and not a feature. I love thoughtful replies to my writing… which is precisely why I don’t have comments here but encourage people to email me instead—and Twitter has a far, far worse signal-to-noise ratio than do blog comments. Where’s the upside?

Mod again:

I think we’ll look back with shock on many “fundamentals” of the internet as it exists today. I’m still amazed that any private organization would allow unfiltered public commenting. I remain totally unconvinced of its benefits. Twitter, in this sense, is just insanity — an endless stream of public comment posturing and signaling and, largely, screaming. Dumb dumb. Basic ’net folly 101.

If I still feel a bit the way L. M. Sacasas does,5 too—

ditching the platform and going indie, as it were, works better when you’ve already got a large audience that is going to follow you where ever you go or an established community (a convivial society, I’d dare say), online and off, with which to sustain your intellectual life. I’m pretty sure I don’t quite have the former, and I’ve struggled to find that latter, making my way as an independent scholar of sorts these last several years.

But again, this is not to say that Alan is wrong, only that my counting the cost is a more conflicted affair.

—well, so be it. For as he notes himself, the toll will be paid, one way or another:

In any case, I can feel Twitter working on me as I’ve begun to use it more frequently of late and allowed myself to tweet as well as read. I can feel it working on me in much the same way that, in Tolkien’s world, the wearer’s of the Ring can feel it working on them. It leaves one feeling weary, thin, exposed, morally compromised, divided, etc., while deeply distorting one’s view of reality. And, as far as I’m concerned, there are no Tom Bombadil’s, immune to the ring’s power, among us in this case.

III. Complicity

Counting the cost is complicated in another way for me, too: To what extent can I do this because of my use of Twitter? This site’s audience includes readers who first encountered me and my work there. Even my freedom to leave social media benefits from having used those tools. I cannot escape a degree of complicity in the degradations and distortions that social media have wrought in our culture and our public and our civic life. The best I can say for myself is that I have consciously chosen to eschew click-driven writing for half a decade, whether using Twitter or no. As regards that inescapable complicity, all any of us can do is acknowledge our faults—or, as my faith would have it, confess and repent of our sins—and seek to make amends.

And there is yet more at stake here. Twitter (like Facebook) is more than merely complicit in the transformation of our world into an attention economy. They have driven it. Their technocratic, restraint-less approach to the world is foolish—at best. And they are unrepentant; “wicked” may thus be not too strong a word.6 Continuing to use these services only further cements their primacy. As Alan Jacobs put it:

The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that.

Even insofar as I do get value from being on Twitter—being able to throw out a question about Rust or Swift or Ember or TypeScript, confident that I will get a knowledgeable answer—I increasingly wonder about the power and social dynamics in play. Is it good or right that, because I have blogged, have worked on open source projects, and have run a successful podcast, I have a greater degree of access? While I have worked hard at those projects, my success in them does not make my questions or interests more important than anyone else’s. Put more bluntly: I do not deserve the attention of Swift compiler developers or Rust or Ember core team members or the TypeScript PM. But I can get that attention, and easily, on Twitter. Some of this is ordinary human social dynamics: earned social trust and so on. But I wonder if Twitter does not heighten the effect. Certainly it seems to me that it may.

IV. The End, and a New Beginning

Leaving Twitter myself will not begin to undo all of that. But I can undercut, in some small way, the pressure so many other people7 feel to be on Twitter for professional reasons. Insofar as my own public work succeeds without Twitter, I hope that success helps others come to feel the same freedom. Something more like the open web and the old indie blogger network ethos is a step in the right direction—not in spite of its frictions; rather because it does not scale.

And more than that: getting offline entirely at times and for seasons. Remembering the rhythms of life common to all human beings up till a few short years ago. Quietly reading books and talking with friends. It’s time for many more of us to embrace the kind of social media monasticism Sacasas outlined in the midst of the #DeleteFacebook movement (and which Stephen and I have talked about so much this season of Winning Slowly). I want my attention back, but even more importantly I want to show that this is not all that can or should be. There are alternative paths we might yet take.

So: I have deleted all my tweets save one: a link to this post. I am doing much the same with Facebook and LinkedIn.8 I hope you’ll consider doing something similar!

Going forward, I will be doing much more writing here. I will also continue to publish my newsletter, normally on a weekly basis. I will still be podcasting. I hope (and expect) to be writing more full-on essays—the area more than any other where I have felt the drain from social media’s interference. And I will be working on rewrite! And if you’d like to get in touch, you can always email me!

  1. in a newsletter he published after I had already written two full drafts of this post: it was confirmation, not inspiration.

  2. So do a number of other platforms, whose use I am reconsidering as well—mostly anything chat-like.

  3. Not truly learned. A new fact found, perhaps, but facts acquired are not the same as learning done. More rarely, a link to a place I can learn something. But such links exist in many places!

  4. and, worse but in far greater quantity, wannabe Thought Leading

  5. in a post, I note, which I had not seen when I wrote the first draft of this post! There is something in the air right now, and I’m glad of it.

  6. conclusions I have drawn the more starkly through thinking-out-loud about it with my friend Stephen throughout Winning Slowly seasons 6 and 7.

  7. I initially wrote “everyone” instead of “so many other people” here, but I noticed that that’s simply (very!) wrong: it’s central to the vicious cycle of pressure that social media creates. “Everyone is here; you’ll miss out on such important things!” is the lie of these platforms.

  8. While I do have reservations about LinkedIn, they are different both in kind and in degree than my concerns about other social media platforms—as my taking a job there just a few months ago should indicate! I would not have taken a job with Facebook or Twitter. I will probably elaborate on this at some point, as I think it’s worth tracing out how and why I see these as meaningfully different!