Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Taking the Twitter Break
An experiment begins
Let me just get this out of the way—Twitter has been good to me.
In a decade on the website, I’ve built something of a following. I’ve met good sources there, as well as friends. As a journalist and novelist, Twitter has been an invaluable networking tool. My career has been aided by Twitter and editors have found me on there, either asking me to write stories based on ideas I tweeted or just reaching out to see if I was interested in writing for them. Every day, there is genuinely smart, interesting conversation that happens there.
But I’ve decided, for now, to rethink how I use the medium. And no, this has nothing to do with the Jack Dorsey news.
I’m not deleting Twitter and I’m also not ending my habit of tweeting. I’m going to tweet my stories and career news. I’m going to check DMs. I’m going to live-tweet events when I show up at them. If I have thoughts to share that can’t quite become news stories or essays or pieces for this Substack, I’ll tweet them.
I’m just going to be tweeting less.
How much less? I don’t know. I last sent a tweet on November 26th. Today is November 30th. I can’t remember the last time I went four days without tweeting. I will tweet again, but I’m not sure when. What I have done is delete the Twitter app from my phone, so now I only check Twitter on my laptop computer.
On Sunday, I went out to lunch with a couple of old friends I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. One is probably my oldest friend, someone I’ve known since the sixth grade and became better friends with in high school, ironically when he left the school we had been attending together. At fourteen, we coincidentally played on the same summer baseball team and became much closer after that, spending our high school years at the handball courts at Coney Island, playing for hours and hours at the height of summer and the dead of winter. Over the last few years, we’ve seen each other less, but we reconnected again this week, along with another good friend I’ve known for a while. We all used to play handball together. Now we’re in our 30s, still feeling young enough.
You know what I didn’t do during the lunch? Check my phone. I looked down once, two hours later, to see the time. That was all. I knew the person I would’ve been otherwise if I still had the Twitter app on my phone. I would be scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, feeling that odd meld of excitement and slow-burning anxiety. Notifications! Opinions! Crises! Jokes! And I would need to weigh in.
Holy shit, I’d have to weigh in.
In a recent piece reflecting on my journalism career, I wrote that “my social media might suggest a certain edge, a contrarian’s thirst for combat, but I am not like that in everyday life. Twitter doesn’t suit me, in that sense. I’m content.” And that’s true. In person, if you meet me, you may be surprised to learn I’m rarely angry, unless I’m not getting a hit on the softball field. I don’t like to argue. With most family, I don’t even want to talk politics, especially with those who disagree with me. I love to talk, to share my opinions, to exchange, to ask questions. I love hearing about other people’s lives. I find backstories fascinating. Where did you grow up? What did you want to be? How did you like your apartment these days? What are you reading? I want to know how you live, what’s on your mind.
Each time I went on Twitter, especially in recent months, I felt that part of me wasn’t coming through. The medium, in some sense, had condensed my personality, flattened it to quick-hit punditry. I don’t regret any of my tweets but I don’t think they’re getting me where I want to be. I don’t want to quote-tweet haters, falling into long exchanges, rabidly defending my little shreds of ideological turf. I don’t want to care about my follower count. I don’t want to care about your follower count. I don’t want to compete on a terrain that takes more than it gives. When I go on Twitter, I’m never particularly happy. When I go there, I’m not working on a book, I’m not working on a story, I’m usually not dreaming up a new idea. I’m in a peculiar, and ultimately wasteful, stasis.
And there’s Covid. Let’s be honest. Twitter is hellish when it comes to Covid. Every minor and major twist in this saga is covered to a furious and endless degree, journalists and public health experts jousting for clout, for retweets predicated on doom. I’m tired. You’re tired. Covid won’t be defeated on Twitter. I won’t be more prepared for my life hearing your Covid take, or Fauci’s Covid take, or that epidemiologist who said masks were bad and then masks were good and then no one should go outside ever again and then you should absolutely be outside if you want to go to that big protest down the street. All of it is exhausting. In the non-digital world, in meatspace, bits of good news—the vaccines work, cases can rise and then fall, a return to normalcy will inevitably arrive—are not treated with disdain. No one is walking down the street screaming opinions. They live their lives and go home to their families.
It’s not just Covid. It’s everything. Politics. Polarization. Anger, rage. Shoot first, ask questions later, or never ask questions at all. None of it goes anywhere. Nothing is learned. Twitter, I despair, is not building toward anything, and never will.
Some of us can be our best selves on Twitter, but a lot of us can’t. I don’t think I always can—not if I’m tweeting ten times a day, twenty times a day. Not if I’m racing toward every controversy to form the opinion I know will be carried far and wide on social media.
A word on that. It is like a drug. Have you gone viral? Really viral? I’ve had tweets liked ten thousand times, twenty thousand times, nearly fifty thousand times. I’ve had people weigh in on my stupid tweets for five days. I’ve tweeted with the explicit intent of going viral. Any person with a verified Twitter account who says otherwise is a liar. I’ve sat there, deflated, as my tweet died on the vine and been elated beyond all reason when the tweet picks up. Look at it go. Look at my notifications lighting up. The key is to hit “20+” when you’ve got enough engagement where Twitter stops counting and you can sit back and absorb it all. Oh, that dopamine. It’s like a gambling addiction with no payout, a coke hit without that transcendent high. But it feels good—hell, you are important in that fleeting moment. Your little life matters. You’ve arrived.
If you’re a real lucky tweeter, your viral tweet adds followers. The best kind of tweet. Look at my follower count rise! Chase 5K, chase 10K, chase 20K, chase 30K, go beyond, keep striving. You’ll feel good when you pass a plateau but you won’t be satisfied. You’ll just be gazing up at the next guy. It’s a little like buying a house next to a person with a much bigger house except neither of you live in houses. You’re on Twitter. You don’t own anything. At least faux money like cryptocurrency can get turned into real United States cash. What do tweets get turned into?
It’s not all grim. It’s not all fury. Twitter can be fun. As I wrote, there are friends to be had, valuable information to be gleaned. The question eventually becomes how much dross you’re willing to wade through to get there.
What I come back to is I don’t miss Twitter on my phone. On my laptop, where I write these Substack pieces, I will check in, see what’s swirling, debate whether I need to be there. I’ll dutifully check the DMs. Do I need to return messages? Send new ones? It’s another email service. I don’t mind email. Lengthy email exchanges move at a different pace. They account for nuance.
Perhaps that’s it. That’s what has been irking me. Twitter is a Manichean medium. Light v. dark, good v. evil, Good Party v. Bad Party. The Wise and Chosen v. the Ignorant. I can’t perceive the world that way and never will. Society is complex, human beings are a riddle, morality is not easily sorted. We all, quite literally, make mistakes. We do them when we’re young and we do them when we’re old. Our opinions are not neat—of if they seem neat today, they might not seem neat tomorrow. Twitter is not an empathetic medium. It is not a medium for mercy. It is Old Testament judgment without the redemption of God, of heavenly reward.
I feel the pull of Twitter. I’m not done. To quote Dr. Manhattan, nothing ever ends. I’ll see my follower count slipping and want, on some atavistic level, to redeem myself. I will weigh in. The bar, at the minimum, will have to be raised. I want more of my energy here and in my other projects. I want to reach the peak of my talents and go beyond them. I want to wring the most out of myself that I can. More importantly, I want to be happy. Chasing retweets won’t cut it.