Last week, I deactivated my Twitter account. I’ve done this before, out of frustration and exhaustion, and always reactivated in a short while. This time feels different. Quite simply, I no longer feel like the advantages of Twitter are comparable to the dangers. The dangers have steadily increased, while the advantages have been stagnant for a long time.
Twitter has been a bigger part of my life for the past several years than I’m proud to admit. For reasons I don’t quite fully understand, Twitter, far more so than Facebook and other social media platforms, has become a kind of hub for evangelicals to discuss and share. I suspect this rather strange phenomenon owes to the role that Twitter plays in contemporary journalism and news consumption, and that is itself a big part of why I’ve grown weary and even afraid of it. On Twitter, I’ve watched as myself and other Christians have internalized the habits of contemporary journalism, to disastrous effect. The reliance on kneejerk responses, vague innuendo, “good people vs bad people” narratives, and a punishing spirit of competition and shaming—these are the tools of the trade for modern American news media, and their flagship social media app has managed to shape Christians into that image.
For the last couple of years, I’ve persisted on Twitter despite the fact that I hate nearly everything about it. I’ve persisted because, as one influential blogger told me several years ago, Twitter is simply the price of participation in intellectual life. I think that blogger’s comments were probably never true, but they were truer back then than now. I now understand Twitter’s role in headquartering exchange of ideas as grossly exaggerated. It’s true that as far as social media is concerned, you’ll find more interesting people and conversations on Twitter than anywhere else. It’s also true that Twitter is probably not the most toxic, most obviously harmful digital media out there (looking at you, TikTok). But Twitter is the only app whose culture actively believes it to be an indispensable tool of discourse, and this belief is itself a lie and a source of many of the platform’s besetting sins.
For one thing, anyone who has been seriously using Twitter for more than a couple years knows the site’s algorithms and features have made it measurably worse. Twitter’s architects do not want you to be able to control your experience. It has become harder and harder to only see what you want to see, to only really follow what you opt-in to follow. I’ve referred occasionally to the “jungle” that the Web has become in the past decade. It’s important to remember that the Web’s designers want it to be a jungle. The jungle is profitable. You can still make the effort to contorl your experience. For a couple weeks before I deactivated I “locked” my profile, meaning I could not be Retweeted and new followers would have to be approved. But this only goes so far. You can lock others’ access to your account, but amazingly, you can exercise very little power over what you access.
At this point people usually chalk it up to an issue of self-control. Up to a point, I must agree. Part of my problem is a genuine lack of self-control, a genuine compulsiveness that pushes me toward more scrolling, more exploring, more spending my time and energy on stuff I don’t even like. There are probably people who will not resonate whatsoever with my description of Twitter, and that could be a reason why. In that sense, my departure is a confession of weakness, and an acknowledgment that plucking your eye out is a personalized prescription rather than a universal rule.
But I don’t think an individual lack of self-control tells the whole story. Twitter’s drama is perversely addictive to me precisely because it is addictive. What’s more, I actually don’t think most of us do as good a job as we think of resisting it. Even in reducing my following to about 100 accounts of people I respected and often knew offline, I saw the power of negative emotion on social media motivate the most obvious subtweets, dunking, negative epistemology, and outrage-bait. Even in trying to strictly control my own intake, the knowledge that someone, somewhere on that platform was slandering someone I knew, or was peddling false information or trying to get somebody they resented fired, was a constant drain on my reserves of focus and self-control. Eventually I had an epiphany: The best case scenario for most people who use Twitter heavily is that they’ll not be canceled and might make a couple extra networking connections. The worst case scenario is a deformation of a soul or an obliteration of a career. That just doesn’t sound like a risk/reward ratio that’s worth taking on.
I think most people who still think of Twitter as a massively useful platform are stuck in 2014. This is especially true for those who believe that Twitter grants them a bird’s eye view of what “culture” is doing. This is absurd; 80% of Twitter is created by 10% of its users. It’s also true for people who believe that exposing themselves to constant debates and disagreements will broaden their empathy and undermine bias. On the contrary, “diversifying” your timeline will probably reenforce your bias, not pop it. Then, there’s the big elephant in the room. Doesn’t Twitter give you a massive advantage in a writing career? That depends. If by “writing career” you mean a trade that actually succeeds and results in a measure of influence and voice, then you need to know that book sales and social media following are not at all correlated. If by “writing career” you mean getting to know certain people who could help you get opportunities, then the answer is a qualified “Yes.” But of course, you also need to know that those people are the ones fleeing Twitter right now.
Twitter’s dominance in online evangelical culture is real. But one of the most harmful characteristics of our relationship to digital technology is our unwillingness to ask questions beyond, “Is this useful?” If usefulness and networking potential are our key baseline factors in deciding what kind of platforms deserve our time and attention, then we need to admit that there are no moral or epistemological crises that could make us step away from any media where there’s lots of people. And I would submit that, for Twitter, the mere presence of lots of people is itself the only moral calculus on the app. Twitter is where reasonable people get quote-tweeted and shamed into oblivion for no better reason than the first person to mock them has more followers. Twitter is where careful thought is called “bothsidesism” and the cognitive satisfaction of using this word is simply higher than being reasonable. The power of Twitter is the power of the mob. I have to confess that for many years, the dominant “mob” in my TL was a group I identified with intellectually and socially. Now, it is not. I’m sorry that it took that for me to see the real problems.
Anyway, I’m out. I hope no one will ever find me on Twitter again, but I know myself better than to make that guarantee. In the meantime, I hope to find some kind of meaningful replacement through this newsletter, and perhaps some other channels that aren’t so immediately connected to behavioral manipulation. I want to participate in online discourse. But I don’t want to my brain or my heart to be the price of such participation.