Just Log Off
I left social media around two years ago. I’m not going to say it’s revolutionised my life entirely, but it has changed the way I think about what’s important, and my attitude to adopting new technologies and services. The criticisms I'll outline here apply more or less across most platforms but I'm going to focus on Twitter because that was the one I used the most. Getting Twitter is just about the worst thing anyone can do if they want to maintain a sense of perspective, dignity, or an attention span. It's a small child, constantly tugging at your sleeve, a vast sucking maw looking to consume every spare second, and a constant invitation to make yourself look foolish. I don't care what Venkatesh Rao says in his increasingly incomprehensible posts about the great worldwide computer or whatever, you should get the hell off.
I spoke about this a bit yesterday: since giving up Twitter, and being deprived of all the trenchant opinions of the trenchant politics opinionators I used to follow, I find that the energy I have to contribute to local campaigns or help with union matters has increased, while noticing people I talk to at meetings getting frothed about subjects which, while quite fun to talk about, seem to have little direct relevance to what we're trying to do. I'm not noticibly less informed; I stay abreast of party matters by talking to people, reading newspapers and a few specialist email newsletters. As best I can tell, I just miss a lot of smaller storm-in-a-teacup stories, the largest of which manage to break through anyway. I'm deprived less of information and more of knowing what everyone else thinks about events—which, my feed being my feed, is most likely to be what I think anyway, maybe slightly better expressed. Focusing on the moment-to-moment buzz of poltical noise is a good way to waste a lot of energy on hot air and nonsense and very little else.
Twitter allows for the formation of many spaces of consensual reality. The formation itself is normal; every group of comrades or colleagues or congregants will have their own norms and values, their own agreed-upon truths. The mainstream media creates its own spaces of consensual reality, and watching those shift, especially around political issues, can be very educational. However, the spaces that Twitter constructs can become quite constrained, and quite damaging, quite quickly, to the extent that it can profoundly skew your sense of perspective and priorities.
I read this article about Andrew Lloyd Webber a while back, and I was struck by how much theatre people think the theatre is the most important thing in the world. Obviously, everyone thinks the stuff they’re into is important, but theatre folk really do seem to believe it universally. Twitter is like this, but the things it makes a priority for you are:
- whatever your existing 'things' are, because you will tend to people your timeline with folk who are also into your things, and then the algo will serve you up more people who are into your things, and so on into infinity;
- crucially, the things people say and do on Twitter itself.
I remember a while back someone saying that the majority of Youtube is now people commenting on the things other people do on Youtube because that's what gets your numbers up. Twitter is even more like this, and in encouraging you to spend even more time on the platform, you spend more time absorbing and re-broadcasting the norms, beliefs etc of your chose sub-group more deeply and drift ever-further from the majority of people who do not have or care about Twitter.
This already existed in certain places (notably the media and politics), and has been extremely heightened by people working in those fields seeing Twitter as their water-cooler, but with the added wrinkle of massively increased defensiveness because randos don't tend to yell that you're a dickhead at actual water-coolers. Intense group dynamics have always existed elsewhere, certainly, but over the last decade, and especially over the last 18 months, if you have a certain kind of job then less and less engagement with the real world in order to subsist is required, so when it is, and people are not as they are on the computer, it feels more and more frictive (more on this soon). It also means that any engagement with people from outside your group is quite difficult as anything other than shouting. It's trying to be an agora but it's really just a bunch of not-quite-discrete agoras with someone from one regularly wandering (or being shoved) into another and getting stuff thrown at them, which makes them turtle up.
Stafford Beer once said that the purpose of a system is what it does. Twitter turns people into a raw, twitching nerve, reacting instantaneously to the slightest stimulus. This means that people develop a compulsion, or feel a sense of expectation, to have something to say about everything. Unless you're profoundly well-centred, Twitter is fundamentally injurious to maintaining any degree of dignity beyond just scrambling around in the muck. Someone once said that whatever fundamental insecurity drives comedians to go on stage in front of audiences of strangers every night is not something that you should be plugged into 24/7. That's what you get, though, and for everyone. It strips away any sense of detachment or separation from the vast melee of the Discourse. It's like when television became high-definition and they had to change the makeup to cover things the previous lower resolution had smoothed over: it is a great revealer, laying bare every little quirk and kink of personality, a universal solvent to any attempt at elevating oneself out of being a reaction machine.
Take Dominic Cummings. The popular perception of him used to be as some kind of galaxy-brained loose-cannon (assisted, as I have noted, by having him played by the Sherlock guy). In that regard, his writing occasional over-long blog posts helped—they added to the air of detachment, occasionally rambling, prophetic missives from a political hermit. Posting a bit is fine; however, Twitter (and to a lesser extent, his Substack) have somewhat undermined the image, as on Twitter he acts like a low-level member of the Eliezer Yudkowsky fan club and quote-tweets big name rationalists all day. It's debasing! The guy used to run the country, and now he's sucking up to Scott Alexander. Sam Freedman is right that he's become a pundit, but it's not just that—he's become a reply guy too.
People also have a habit of posting things that they just shouldn't. It's because the blade itself incites to deeds of violence. If you have a Twitter account, everything starts to look like a tweet. This takes two forms: either people posting really personal stuff which they should probably save for their therapist, or posting those things they Shouldn't Say But Can't Get Out Of Their Head.
That second category is something I find fascinating and want to come back to, as it sees people—often people who have achieved tremendous success in their given fields—developing quite peculiar and toxic fixations with things that, from the outside, seem inexplicable. Why has, e.g. JK Rowling decided to beshit her reputation as a widely-beloved author of children's books (and less-beloved author of adult fiction) by going all in on transphobia? I would contend it's because she's plugged herself into the instant feedback machine, all day every day. Before Twitter, she might have had some questionable views that would pop up in interviews every now and again but mostly, I suspect, she'd just have carried on writing sentences like this for massive financial reward. With the addition of social media, they are constantly being shaken around like a cocktail, frothed up by a perpetual drip of Outraging news. The system forces things to a certain point.
And why do people just keep looking? It took me while to realise, but I have, e.g. a hard time just reading emails and not doing anything about them. I have to not look at my inbox—and even then, I know they're piling up. Not to get all evo-psych, but it triggers in me the deep-seated instinct not to just ignore people. Anyway: imagine that, but omnidirectional and all the time, the feeling there's a constant conversation going on and you're not part of it but what if people are talking to you and maybe you should just check and nope, not this time (yo that sounds like intermittent reinforcement, which is tremendously addictive!) but I guess I'll scroll down the feed a bit and see. That's Twitter!
I would like to restate the point with which I began: Twitter is bad for you and for others' perception of you. I would also like to extend it somewhat: you are allowed to stop using it. I haven't used it for at least a couple of years. You will worry that you'll miss out on The Banter: you might, but I have personally found that it has not affected my relationships with my real, actual friends (probably the people I most frequently interacted with on Twitter!) at all. The Amish reject technology that doesn't make them better. The Luddites smashed the looms because they were harmful to their way of life. I guess I have become one of those people who explains why the Luddites were actually good. That snuck up on me, but fine. The perception that there are people who do that is probably Twitter's final gift to me. The only other thing I have kept from Twitter is the actual friends I made along the way. It can be a good, efficient mechanism for finding people who are on the same wavelength as you but might be separated by geography. I can't do that any more, but I'm going to try, particularly over the next year, to redouble my efforts to find more people who I vibe with.
To that end: Memetic Hazard resumes next week. Project Quatermass begins in the New Year. Make ready.
I think a lot of the things people talk about when they complain about “cancel culture” etc could be solved by the absence of Twitter. Not being on Twitter means you're not always feeling the pressure to mouth off, and on the other that you're not constantly being presented with people who are disagreeing with you in the most inflammatory way possible, which primes you to kick off about absolutely everything. ↩︎
Obviously you can just get pinged by notifications rather than checking but my goodness—if you're not clamping down very hard on all your phone notifications, you should probably do that. Giving your device the power to hijack your attention at will is no good for being able to focus. ↩︎