What I Learned by Taking a Twitter Vacation
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to stop using Twitter on a daily basis. Blog posts I made here were tweeted automatically, and I continued to use Twitter for the Mosen Explosion radio show, so I certainly didn’t decide to just delete my Twitter account.
It wasn’t a decision I came to for any single reason, and I’d been considering it for some time. The idea of taking a Twitter break was planted in my head thanks to an article by New Zealand journalist David Fisher. Fisher deleted his Twitter account after concluding he was being sucked into pointless petty debates, and it was unproductive and time-consuming. Then, a regular listener to the Mosen Explosion, whose tweets I enjoy reading, said she was taking a break from Twitter because she was craving more meaningful social interaction. That struck a chord with me, since I was thinking about the consequences of doing exactly that. So, without announcing it or making any kind of fuss about it, that’s what I did.
There’s a novelty factor associated with having so much immediacy at one’s fingertips. It’s been a massive change. When I first went overseas for an extended holiday to the US and the UK in 1988, we allowed ourselves one expensive international phone call back to New Zealand every couple of weeks. Major political wrangling was going on at home while we were away, but we were oblivious to all of it until we made the phone call. There were no on-line newspapers, no social networks, and therefore no expectations that family and friends would know anything about our travels other than maybe getting a postcard now and again. In fact now that I think about it, we weren’t even travelling with cell phones.
It sounds like ancient history, like such a different time, but it was only 26 years ago. Now, we’re connected almost everywhere, and that’s wonderful in so many ways. When I was doing a lot of work-related travel, it was easy to make video calls back home to the family, somewhat lessening the feelings of sadness and detachment through being away so much. The wealth of information at our fingertips is simply staggering. As someone who can remember a time when blind people craved information in an accessible format, I’m profoundly grateful for that.
There’s still a digital divide, and I think too many blind people remain on the wrong side of that divide. But for those of us who have access to the Internet, we, like sighted people, are now faced with the challenge of information overload. With information overload comes the challenge of opportunity cost. The economic principle of opportunity cost describes the idea that when you spend money on something, you can’t spend it on any other thing. Opportunity cost exists when you’re spending time, as well as spending money.
Those of us who are employed or studying have some non-discretionary time, where certain things must be done. Hopefully you’ll allow yourself sufficient time to sleep and recharge, although an increasing body of literature suggests we’re not doing a very good job there. That leaves your precious discretionary leisure time. Hopefully, part of that will be devoted to getting out an about, being part of a local community group or two, enjoying a meal out once in a while with someone important to you, and other off-line activities that make you happy. If you have friends and family, they deserve your presence too, and by that, I mean real presence. People pride themselves on multi-tasking and productivity, but I’ve come to realise more and more in recent times that constantly being at the beck and call of notifications isn’t real presence. When we’re on our death beds, how many of us will wish we were there more for our families? I’d suggest a lot more than those who were wishing they’d spend more time on Twitter, writing posts that they hoped would receive lots of likes on Facebook, or were quicker at responding to a text.
Then there’s your online time. What will you choose to do with it? The choices are awe-inspiring. There are TED talks that motivate and educate, fiction to absorb you, biographies and self-help literature to make you think, free courses to broaden your knowledge, newspapers to read, radio and TV entertainment, and then there are social networks.
I have around 900 people I follow on Twitter, and around 3100 people follow me. I don’t often look at my full Twitter timeline now, I just don’t have time, so I have a few Twitter lists, including one for people whose tweets I never want to miss. I enjoy chatting away on a range of subjects with friends, it’s a fun way to spend some time. It really can be very social and a lot of fun.
For a while, I experimented with getting a lot of my news from Twitter, but I found RSS a better vehicle for that, since I can read a lot more of the article from the preview screen of my RSS reader than I can from a 140-character tweet.
There’s nothing better than Twitter for a breaking or unfolding news story. Everyone can be a reporter on location, which is both a blessing and a curse. People will post misinformation, either by mistake or, sadly, deliberately. But taken with the appropriate grains of salt, it’s a brilliant tool for breaking news, and it’s often used by mainstream media now as a source.
Yet I took my break from Twitter for a number of reasons. First, I’ve known for years that Twitter is a time vortex. If you have enough followers, it’s easy for you to get sucked in to a constant stream of back and forth. Twitter’s kind of like walking into a party that never ends. You have a crowd of people chatting about all kinds of things, and you join in on a conversation or two. You may even throw in a few things of your own that are on your mind. Before you know it, people are responding. Even if you shut down the client and decide to get on with something else, you may have a Twitter app on your smartphone that pings you with your mentions. Before you know it, someone says something that requires a response right now. So you stop your TED talk, your book, or the relaxing music you were listening to, and respond. This in turn provokes more responses, and so it goes. Welcome to the vortex. This is not so much a criticism of the medium, but more a criticism of my own behaviour that I felt I needed to put right.
I also took my Twitter break because I was disappointed by the level of discourtesy one can find on Twitter. This is far from a characteristic unique to Twitter, but I think the 140-character limit of a tweet exacerbates the problem. I think I’m particularly aware of this at the moment, because in New Zealand, we’re two months away from an election. It’s very difficult to use 140 characters to have any kind of meaningful discussion about what problems exist in our society and how they might be addressed. Instead, all you really have room to do is cheer on whatever team you support, and if you’re so inclined, abuse supporters of the team you don’t. It’s hardly a recipe for intelligent political discourse.
How many 140 character messages ever changed an opinion? I’m sure some must have, but they’d be rare. My most recent example of coming up against Twitter’s limitations was the Twitter storm over NFB’s Apple resolution, a matter about which I’ve written two blog posts here. A few of the participants essentially posted the same objection, over and over again, couched in slightly different language each time. With those very strict character limitations, it’s easy to resort to slogans or put-downs, there’s little space to do anything else. Yes, there are long tweet services, but with the exception of a couple of apps, they require the user to take extra steps to read the full tweet, and many won’t bother.
I finally realised that Twitter was the wrong medium for an intelligent, considered discussion about a matter as complex as the NFB Apple resolution. I took a few hours and tried to articulate my views for this blog. While many people still oppose the resolution, I like to think having unlimited space to really flesh out an argument at least helped objective people to see that the arguments in favour are more worthy than may initially have been thought.
Then of course there’s the outright trolling. I’ve been a victim of this in the past, but not for some years. At school, kids used to say “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Sadly, that’s just nonsense. Words can hurt people, a lot. Earlier this year, a New Zealander living in Australia took her life after suffering prolonged verbal abuse on Twitter. After she died, I did a search to see some of the tweets she had received. What I’m talking about here isn’t even a lively exchange of opposing views. This was unadulterated, outright abuse, a protracted verbal assault of the most outrageous nature. I understand that these people sit behind a keyboard, often using made-up names, and get a thrill out of the reaction they get from abusing someone. It’s the reaction that they crave. Respond, and they win. You can say that taking your life over people you don’t know sending random abuse is a ridiculous over-reaction. It’s easy for us to say. Would I have been able to withstand all that abuse if it were me? I’ve certainly been subjected to some, but nothing at all like the volume and intensity of the abuse this woman received. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. These scum have no idea what might be going on in someone else’s life, what other problems someone might be trying to deal with. To open up your Twitter client and be greeted with screeds of abusive tweets riddled with expletives may be the last straw. Of course I know we can’t control what others do, we can only control ourselves. I know it’s our choice how we respond to these things. But everyone has limits. I wonder how those despicable trolls feel about her suicide. Do they lose any sleep at all?
Twitter is a microcosm of the Internet, and the Internet is a reflection of society at large. I can’t tell if human beings are far less courteous to each other than they used to be. It feels that way to me, and others seem to say society is much more angry than it used to be, but it could be that communications are now so abundant that we’re exposed to the discourteous more frequently.
We have Twitter accounts that come and go in the blind community, many of which are set up by cowards without the guts to put their real name to them, established expressly for the purposes of abusing other blind people. No doubt the perpetrators think it’s funny. While such nonsense, when directed at me, doesn’t bother me personally, it bothers me that some younger, or more vulnerable blind person, going through who knows what, could really be affected, resulting in tragic consequences. Cyber-bullying isn’t funny. It isn’t clever. Those who follow such accounts, quietly enjoying the fun of hapless victims being abused and trying to defend themselves, you’re just as complicit in the verbal assaults as the perpetrator. It’s like standing idly by while someone’s been knocked to the ground and kicked in the head. Without an audience, these people get bored. Without a reaction, these people have nothing to feed off. Block them, don’t encourage them, but do report them to Twitter.
Then there is the quality of a lot of tweets. I want to be clear that people are quite entitled to tweet whatever they like, but equally, if tweets are public, readers have the same right to determine whether reading the tweet is adding any value to their life at all. I’ve been giving a lot of thought of late to what the era of information overload does to one’s empathy circuits. If I have a close friend going through a major health scare, experiencing relationship problems or just feeling like a bit of cheering up, my good friends know I’m always there for them, just as they’ve been there for me. But can you extend that level of empathy to over 900 of your closest friends? I don’t think that’s possible. As the song says, we all need somebody to lean on. I’m just not convinced that Twitter is the best place to play out the minutiae of all your problems and fears. I think there’s a voyeuristic element on social networks that enjoys reading other people’s problems, it’s probably the same kind of mind-set as those who enjoy a good gossip. But unless you keep your tweets protected and confined to a group of close friends, it’s really kind of embarrassing. There’s also the matter of current or potential employers looking at your Twitter timeline. Confession is good for the soul and all that, but Twitter is a public medium, and to all but your closest friends, the gory details might be a bit cringe-worthy.
So why did I end my Twitter holiday? Because there are some areas where Twitter adds value to my life. I returned to Twitter because there are things going on, such as the MH17 tragedy, strife in the middle east, and politicians on the campaign trail, that are of interest to me. Twitter is the best means of monitoring those breaking events.
No one can monitor all the great news sources out there, and I benefit from those who share links to interesting stories, especially those related to technology.
And finally, there are people who are important to me that I enjoy being in touch with. I care about what happens in their lives, and I enjoy their company.
So here are some of my take-aways from my Twitter holiday.
On my personal Twitter account, I’m no longer a slave to the notification. People who need me in a hurry know my phone number, they can text. In the case of discussions, the world will get by for a few hours without knowing my insignificant little point of view. So Twitter is no longer pushed to my phone.
Speaking of points of view, if I care enough about an issue to want to convey an opinion of any substance, I’ll blog about it. I often wondered whether blogging would have a future in the age of social media. Now I know for certain it has one, and that the pendulum is swinging back to well-constructed arguments. There will be those with an insufficient span of attention to read a detailed opinion piece. The world will go on whether they read a blog post or not, but there will be those who welcome a well-considered discussion.
Next, you can actually be someone’s friend, you can actually like someone, without following them on Twitter. If a friend of yours tweets stuff that makes you feel irritated or just adds no value to your life, life’s too short to be lumbered with their tweets. If your friendship isn’t strong enough to withstand being unfollowed, it wasn’t much of a friendship to begin with. It’s simple to me. People are entitled to tweet whatever they like. Equally, others are entitled to choose not to read. That’s called freedom.
And finally, I’ll continue to use Twitter to shoot the breeze with many awesome people.
This is my new, personal Twitter manifesto. Having the chance to think this through has made me realise that giving up Twitter because of the way some people use the medium is no more logical than giving up the radio because you don’t like all the radio stations. The trick is to get out of Twitter whatever you want to get out of it, and to make no compromise about doing so.
How’s that working out for me? Well on Sunday, a Twitter follower of mine tweeted something that really pushed one of my buttons. Trying to use Twitter more mindfully, my thought process went like this.
If I respond with my own, opposing view, this is the sort of issue where I’m unlikely to change anyone’s mind. I’m likely to be attacked strongly by a bunch of people for expressing this view, and while I’ll proudly stand up for what I believe in, will anything constructive come from hours of 140-character back and forth? In the end, I walked away, didn’t reply, and had a wonderful evening curled up on the couch with Bonnie, listening to music. I also totally owned the Uno game we played, by the way. Not only did I enjoy the evening, it felt fantastic to have made such a mindful decision.
So I’m back on Twitter, chatting away, adding value where I can by tweeting links to stories that others may find helpful, and reading things that interest me. In the end, my Twitter holiday has made me more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, and to use it accordingly. And if this manifesto means I unfollow you, it doesn’t mean we’re enemies, OK? Chill! Hugs! Peace!