The Great Twitter Detox
Table of Contents
When Elon Musk walked into Twitter HQ carrying a kitchen sink, I tweeted the infamous Michael Jackson popcorn gif. “This is gonna be hilarious,” I said to myself. I said the same thing when Trump won the US presidency in ‘16. I was tragically wrong on both counts.
I’m not one to give in to doomsaying, usually. Doomscrolling, sure. That used to be my favorite pastime whenever I had some time to kill. Two minutes would turn into two hours (seriously) and I’d barely even realize it.
By the time I tore myself away from Twitter–first on my computer, then on the phone, too–my mood would be, inevitably, soured. “Why are people?” I’d think bitterly, and then I’d conjure up a strawman consisting of all the worst bits of Twitter-action I’d seen that day and bicker with it in my head.
Why are people? #
In a 2020 column for BBC’s Science Focus magazine titled Why social media makes us so angry, and what you can do about it, Amy Fleming writes:
The trouble with non-stop access to social media and news outlets is that our boundaries, identities and values can be assaulted whenever we look at our phones.
This quote hits hard.
Growing up poor in post-revolutionary Romania was bad enough, but then I kissed a girl and I liked it, and suddenly I was poor and questioning everything I thought I knew about myself. I was also a metalhead, so I got my ass kicked a bunch until I learned to punch back. (I still got my ass kicked, but at least I gave as good as I got.)
After a brush-off with casual anti-Romanian racism on a school trip in the summer of ‘04, I learned that that was bad, too. By the time I fled the country on a scholarship at nineteen, I’d learned to pick and choose which parts of me were safe to share with the world.
Things got worse as I became more active on social media. Suddenly, it wasn’t just my income, nationality, and sexual orientation that were “wrong”. It felt like everything I liked, said and did had a chance of becoming outrage fodder at the drop of a hat. After the second time I got dogpiled by self-styled SJWs, I stopped posting altogether. I got off relatively easy; other people1 had their lives pretty much ruined over, say, a joke Tweet.
That feeling hasn’t gone away. If anything, since I reactivated my Twitter account in ‘18, it just got worse. According to Twitter, my whiteness is bad2. I like cars and driving, and that’s bad, too. I’m a gamer (bad). I like generative AI (also bad). My pronouns and gender identity are either ridiculed or flat-out dismissed, including by some people who represent themselves as 2SLGBTQ allies. The list goes on.
Doomscrolling absolutely felt like every facet of me was being under constant, relentless assault. As the boundary between online and offline became more porous, this started to spill into real life, too. Looking back, it’s no wonder that I was in a semi-permanent state of fight-or-flight.
Digital fight-or-flight #
Fight-or-flight is “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.” As doomscrolling became deeply ingrained in my day-to-day life, I felt grumpy, anxious, and my insomnia got worse.
For the longest time, I didn’t connect any of these with my Twitter use. There were good things about the platform (like bantering with my coworkers or connecting with industry professionals I’d never have met otherwise), and I told myself they made it worthwhile to put up with everything else. The trouble was, the bad gradually started to outweigh the good, both on a personal level and concerning the world at large.
Writing for The Atlantic in 2017, Laura Turner says:
Anxiety functions by constantly reminding you to pay attention to it. And so does Twitter. (…) [It] remains dominantly focused on the world’s ills in a way that can decimate a person’s sense of efficacy and replace it with profound despair.
Twitter began to feel like an endless parade of traumatic content from around the world, interspersed with Westerners yelling at other Westerners that choosing not to consume said content was privilege and “don’t look away”. (It’s unclear to me how watching civilians get torn to shreds by russian3 bombs helps anyone, but all hail the high-horse police, I suppose.)
Add to that the general nonsense coming out of the recesses of American Twitter (Did you know that learning a foreign language is cultural appropriation? Oh, and you can’t say foreign anymore, that’s “othering”.) and you can kinda see why I kinda started wishing for a lowkey zombie apocalypse.
Circling back to the fight-and-flight response, that’s the “fight” part. The trouble is, you can’t punch people in the face over the Internet.
As for “flight”, FOMO (fear of missing out) kept me from logging out. When the war in Ukraine started, I spent half the night scrolling Twitter and Reddit for updates. There wasn’t anything I could do, other than hope that no bombs would fall on Romanian territory and that my colleagues in Ukraine were safe. But what if something important happened and I didn’t find out about it right away?
The great Twitter detox #
Twitter’s addictive nature is no secret. Everything about the website, and more so the app, is designed to hook users and keep them coming back for more. Couple that with an algorithm that’s made to incentivize outrage, and you end up with a bunch of angry, anxious, approval-seeking users yelling at and over each other over, more often than not, stupid, inconsequential shit.
I did my fair share of yelling, to be fair. There’s something deeply validating about tweeting your outrage over, say, the CAQ passing yet another discriminatory law (see: Bill 21), and having a bunch of people immediately agree with you. That satisfaction doesn’t last for very long, though–and then it’s time for another hit.
The first thing I noticed after I stopped engaging with the platform was that I still had the urge to complain whenever something went wrong. Since I had no tailor-made echo chamber to validate and amplify every little nitpick I had about life, I was able to stop and ask myself, “Is this really worth flipping the shits over?” More often than not, the answer was no.
I also realized how deeply ingrained Twitter had become into my life. If I was on the computer, before I knew it, I’d open a new tab and type tw…, which would then auto-populate the rest of the Twitter URL. When I took a photo with my phone, my first thought was, “Can’t wait to tweet this.” The urge to scroll through something was still there, especially when there was nothing else to do. And sure, news apps and Reddit could scratch that itch, but the better thing to do was to ignore it until it went away.
Back in ‘12, I quit smoking cold-turkey from two packs a day. Detoxing from Twitter was much harder in some ways. Pretty much everyone agrees that smoking kills, but there’s no such consensus about excessive social media use yet. Some friends and colleagues still use Twitter as their main point of online engagement4. The FOMO is real.
I still peek at the hecksite every now and again, but I don’t post or engage anymore. Once I lost the habit, it became easier to avoid getting sucked back in.
Will I ever go back to Twitter? Maybe. For now, though, I think I’m done with centralized social media. My fucks are too precious to be wasted on superficial bullshit.
The stories I’m aware of are at least fifteen years old by now. I won’t name names because the last thing any of those people need is for me to dredge all of that shit back up. ↩︎
I’ve had to mute any and all variations of “white people” just so I could browse Twitter in peace even though Western generalizations about white-skinned folk (I refuse to use the term “Caucasian” because that’s bullshit) usually don’t apply to us Eastern-Europeans.
Western media still thinks we’re “relatively civilized, relatively European”, and there’s a whole-ass Wikipedia page on anti-Romanian racism alone (Polish people have it even worse). Europe isn’t a monolith and racism is far more complex than “white people bad”. ↩︎
Not a typo. They’ll need to work their way back to uppercase R in my book. ↩︎
I don’t subscribe to the reductionist view that anyone who’s still on Twitter is a de facto enabler of fascism. Americans, on the whole, tend to throw around this particular f-word far too liberally. ↩︎