old stairs

Social media was more fun when it was less important

Three months ago I quit Twitter for good. I did not make an announcement or speech or storm out. I left the party and hardly anyone noticed I was gone.

For a month I stopped opening twitter and, unsurprisingly, people stopped @ing me. After a month of enjoying the quiet, I moved a couple of connections to Facebook (Messenger is my new jam) and deleted the accounts completely. And hardly anyone noticed.

Twitter remembers everything and cares about nothing. When you are gone, you will not be missed. 

I have vacillated between whether social media has bothered me because it’s not important, or because it is right now considered far too important. Maybe both?

I had not enjoyed Twitter for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Amy Chua’s Political Tribes that I started to understand why.

Chua is using the term tribe as it is used in sociology. The idea that human beings evolved during a time of tribal society and so will naturally form social networks constituting new “tribes”.

Callbeck’s Rule #2: There is Us and there is Them.

The promise of Twitter in the early days is that we could join any tribe we wanted. It was interest-driven and opt-in. Add in hashtags and suddenly there was a worldwide discussion group on anything and everything.

Somewhere along the way, though, the lines started getting darker. You could no longer opt-into a tribe, but you could certainly get tossed out.

Maybe it’s a natural side effect of Twitter tripling in users (though the numbers have almost flat-lined in the past 3 years). The in-group, the tribe, can no longer be just “twitter users,” and so we see the rise of phrases like “comics twitter,” “leftist twitter,” “weird twitter,” and so on. All defined by who is in and who is out.

Sociology tells us that at a certain size, a group cannot stay stable and has to schism. We see it in fandoms all the time. Star Trek fans were monolitihic until the Next Generation came along and they had not only a lot of new fans, but new fans who didn’t necessarily agree on “the right” kind of Star Trek. Today Star Trek fandom is heavily factioned.

Things fall apart.

Maybe it was when the media starting using tweets the way they used to use person-on-the-street interviews. We were no longer just folk chatting, everyone is a Spokesperson for their tribe.

Twitter went from a way to make new friends to a way you can publicly shame your enemies (and find far more enemies than you ever thought possible) or maybe destroy your career and life in the space of 140 280 characters.

In her remarkable longread The Decline of Snapchat and the Secret Joy of Internet Ghost Towns, Helena Fitzgerald argues that present state of certain platforms as almost the ‘newspaper of record’ of the internet has made them less functional.

“Perhaps more than anything else, what has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful. We have arrived at a version where everything seems to be just another version of LinkedIn. … It’s an interactive and immersive CV, an archive. It all counts, and it all matters.”

I think that, more than anything, gave me the leverage to leave twitter. If the goal of twitter was to be a spokesperson then it isn’t a space for me. To paraphrase the classics, I am not a brand I am a free man.

If you are not advocating, soapboxing, long-threading, or message-boosting, you are talking into the void on twitter. (Spoiler: you probably are either way)

The days of typing a joke or question into twitter and expecting to elicit more jokes or answers is long past.

“The greatest joy of LiveJournal, and other similar proto-social networks and chat rooms, was their uselessness. There was no reason for any of us to be there, not really. … That uselessness was precisely the thing that the internet offered: this was a place you visited to get nothing done, a place where nothing counted or lasted with benefits or consequences.”

The time of getting to know people as people is over. The time of choosing tribes is here.

My tribe in minimal. My tribe is deleting.

As you were.

Last Thoughts and Inspirations

The work of Jon Ronson had a profound impact on my view of social media. Check out his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which is also available as a video presentation.

As noted above, Amy Chua’s Political Tribes was a catalyst for me to start thinking seriously about Twitter as a net-negative in the world today rather than a neutral forum.

Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk started this process for me. I was deeply moved by her talk and deeply ashamed of how I saw her during the Clinton scandal. There is no more qualified expert on public shaming.

I acknowledge a type of privilege that allows me quit social media platforms. I do not earn money through the use of social media, except tangentially. And as a straight, white, liberal male in the western world, there is absolutely no chance that my absence from “the conversation” will alter the group dynamics in the slightest. I can move on to other parts of life assured that my point of view is being well-represented. For those who do speak for the voiceless, I hope my exiting leaves an atom’s more space for you to be heard.

update: text sent to me by a friend who had not read this blog yet: