No-one needs another blogpost about Twitter. But since remembering things seems harder and harder — more and more often I have to remind myself there was a pandemic — and Twitter was a large part of my online life, I wanted a note for myself.
I loved Twitter when I joined. It was still spelled “twttr”, following the success of Flickr, and both these sites seemed to exemplify the new spirit of the web that, as a coder at the BBC, I had felt a part of, and which as someone researching technology and society I wanted to understand and promote. Both of them were ways to share parts of your life with people in ways that, I thought, helped to build and strengthen relationships: little updates, minor things, funny asides, and then links to breaking news (floods, terrorist attacks, snowfall) that regular media seemed to deal with too slowly. Posts had unique addresses, you could build things on top of it through an API, and, like the other microblogging systems it soon left behind (remember Jaiku?), Twitter seemed to think of itself as part of the glue of the web, loosely joining small things together. You could text updates from your phone via SMS! Objects had their own accounts!
After a while I tried to joke less and contribute more sensibly, as the site grew and the people I met there were from outside my original group. It became something new members saw as part of their professional lives, and my timeline filled up with more opinion and links to thoughtful articles, something that peaked with Brexit and the pandemic, where those of us in centrist, knowledge-worker jobs congregated to try and make sense of how things were turning out. With each new wave of arrivals the way the site worked changed, and old norms gave way to new ideas about what Twitter was for and how it should be used. More academics joined, and amongst the think-pieces and links to blogposts I saw links to papers and conferences I would never have found so easily. By the time lockdowns were over I had spent seventeen years on Twitter, as a coder, researcher, civil servant and academic, making connections that spilled over into real life and finding opportunities to do interesting work. It’s been hard to imagine life without it.
On the other hand, lots of things about using Twitter have been terrible. I’m not really thinking about the litany of objectionable things about the site itself, more about my own experience of it. What was damaging, for me, was the ease with which my use of it persuaded me that I was taking part in important conversations, taking my place alongside other men my age and background cosplaying wise old birds with necessary and urgent things to share. The amount of time I spent excited to tweet something and nervously anticipating the response was out of all proportion to the impact of anything I posted, consciousness of which would occasionally make me ashamed and delete the app again. My feed was full of people who seemed to know how to live and think correctly, and I would feel ignorant and guilty in the face of their convictions. During Brexit, and later the pandemic, two ungraspably enormous events requiring a long and slow view to understand, being on Twitter kept my view small and fast, increasing my feeling of catastrophe without helping me to do anything constructive. Much of my feed seems to be academics either arriving after months of silence to promote their work or their institution before vanishing again, or sustaining a constant lament for an academy that may never have existed, both of which selfishly make me feel bad to no purpose. The useful and inspirational posts are hard to find, personal connections have been pushed out by corporate posts, and the whole thing has become, for me, overwhelming. I am leaving.
What’s pushed me to actively leave, rather than just stop participating, is the decision by its new owner to use the material I contribute as food for its algorithmic systems, which will be used in the service of companies whose interests are not mine, nor, most likely, yours. I could have gone earlier, in response to the many troubling shifts of policy that make life more dangerous for marginalised groups and which strengthen fascists, and I ought to have done. It is an awful thing, now, and its owners are awful people, and I don’t want to be part of it any longer.
I am on Mastodon, as @[email protected]: it’s not perfect, and I don’t know how to use it, but I am staying there for a while. I am not going to be posting much, though. I am trying to learn from my mistakes and put my effort into writing more usefully, and going outside more often.