Cultivating Better Habits

It feels like I have to make a decision about Twitter. It’s hard for me, because Twitter has been a big part of my life for a long time. I keep connected with some great friends via Twitter, I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities, and I’ve enjoyed a ton of extremely funny humor in that esoteric, self-referential mode that seemingly only Twitter can deliver. I hate that a wealthy idiot like Elon Musk is forcing this on me, but he really is. I’ve weathered a lot of bad times on Twitter — including the Trump administration and, on a personal level, multiple waves of right-wing harassment — and kept coming back. But this time I can feel myself de-cathecting somehow.

I quit Twitter once, in the wake of my biggest harassment wave. It had gotten to a point where it was affecting not just me, but my small, financially precarious school, and for my own sanity and peace of mind, it felt like I had to pull the plug. It was a big move, since I had accumulated 8,000 followers, through my own dogged efforts. But it had to be done: I downloaded my tweets, suspended my account, and decamped to Facebook. There I was able to connect with many more of my professional colleagues, engage in informed debates, get great answers to extremely niche questions (from “has anyone written about how the Indo-European hypothesis might be racist?” to “why is there this awkward repeat in this movement of a Beethoven piano sonata?”), and arguably enjoy even bigger professional opportunities — such as a lecture tour in Australia and New Zealand.

Everything was objectively fine, better even, but it wasn’t the same. Facebook is too happy, too performative in a way that turns me off. I missed the self-loathing toxicity of Twitter, like pain from an old wound. I started a pseudonymous account, but quickly got bored with that and returned in my own name. Within a few months, I had reached and exceeded my previous follower count. In the last few months, I’ve reached nearly double the peak of my old account: 15,200.

What I’ve gained from that impressive number is unclear, as is what I’ve gained from the handful of tweets that Twitter claims to have shown to over a million people. I don’t get money from it. I don’t get more writing or speaking opportunities than I used to back when I had half the following. I definitely don’t get more high-quality engagement or the chance to build meaningful new relationships. In fact, the paradox of Twitter is that the better at it you are — and I honestly think that I have a gift — the worse your experience becomes. The more followers you get, the more likely that you are reaching people who are expecting something other than what you’re offering, or who don’t get your “thing” (or “vibe,” I guess one would say), or who literally don’t understand what you’re saying. Those connections generate unsatisfying and irritating encounters, and the more unsatisfying and irritating encounters I have, the more likely I will eventually lose my patience and say something that takes on a life of its own.

That’s part of the thrill, of course — that sense of danger. I may not be able to advance my career in any meaningful way, but I know for a fact that I have agency over my own self-destruction. Except that I don’t. When I was being harassed and they came for my Shimer colleagues, they were annoyed and confused, but they were also mostly just concerned. The same thing happened when a flare-up happened during my first few months at North Central. I was scared that I would somehow alienate our new benefactors, but everyone I heard from just wanted to know if I was okay. The odds of me getting fired over saying something dumb on Twitter are very low, especially since I don’t say truly dumb things that often. Certainly I’m not going to let loose with a racist or anti-Semitic tirade, for example, because I’m not a racist or an anti-Semite. The worst harassment came from an ill-judged, rashly posted joke — and everyone who knows me knows it’s a joke.

Everyone who knows me in real life, that is. It’s something that should haunt me, perhaps, but it’s never really sunk in that everyone who meets me in person after knowing me online is relieved to find I’m a nice and relatively normal person. By the transitive property, that must mean that the online persona is… yikes. But is it? I’ve written before about my needless hostility as a grad school blogger, and that does still seemed to be etched into the minds of many people who knew me then. Surely no one would see the current blog that way, though, nor would the many colleagues who have gotten to know me through my Facebook activity have any reason to think anything much is amiss.

The only place that needless combativeness still comes out is on Twitter. I’ll admit that sometimes I post things knowing they will start a fight and people will respond obnoxiously, just to feel something. Tweeting about covid doomers is a great source for that kind of “engagement.” Criticizing Democrats works, too, as does tweaking whatever new moralistic trend is sweeping the online left (such as the tendency to denounce quite literally everything as “ableist,” the more tendentious the connection the better). If I want my mentions to blow up, I can make it happen, any time, instantly.

The question is whether this is a necessary outlet that is preventing me from picking dumb fights with my friends, colleagues, and students — or whether it is single-handedly keeping alive a part of myself that has gotten me into trouble many times in the past and that I can’t say I’m super fond of. Pain from an old wound, indeed — that part of me that learned how to navigate anger through sarcastic wit, the part that I sometimes suspect is still filing away the weaknesses of those around me for the day I need to burn that bridge.

That’s another thing social media is good for: cutting people out of your life entirely through the magic of blocking. Facebook does it right — whether you have blocked someone or they have blocked you, it’s as though they simply don’t exist. You don’t see your friends’ exchanges with them and you don’t get notifications that they’ve blocked you. You are completely, radically cut off from them. Not so on Twitter, where you have the option to look at the profiles of those you have blocked and where their responses and retweets still pop up in your timeline (blocked, of course). This porousness could be a design flaw, but I think it is actually a strategy to maximize anger and conflict. When those notifications from the person you hate keep coming up, the temptation to look at them grows and grows — perhaps even to the point where you want to respond, leading you to unblock them, leading you to experience exactly why you blocked them in the first place, etc., etc.

It’s the best of both worlds! You get to cut them off, and you get periodic confirmation that you were right to do so! Why this need to cut others off in the first place, though? Why did I instinctively see that as a benefit to social media? Why do I think that I will need to burn bridges with others at some point? Why, in short, do I not believe I deserve nice things? We are entering into the realm of therapy here — another third rail of social media, one so dangerous that even I hesitate to touch it — and I’m sure we can all do the math and come up with whatever the boring answer is supposed to be here.

Let’s just take the personal growth as read. Whatever it is that’s going on there seems to be what makes me good at Twitter, what makes me such a native inhabitant of the platform — the same platform that powered the Trump phenomenon, the same platform that so entranced Elon Musk that he paid $44 billion for it, the same platform that has hooked my right-wing harassers and my hated covid doomers and all the sad online leftists looking for someone to denounce. It’s not a super complicated or nuanced platform or experience. Whatever itch it’s scratching for me has to be at least adjacent to the itch it’s scratching for those assholes, too.

I’ve given myself a lot to think about — likely not very productively. But I have taken some concrete steps to change my habits. Getting back into blogging, which (at least nowadays) naturally lends itself to a more reflective and less combative approach, seems helpful. I’ve also found that, if I’ve picked the right book, I can be so absorbed in my train reading that I don’t even look at the phone. Finally, I’ve taken the radical step of subscribing to the print edition of the Financial Times, which should allow me to use my morning coffee time to digest actual facts and information about the world rather than trying to piece together third-degree backlashes against the way the New York Times presented some distantly remembered fact. Imagine that! Having a discrete time devoted to current events, which you absorb in the form of polished professionally-written articles, instead of getting little fragments of glimmers of news stories continuously all day….

It sounds so nice. And more broadly, I know that my life could be better without Twitter. I emphasize “could” — it’s not guaranteed. I would definitely be losing something by giving up such a big public profile. I would potentially lose touch with people I might have stayed close to otherwise. But it could. In fact, it likely would. But would my life still feel like my life without this strange indulgence? That’s a very open question, and no matter what I ultimately decide, I will always resent that Elon Musk of all people was somehow able to touch my life in this very personal and intimate way.

6 thoughts on “Cultivating Better Habits

  1. I don’t know how many of us there are who just silently subscribe via RSS, but reading this on my phone I had the impulse to comment and say how much I value this blog, for reasons I’m not totally sure I understand (maybe I just value blogging and find this return of yours to blogging to be a welcome “reboot” within the fandom I am invested in, like everything else on the internet), but I guess I think these little updates in my RSS reader are precious enough that I should actually load this page and tell you that I read them and learn from them and appreciate them to encourage you to keep doing them. (i should delete this it is so cringe)

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