CW: Basically everything people talk about with CW on Twitter
It’s been about two months since I stopped using Twitter for anything other than promotional purposes (and one snarky weigh-in that I couldn’t resist). I’ll continue to use it for promotion, but my absence has not made the heart grow fonder. It’s made me look back and go, “Jesus Christ, what was I thinking, staying so long?”
Full disclosure: I had been toying with the idea of leaving Twitter for a while before the events of A Twitter Story. I felt like I couldn’t. After all, my entire brand was “chronically online,” and I had so many people on the platform who were important to me, either as friends or as people I looked to for interpretations of what the heck is going on in the world. I thought if I walked away, I would lose touch with everyone. I also thought that my career opportunities would tank; all anyone talks about with regards to “becoming” a writer anymore is how you have to build your platform on Twitter, first, and you need some magical number of followers for a publisher to even glance at your manuscript. Since I’d been on Twitter for most of my career (my first book came out in 2006, my twitter account goes all the way back to 2009, I believe), I figured that must be true. So, every day, I would log into Twitter, my heart in my throat, knowing that I was guaranteed to read plenty of doom and gloom, be scolded for not tailoring my words to specifically target every single person on the entire god damn planet individually, and be called a cunt before nine in the morning.
Now that I’ve stopped my daily doom-scrolls, I’ve come to the unscientific and in no way medically-sound opinion that Twitter is toxic and damaging to our brains.
Oh my gosh, can you believe it? I must be the first person to posit that people get addicted to social media. I demand a parade.
Obviously, we’ve all heard the fearmongering headlines about how social media changes your brain and the claims that you can become addicted. But I always rolled my eyes at it, the way I roll my eyes at every shiny new thing being labeled “addictive,” because I’m a firm believer that if something is interesting enough to scare people, there’s a way to make money off that fear. You can convince people to buy your app that blocks social media from your kids’ phones if those people are seeing news stories every day about how social media is going to make their kids do drugs or have sex. And yes, the people buying that app to block social media saw those news stories on their own Facebook account that they check twenty-seven times a day but that’s different. I have a difficult time jumping on every scare bandwagon because they’re all so, frankly, ridiculous. Nyquil chicken? Tide Pod Challenge? Lipstick parties? No one had heard of these things until local news outlets identified them as ubiquitous dangers. I’m almost convinced that local newsrooms have a big hat full of slips of paper with random nouns on them. They just Mad-Lib these “dangerous trends” in their time off from being official police department publicity representatives/stenographers: “There’s a dangerous new trend called… nailpolish… lamping that’s sweeping the country and your child is going to die. Find out how at six.”
I don’t believe social media is psychologically addictive in the way that cigarettes can be, where long after the physiological upheaval of quitting has happened, one still needs something to do with one’s hands. I believe that it’s more like a toxic relationship, throwing out nasty threats to stop you from leaving, or to make you return. If you rely on publicity to make your career go vroom? You can’t leave! Look at all those followers! That’s money on the table! If you use the platform to check in on world events? What if something is happening right now? You wouldn’t know about it because you’re reading this post. You’re not on Twitter. Better get back there and make sure there’s not a new war in a country you couldn’t point to on a map. You’ll need to obsess about it for the next thirteen months. What if a friend gets a new cat? What if a friend has a hard day and needs to see pictures of your cat? What if things are happening on Twitter, right now, and you aren’t seeing them happen? What if things are happening and you’re not a part of them?
If Canada invaded Greenland right now, I wouldn’t know about it until Mr. Jen gets home from work. And that’s only if he listens to NPR on the way home. I could go days without learning about Canada’s bloody attack on the shores of Greenland. Two months ago, a thought like that would have been horrifying. Now, it’s comforting. I can’t do anything to help Greenland fight off the hypothetical relentless onslaught of Canadian artillery. Nothing Canada does to Greenland is going to have an immediate, material effect on me, either. If Canada nukes Greenland, the resultant fallout will later explain why my thyroid needs to be removed, but if I went my entire life never knowing that Canada nuked Greenland, it wouldn’t matter. It’s just a situation that I have no control over. My lack of knowledge about it wouldn’t have changed the outcome in any way. Jenny Trout knowing about the Canada-Greenland Conflict will never factor into historical record. If Jenny Trout were the king of Greenland, it would be a different issue, but in this scenario, even the king of Greenland isn’t using Twitter for daily briefings.
While I didn’t leave Twitter to avoid caring about the world, it very much helps me to care within reasonable limitations. None of us, not even the most politically conscious Tweeter among us, was built to withstand an onslaught of every single bad thing currently, formerly, potentially, and eventually happening all at once and still function as a human being. There is a reason our eyes can only see so far, why our brains only process a fraction of the information our senses take in. We cannot perpetually scroll through terror after terror, feeling utterly helpless, while thousands of other people on the same app point fingers at us for not caring enough, and expect it to not have a mental and emotional consequence. It’s interesting how often we’re reminded that people on the internet are real people, with real feelings, when the topic is online bullying, but all of that goes out the window when we see that a stranger has tweeted four times today about their shopping trip and not once, not once, about the breaking news out of the Ukraine. And hey, there doesn’t even need to be a particular target for that shame. You can just tweet out a broad condemnation of anyone who isn’t obsessing over an event that happened entire minutes ago. If they cared, they would have already been tweeting about it.
Each of us knows that we can’t bear all the causes and traumas of the world on our own. Why, then, do we get on Twitter and demand everyone else suffer this impossible labor? Why do we imply that our personal safety and security are imperiled if Janice from Provo doesn’t speak out against the actions of the Chinese government? That Janice is imperiling our personal safety and security on purpose, out of hatred for us and implicit support of the Chinese government? Janice’s voice would add nothing but noise, especially if Janice doesn’t have an informed opinion.
About five years ago, I tweeted a truth to explain why I was “silent” (read: callously indifferent) on the subject of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I can’t remember exactly how I phrased it, but the general theme was, “I’m not saying anything because I don’t know enough about it to offer anything that much smarter, better-informed people can say, and I know people on both sides of the conflict and don’t want to hurt those people with ignorant remarks.” I felt like this was a reasonable position to take; I really have no clue what is going in Israel or Palestine. In my country, the issue has been synthesized into domestic politics through the insidious, fascistic creep of evangelical Christianity, so I don’t believe I’m ever receiving truly unbiased coverage from any media outlets. I graduated high school with a 2.0 GPA and never finished community college. I recognize that I do not have the background or knowledge to come out strongly in favor of either side. But acknowledgment of my lack of expertise and my unwillingness to engage in geopolitical strife as a far-away spectator spewing my uninformed opinion was interpreted as a whimsical “IDC LOL” in the face of atrocities rather than an answer to “We see your silence.”
“So, you agree with this!” people responded, with gory photos or news stories about heinous acts committed by both countries. It wasn’t enough for me to look at a photo of Palestinians in front of their seized homes, now occupied by their enemies, or injured Israeli children cradled in their parents’ arms following an attack and say, “Those acts of violence are unspeakbly horrific, I wish they hadn’t happened to these people and it wasn’t right that it did.” I had to somehow renounce both countries, support both countries, and claim to know enough to do either, despite admitting to my lack of knowledge and the fact that, frankly, it’s not my American business to denounce any other country for criminal acts. In saying that I wasn’t uncaring about the suffering of others, just uninformed and trying to avoid further harm, in the eyes of Twitter I was admitting to a host of contradictory opinions that I never actually stated.
Even if you do know something, it doesn’t matter. The words you type will be rewritten for you by people with their own agendas. I tweeted that modern diet culture has its roots in the eugenics movement. That’s an irrefutable fact, coming from someone who lives very close to the epicenter of the birth of diet culture. I’ve lived my life going to places like the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. I trespassed and skinny-dipped at the Kellogg mansion. I drive my child to voice lessons: we pass Johnn Kellogg’s sanitarium and park just footsteps from W.K. Kellogg’s house. More than one school, including some I attended, bears the Kellogg name. There are two school districts named after them. The Kelloggs were “wellness” pioneers on a scale that Gwyneth Paltrow can only dream of, and being a fat person living where I live, I’ve done a lot of research into them and into how John Kellogg’s interest in eugenics shaped his belief in an ideal body. Modern diet culture’s ancestor is eugenics and religious fanaticism. The information is freely available. Anyone with an ounce of deductive reasoning could look at it and say, “modern diet culture has its roots in the eugenics movement,” and go, “Yeah, looks like.”
Twitter reduced the statement to, “Diets are eugenics.” And my mentions were loaded with replies ranging from “so you’re saying if you’re on a diet, you’re a eugenicist” to “everything a liberal doesn’t like is eugenics,” to “look up what eugenics means, fatty.” There was no reason to ask them to re-read the text on their screens, to see that I never said, “Diets are eugenics.” That was what they wanted me to have said, so that was what I said. Case closed.
“Silence” on Twitter is the threat that keeps you there. If you’re unavailable to weigh in on every new issue or scuffle, you are deliberately and actively perpetuating harm. “I notice you don’t have anything to say about [thing]. Interesting.” Well, yeah. It would be interesting if, say, a white RWA member suddenly isn’t following industry news when another white RWA member pulls some racist bullshit, but they’re online for seven hours straight talking about favorite book boyfriends while all of their mutuals are engaged in discussions about the incident all around them. Or actively tweeting at them, “uh, did you know this was going on?” That is interesting. It’s suspicious behavior. But if refugees from the Canada-Greenland conflict are facing opposition from U.S. border officials and someone on Twitter had a stroke and hasn’t been online for weeks tweeting about it… it’s not suspicious. It’s an implication that life continues outside of the confines of Twitter, a concept that has been tragically lost to the mindless hours of doom-scrolling and awareness-spreading. The phrase “silence is violence” means it’s not enough to acknowledge systemic oppression, you have to actively speak out against it and work to change it. I’m pretty sure it was never meant to apply to, “I noticed there was a twenty-four hour period during Occupy Wallstreet where you only tweeted about your broken leg and not about the evils perpetrated by capitalism.”
It was around 2014 that I started noticing my “brand” leaning toward social justice and away from being a random internet weirdo with an axe to grind. I blame the Fifty Shades recap for that. There was no way to critically review that book without mentioning intimate partner violence. When I followed that up with a silly story about my bathing suit and it went viral, I became classified as a fat activist. But social justice as a brand is exhausting, especially on Twitter. If I wanted to just be weird and high and say a random thing, I had to be careful. If I expressed my Michigander affection for Jeff Daniels, unfollow; he worked with Woody Allen and didn’t come out hard enough against him. Clearly, I don’t believe survivors. I support predators. If I mentioned I really wanted a candy bar, I’d receive links about the slave trade on the Ivory Coast. Nothing I said was innocuous, and because I threw my support behind various movements and individuals, I was no longer allowed the luxury of experiencing the world without a veil of suffering.
This seems to be a universal experience held by users who get pigeon-holed as full-time activists, regardless of their occupation or activism outside of Twitter. One evening, a Black woman I was mutuals with tweeted a photo of some ducks she’d seen in a park. Usually, this individual tweeted about social issues and things going on in the news in the United States. But between days and days of those tweets, she chose to tweet about ducks.
Another user, also one of my mutuals (and who, ironically, posted many, many pictures of ducks herself), responded by implying that not only was it harmful to the world as a whole that this other user interrupted her high volume of tweets about racism, homelessness, prison reform, gay rights, etc. with a whimsical photo, but had also directly harmed the mental health of the offended party by doing so. The incident blew up, with followers of both parties weighing in and arguing in the replies. One argument was that the original poster was responsible for the dogpile against the offended party, who was a white transgender woman. The “dogpile” was mostly people pointing out that white women, no matter their marginalizations, are not owed the intellectual labor of Black women. They were simply pointing out the objective truth: the offended party had no right to demand that the original poster curate their own timeline to the specific tastes of the offended party.
Because I did like the offended party and had fun engaging with her on the platform, I wondered if she would listen to me, a fellow white queer she’d had positive interactions with, when she seemed intent on not listening to Black people saying the same thing.
I was very, very wrong.
In responses that came with Swimfan speed, she informed me that I was contributing to and responsible for the mental health crisis the original poster had caused for the offended party, and that I had crossed a boundary by asking her to view her actions from someone else’s perspective. I was contributing to the allegedly transphobic attack on her, the person more marginalized than the original poster.
The entire debate, at this point, had become about who was more marginalized, the Black cis woman or the white trans woman. Not whether or not the white trans woman had made an unreasonable demand of the Black cis woman, which was the true heart of the issue. I knew my opinion on the matter, and after six messages about what a terrible person I was and how I was responsible for whether or not the offended party committed acts of self-harm, I set my own boundary. I blocked her.
She came back with a sock puppet account that she’d been following me with, as well, to go on a tirade about why setting that boundary was a violent act. Having been a victim of internet stalking incidents, the revelation of this secondary account was frightening. I began to wonder how many people I was chatting with daily were really just the same person pretending to be someone else or simply not disclosing that they were the same person.
Do you remember how this whole experience started? Someone who was not me posted a photo of a duck. It ended with someone demanding access to me to lay the responsibility for her life and death on my conscience.
This a domino effect caused by Main Character Syndrome. This is a toxic trait that every Twitter user develops. Every single one, myself included. Yes, you as well. It’s a sickness in which we log on, see the words on the screen, and feel immediately attacked and forgotten when other people with experiences different from our own neglect to describe us, specifically. There are times these might be valid observations; for example, trans men and enbies asking cis women not to use explicitly gendered language in discussions of reproductive rights, or Black USians reminding white USians that not everyone came to this country as an immigrant or colonizer. That’s not Main Character Syndrome. That’s combating actual erasure. Main Character Syndrome is the impulse that rears its head when we see someone say, “I had a great time at Disney World,” and we respond by QTing it and saying, “tell me you’re abled and have money without telling me you’re abled and have money.” Objecting when someone posts a photo of their new baby on their own TL because, “You didn’t CW this for people who have fertility struggles.” Replying to someone’s cancer recovery with, “Must be nice. Please don’t forget about the millions who aren’t as lucky as you are.”
That last one isn’t hypothetical. It’s been burned into my brain ever since I tragically read it with my own eyes.
Just as our human brains aren’t equipped with the resources to handle, to quote Bo Burnham, “a little bit of everything all of the time,” they’re definitely not equipped to translate the words of a tweet into the concept of an actual human being who wrote those words. Humans aren’t as empathetic as we try to convince ourselves. I don’t believe any of us are capable of true empathy, and I think that’s a defense mechanism. Imagine if we could truly and honestly put ourselves in the shoes of every person we meet. Every waking moment would be pure agony. So, when we get on social media and engage with people with whom we haven’t forged a deeper connection (like a penpal or someone you befriended on LiveJournal at the turn of the century), our brains are probably not seeing people, but words on a screen, giving us input we can either accept or reject. I care about Canada’s annexation of Greenland. Why don’t you? I reject your duck picture and accuse of you of silence on the topic and harboring problematic sympathies.
Would Duck Picture Objector have approached Duck Picture Poster on the street and demanded she stop noticing small joys in the world around her, for Duck Picture Objector’s own comfort? I doubt it. Because at that point, Duck Picture Objector would have seen Duck Picture Poster as a human being, not a strip of text entries down the center of her screen. Duck Picture Objector’s demands only seemed reasonable and rational to her because Duck Picture Poster’s brain, like every other human brain, could not conceptualize text on the screen as a person.
Some readers will already have classified this post as Old Man Yells At Cloud or a rant against social justice warriors. I’m sure there will be concern expressed somewhere that this is a sign that I’m leaning into far right white conservatism of the Tucker Carlson variety. But it’s not. I won’t be able to convince someone that it isn’t if they decide that’s what it is, but I’ve stopped actively participating in an online space I’ve inhabited for over a decade. I have feelings about my experiences there and do feel that I’ve had a wide enough range of engagement there (from making some of my best friends to receiving picturtes of my face photoshopped onto Holocaust victims) that I can speak accurately and specifically about the culture there. I just couldn’t see that culture while I was still an active, daily user.
As I stated before, I’ll keep using Twitter for promotion. Some of you got here from Twitter. But now that I’m gone from the platform, I don’t miss it. I don’t miss getting called a cunt or being asked if I could sum up six hours of on-going, rapid-fire industry drama I have no interest in. I don’t miss my joys being QTed with glum, woe-is-me entreaties to think about how a stranger feels at that expression of joy. I don’t miss my real-life experiences being dissected and misrepresented. I don’t miss the scolding, the akshully (as target and dispenser), the oneupmanship of misery a la “Must be nice…”. I don’t miss seeing elected members of my country’s government tweeting furiously about how something “must be done” about one of the many issues they were elected to deal with. I don’t miss “BREAKING: My opinion on why this near-inconsequential White House press conference means we’re going to nuclear war with Canada.” I don’t miss quirky posts about how depressed everyone is or reminders about when everyone should go to bed or drink water (in fact, since I stopped using Twitter, I’ve actually gotten better about doing those things without a reminder, because my brain doesn’t feel permanently severed from my body). I just don’t miss Twitter. I don’t like the person it makes me. And it feels exactly how I don’t miss exes who cheated on me. Because everyone on Twitter is engaged in some type of toxic, self-esteem damaging friendship with the medium that makes us behave in ways we don’t always like to behave, and makes us targets of behavior no one would want directed at them.
As for the threat that cutting off active engagement from Twitter will hurt an author’s career? I don’t find that to be the case. I’ve got great things coming up (maddeningly under NDAs), and none of the conversations surrounding those opportunities have mentioned Twitter. I would say that perhaps the only way Twitter is useful for a writer, aside from promotion, would be the pitch contests. Sure, networking is important, but not something I’m personally in a position to endorse; my networking experiences were soured greatly when colleagues openly discussed committing acts of violence against me. You’re probably better off sitting alone in your little home office like a goblin, smoking weed and watching CourtTV on YouTube.
If someone you’re friends with on Twitter really wants to be your friend, they’ll contact you through other means (of course, you have to provide those means). If someone is interested in what you have to say, they’ll go somewhere they can see you say it. And if the end result is that nobody contacts you and nobody follows you, do you know what happens in the real world? Absolutley nothing. In fact, you might take up roller skating and not feel like you now suddenly have to represent all disabled roller skaters on a public stage.
Now excuse me, I’m about to hit publish and automatically post this to Twitter.