Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Twitter Quitter


Lately, I’ve been thinking about deleting my Twitter account. It’s not that the social-media platform is a cesspool of depravity, bad faith, unhinged antagonism, lockstepping partisanship, self-perpetuating irrationality, rumor-mongering, intellectual debauchery, bad grammar, anxiety, conspiracy theories, gratuitous vulgarity, and ad hominem attacks. Anyone, after all, can find a handful of good reasons to remain on social media. No, I’m beginning to worry that my Twitter addiction will adversely affect my legacy.

I should start by noting that while I’m not exactly a big shot in the social-media-follower game, over the past decade of sending out half-baked missives and random thoughts about politics and culture I’ve cultivated a modest following of imaginary friends — and not a few genuine haters. And as fun as it’s been interacting with readers and sparring with antagonists, the upside for continuing to do so seems to be shrinking rapidly.

For one thing, lots of folks have been getting in trouble over their old tweets these days. What was once a completely innocuous quip in some long-forgotten quarrel over marginal tax rates can easily be repurposed to turn an innocent fellow into a transphobic Benito Mussolini fanboy. One minute you’re offering a thought experiment — once a mainstay of political discourse — and the next thing you know it’s stripped of context and you’re a misogynistic puppy hater. There’s little you can do about it.

Even wholly innocuous, apolitical comments that fail to adhere to the stringent rules of political correctness are now seized on — often retroactively — by a screeching mob of priggish social warriors–cum–digital bullies who will attempt to demolish the career of anyone whose worldview rubs them the wrong way. All of this makes it virtually impossible for people to engage in good-faith debate online anymore. But if you’re interested in having every spontaneous comment you’ve ever made parsed and flayed — and saved in perpetuity as a screenshot for good measure — you’ve come to the right place.

Then there’s the matter of sarcasm. One of my great fears is that one day, when I’m gone and buried, my family — the only people who might have an idealized conception of me — will stumble upon my old feed. When they do, there’s a good chance they’ll encounter tens of thousands of sardonic retorts that may leave the impression that I hold the exact opposite views of the ones that I actually do.

When I write “You remember the comity of the Obama years,” I don’t really mean it. When I tweet “#FeeltheBern,” I’m pointing out that socialism is starving millions in Venezuela, not that I’m a fan of a Bolshevik octogenarian. Because it’s one thing to be expelled from Twitterverse for crimes against groupthink on gender or feminism, but it’s quite another having your grandkids believe you’re a proponent of a single-payer scheme.

Though, putting all of that aside, I imagine my interactions probably reflect poorly on my maturity — or lack of it. Social media exacerbate the worst tendencies in people, and I’m no exception. Not only has Twitter made me a worse person, it has made me think less of other people as well. To be fair, the perpetual flow of stupidity and unpleasantness one sees streaming down our screens could make even the most optimistic person take a bleaker view of humanity.

So why am I here? I was first asked to join Twitter by the editors of my newspaper around a decade ago. My initial response was to write a column mocking the idea headlined “C’mon, Admit It. Twitter Is Useless.” But my forward-thinking editors at the Denver Post were extraordinarily insistent and persuasive, and they also signed my paychecks, so I relented.

Slowly, I began to change my views on the platform. For one thing, a person could instantaneously aggregate news at incredible speeds. For someone who composed his first résumé on a typewriter, it was exhilarating to watch news unfold in real time. Moreover, it allowed me to frequently interact with and follow people I admired. Being part of a massive group chat was intellectually stimulating and often fun.

That was long ago, however. These days, when Twitter isn’t destroying my ability to concentrate, it’s ensuring that I’m unproductive at work. One recent study suggests that the average Twitterer uses 2.6 hours of his work time each day accessing social media — killing around 13 percent of total productivity at the workplace. To this, I say: You’re a bunch of pikers.

Now, I could erase my old tweets and start fresh, but I’m pretty sure they are saved forever on some website that can recover from the ether anything you’ve ever typed. More than that, I have this nagging sense that there exists some journalistic ethic that demands that everything I’ve ever stated on the record, no matter how frivolous, stay on the record forever. Maybe I just wish I were that important.

Whatever the case, I should probably stop kidding myself. The truth is, like many of you, I have a disease. So says social science — so there’s around a 12 percent chance what I’m about to tell you is true.

According to researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, people resisting tweeting experience higher “self-control failure rates” than people trying to quit smoking or drinking, despite both of the latter activities’ having the tangible upside of generating pleasure. In another study, published in the Journal of Addiction, people who were “relatively successful at resisting sports inclinations, sexual urges, and spending impulses” were transformed into hopeless junkies when jonesing for that next snarky tweet. Hey, I’m no better. Even though I know that next hit may be my last.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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