So, I reinstalled a Twitter client on my phone the other day. Not as a great statement of intent, but a recognition that there were certain things that I could only get from people’s Twitter accounts.
So I’m now following about a dozen people, split roughly into two groups: cycling and politics. These are people where I was already looking at their streams in a browser, so explicitly following them in a client just took some of the overhead away.
This all started with two specific events and their aftermath. First was the opening of the East-West Cycle Superhighway (CS3 extension) in central London. I went down there when I thought it would be open, at the start of May, but it wasn’t so I searched around and found a few people talking about it. Turns out I love cycling infrastructure, so stuck with a few people.
(Seriously, the CS3 extension is great. Sometimes, when I’ve had a tough day at work and finish late, I’ll cycle from the Olympic Park, down CS2, cross to CS3, ride along the Thames and to Parliament and then back home. It’s really quite special late at night in the dark.)
Second was the Labour right’s attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn in late June. Pretty straightforward: a lot seemed to be happening and Twitter was the way to keep up.
Now, this is all standard stuff, and completely obvious to everyone who uses Twitter, and so on, so why am I making a big deal out of it? Well, when Twitter was listed on the stock market in November 2013 I quit. Not particularly because of that, but I’d been toying with the idea for a while and that was the point. I didn’t post particularly much, generally didn’t have conversations with people, but felt I was spending a lot of time checking Twitter.
After leaving, I actually did feel much better.
But now I’m checking Twitter again. Quite frequently. Frequently enough to make me concerned in the sense I was back in 2013. Part of that is that I’ve followed a couple of people who post quite a lot. Interesting stuff. But interesting in the same way that snack food is delicious. At some point you stop and think: “How much of this stuff have I consumed? Is it good for me? What’s it doing to me?”
That last point is a worry to me. If you’ve read Nick Carr’s book The Shallows then you’ll know what I mean — small bites trigger our reward circuitry, so we seek more, the brain adapts to this pattern, and round we go again. I’ve had trouble with this loop with another aspect of my mental health, so I know that it’s real and that it’s powerful and potentially detrimental.
So what’s the plan? Right now, I’m not sure. A couple of people are going to get unfollowed, which is not a reflection on them but more a pruning and prioritising. I’m going to subscribe to a couple of people’s blogs (even though my RSS subscriptions need a good going through!) and see whether that’s enough of their output to allow me to satisfactorily unfollow them too.
Frankly I can see myself arriving at a situation where I uninstall the Twitter client again.
While I appreciate Twitter has its merits, it’s not a medium I feel comfortable with. I can’t help but feel that a lot of the vileness in the Labour leadership election (on all sides) has fed off people’s ability to make remarks to a wide audience that they perhaps wouldn’t have made if they’d thought about it a bit more. (Although I’d like to stress that the extent of this has been vastly exaggerated for political point-scoring.)
We’ve all been in arguments in real life and it’s easy to say something unkind in the heat of the moment. I worry that on Twitter that combines with the remoteness of the person on the other side of the screen (and, in a few cases, online anonymity) to create a situation where people are more likely to say things that they would refrain from — or even just rephrase — were they speaking to someone face-to-face.
Part of that is the reason why I deleted my five years of tweets when I quit Twitter in 2013. I don’t know what was lurking in there, though there was nothing specific I was keen to get rid of. But I was sure that I’d posted things in the past that if I saw them again I’d regret and couldn’t stand by them. It’s one thing to really consider something, take a stance, and later change your mind. Making a nasty, snarky comment on Twitter is something else entirely.