The notifications on my Twitter account have been switched from "everyone" to "people you follow." I'm not sure they're ever going back.
The practical effect is that I won’t see your responses to the things I tweet unless I follow you. This is a bad thing as Twitter, at its best, is a great way to talk directly with people who read your work. But the last few months have proven that the costs far exceed the benefits.
The human cost of Twitter
My mornings are all very similar: I get up, make sure the kids go to school, get a cup of coffee and then delete all the negative messages that have built up from the previous day. These may include calls for me to lose my job because I wrote something about Nintendo or just politely worded suggestions that I kill myself.
Throughout the day it's a steady trickle of the same types of messages, and I don't receive anything on the order of abuse many women writers or better-known industry personalities receive. That being said, it still feels like taking a mouthful of poison every morning, and several small sips throughout my day. The results aren't surprising: You begin to feel a bit worse, all the time.
You may not like the Ben Kuchera who is on Twitter, and that's fine. I don't want to aim my work at the widest possible audience at the cost of my own beliefs. My problem is that I don't even like the Ben Kuchera who is on Twitter. He has little resemblance to the type of person I think I am, or at least the kind of person I would like to be.
This dissonance leads to explosions, or out-and-out antagonism. You can't control what's in your feed, but you can do things that help you control the rhythm of negativity. If you know a fire is going to be lit daily, why not gather the wood yourself? If you know you're going to get into a daily fight, the least you can do to pretend to have some control is to choose when and where you start shoving other people.
The consequence of that attitude is that you quickly stop reacting to the negative environment and begin prolonging its existence. Twitter can help you feel like a victim even as you act like a bully. We fool ourselves into thinking we're fighting back, but it's an illusion. This sort of almost preemptive aggression is how we build the same house we're fantasizing about burning down.
The issue with social media is you don't see the five dozen people who yell at me on a daily basis, but everyone who follows me sees when I yell back. You end up taking out your frustrations about the bad actors on the nice people who just show up to say hello and appreciate your work. I may be picking the time and place that I'm yelling back in order to feel like I have some control, but I'm still just yelling.
Would my time be better spent getting another cup of coffee?
I didn't realize just how much of my day is impacted by the ongoing negativity on social media until I was in a position to walk away for a few days, and enjoy life without social media. Turning it off completely literally makes me happier, and easier to be around.
The problem is that my job all but demands I use social media during working hours. Twitter feels like keeping an open door in your home through which anyone can walk and start yelling at you. All this comes at a real mental cost, and it's a bill I'm tiring of paying. Twitter refuses to give us the tools to manage things in a healthier way, so shutting down the incoming messages becomes a sort of imperfect solution to a uniquely modern problem.
The trolls and abusers will always find a way into your feed if you keep it open, and the thicker my skin gets the easier it is to act and feel like a monster. I'm giving up many wonderful discussions with great people for my mental health and, while the cost is high, it's a bill I'll happily pay.
You can always unfollow me or find another writer to support. I don't have that luxury. I have to live with myself, and the daily crush of negativity and bile is making that harder and harder.
I'm turning Twitter into a broadcasting platform rather than treating it as a listening station. I'm now in control of what I see and when. I know that if I follow someone, they're not going to tell me about what they'd like to do to my dead body. I'm not really interested in dealing with the horde of sea lions that comes from discussing certain topics, but I still want to discuss those topics.
Social media can be a wonderful thing, but the idea that people who use it must keep all avenues open so you can yell at them on your whim needs to change. I think you're great, but the gargoyles are flooding through every window and storm drain while you're waiting patiently at the door to be let in. It may seem unfair to close every opening in the house, but it may be the only way to stay sane.
But the echo chamber!
The problem with this approach is that it does limit your reach, and it limits the ability for people with valid criticisms to reach you. My counter-argument is that this move makes it much more important to make sure you proactively cultivate a more diverse group of people to follow and make sure your inputs don't stagnate.
Twitter is also one of the worst ways to have a productive conversation.
It feels like taking a sip of poison throughout the dayIt's hard to make a complex point in 140 characters. If someone is angry or concerned about something you've written, a tweet turns a message that you could learn from into a short, angry blast. "This is why I think you're wrong" followed by a few hundred words is helpful. "You're bad and you should feel bad" isn't. Twitter favors the latter, and is almost designed from the ground up to do so. We're all trying to talk inside a restaurant that only allows fistbumps or raised middle fingers.
This is why so many people get in trouble with ill-thought-out messages, and I'm certainly guilty of this as well. An email requires a bit more time and thought, and you have to at least look up someone's email address. When an argument is completely contained on Twitter with no spillover to higher forms of communication, it's evidence that it may be better to move on with your life. Twitter is a teapot that creates tempests and, when you're inside, it's easy to think the entire world is a storm.
Email is a great way to stay in touch, and I'm also keeping an Ask.fm account open while tweeting the link out at least once a week while giving myself time to answer questions. It's a way to stay connected with the people who read your work, and giving your time and attention to those readers who want to engage with what you do, while you still control the rules of engagement. You can also respond at length if you'd like to really dig into a story or a meaty question. It's great.
This isn't how I want to interact with Twitter, but it's going to help me survive this job with a bit more peace of mind, and that's worth it to me. It's going to help me like myself a bit better, and to exert a bit of control over my mental state. I'll lose much of what makes Twitter such an interesting place for discussion, but that's a small cost for sticking around the industry without seeing a steady parade of the worst it has to offer in my feed.
Tomorrow I'm going to get up, make a cup of coffee, open my laptop, and know that the negative messages went straight where they belonged: into the void. We have better tools available if we want to talk, and I hope you take advantage of them.