It took New York a decade to turn me. Friends in the city said it would make me a bit tougher, a bit gruffer and a bit harder, but I didn't believe them. But it has, and I should leave. I'm a Midwest boy. We had a good run, but this is probably for the better.
There's a saying that you should leave New York before it makes you too hard and leave Northern California before it makes you too soft. I believe the notion originates from Mary Schmich's "Wear Sunscreen," a commencement speech that became the unlikely spoken-word jam of the summer of 1999. I appreciate the advice, and I'd argue it applies to more than just the geography of where we live.
This week, I can't help but feel these clear rules whenever I sign into social media. Quit Twitter before you're too hard, I think. And quit Instagram before you're too soft. But is either possible for somebody whose life is lived mostly via an iPhone and a laptop with a Wi-Fi connection?
Those were the days
Twitter can be crushing, pessimistic, cruel and exhausting
I joined Twitter in September 2008 so I could follow the fan-run Twitter handles improvising side stories for the characters of Mad Men. Though I wrote at a website at the time, the platform wasn't how I kept in touch with colleagues, promoted my brand or conjured a spell of traffic. Twitter in 2008 introduced me to new, like-minded people. At its worst, I read updates on my friends' diets.
Twitter today is more useful than the Twitter of 2008. An understatement, for sure. I've learned more about social causes, progressive ideas, human rights, gender, sexuality, culture, history, science, languages and the countless struggles and joys of people I would have never encountered in my life were it not for a steady flow of 140-character messages.
I am certain my career is indebted, in some capacity, to Twitter, where I have found a community that encourages, shares and supports my work. I hope that I am doing the same for others. I try.
But the Twitter of today can also be crushing, pessimistic, cruel and exhausting — even though the vast majority of what I come in contact with is as enlightening, refreshing and inspiring as ever. It's like eating a cookie with poop-covered chocolate chips. Most of the cookie is fine, but what you'll remember is eating shit.
And boy, do I eat shit. Everything about me is weaponized and used against my mental health. My job and my writing, but also my body type, my look, my relationship, my heritage, my birth defect, the way I talk, the way I think, the way my voice can be high or my words can be extended with a lisp. It's made me hard. And comparatively, I have it easy. I come from a place of incredible privilege. I'm a white male with a dream job in the city I always wanted to live in. Other people who use Twitter have it far, far, far worse.
I am certain my career is indebted, in some capacity, to Twitter
But the name-calling from these small pockets of Twitter has compounded with an echo chamber of dramas being hashed out by my friends, colleagues, co-workers and allies. Nothing is ever done how it should be done. Someone has a better idea and they will let you know. Or they won't let you know, but they'll let everyone else know. Important conversations blend with trivial conversations and back again, until someone's timeline is talking about Nintendo's corporate strategy with the same tone as the military actions of Israel — in back-to-back tweets.
Action makes you a target
I've gradually learned the most dangerous thing to do on Twitter is to actually DO something. Doing something makes you a target, whether it's silly and fun, or noble and vital, or somewhere in between. The safest thing to do is nothing.
Instagram has been my sanctuary for the past year or so, the antithesis of Twitter, I think, in every way. I keep it private, not because I post photos that could jeopardize my career, but because people followed me so they could leave cruel comments. Then they tried to follow my wife. I keep my Instagram private because I figure I'm allowed to have at least one place online where people can't attack me.
Instagram doesn't serve as blunt a business function as Twitter. You don't share stories on Instagram. You don't retweet. The only thing you're promoting is yourself. Or to be precise, a positive idea of yourself. On Instagram, people photograph their best moments, the things they think their friends and followers would find interesting or enviable. Here is me looking good. Here are my cool friends. Here's a beautiful sunset or a delicious meal. Here are thousands of perfectly lit and photographed puppies and kittens that never seem to age.
The most dangerous thing to do on Twitter is to actually DO something
Everything is so perfect, and just so. The result is a stream that plays like an endless honeymoon: perfect food, perfect cities, perfect lives. Everyone's always smiling and living the best possible moment. It's fantastic, but nothing like real life. Real life has hills and valleys. Before that adorable shot of the baby was taken, it was screaming and covered in its own vomit. Before that decadent shot of Thanksgiving dinner, the family was having a fight. Before that shot of the cute dog that dog was — oh, who am I kidding, that dog was, is and always will be cute as hell.
The problem is, Instagram is just the peaks. And you either can participate, curating your best moments, or you can not, and watch a stream of others' best moments pass you by as if it's always sunny and rosy everywhere else.
Now, this is the point I should tell you I'm quitting one or the other or both, but I'm not. I can't. For all their problems, there's too much good I gain from my memberships. I learn so much from Twitter, and Instagram has dogs.
Twitter's a lot like New York, really
I was talking with a colleague this week about how Twitter has dulled my senses. But then we began to consider how much more we know because of social media, because of constant contact with so many interesting, unique, unforgettable people. I know more about feminism because of Anna Holmes. I know more about gender and sexuality because of Samantha Allen. I know more about kawaii photography and weird games because of Nina Freeman.
I know about college sports because of Dan Rubenstein and I know about indie films because of Matt Patches. Anibal Arocho has taught me to care about shoes more than I ever knew I could. And Paolo Pedercini inspires me to reconsider my expectations for video games and writing about video games on a weekly basis. So do Zoya Street, John Teti, Jenn Frank and countless others. I could spend days talking about all the things I've learned from people online, some of whom I may never know in real life beyond a passing conversation.
And I love that these people are more than their passions and their expertise; I love that Twitter lets me see how rounded and complex we are as humans. That someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of military strategy or democratic theory might also know the name of every episode of Adventure Time.
Twitter, at its best, when used without affectation, can reveal just how strange and wonderful all of us are. We contain multitudes, wrote Whitman. We will debate the direction of social reform. We will choose between pie and cake. We will find the close proximity of these conversations to be commonplace.
Social media is everything I love and hate about my home city: It's full of wonderful, interesting, inspiring, brilliant people. And some real assholes... that I should learn to ignore. Everything's on top of everything else.
So quitting Twitter feels like leaving New York. I know I'm hard and bitter, but I have no idea how I'll ever let go.