Almost one year ago I nuked my Twitter feed and unfollowed everyone. I'd spent six years obsessively following people, but it had become too much, even when it was slow. I used it as a chance to rebuild my feed deliberately from the ground up. I vowed that this time I would seriously begin taking into account things like gender and racial diversity, rather than seemingly following lots of people at random. It was a chance to understand what, if anything, I get out of this service to which I'm tethered for the better part of my workdays.
But did it work? I'm not entirely sure. I silenced a lot of noise and resolved to be better, but Twitter in 2014 for me was more exhausting than the year before it, with all the attendant outrage, micro-memes, and harassment that can make a day feel like a year and crush the most earnest of resolutions. I started wondering during the year: Was I holding up my end of the bargain? Was I just one part of or perhaps THE problem I had tried so hard to escape? I decided to take a deeper look at my year on Twitter and, using cold, unyielding data as my guide, see whether or not I actually turned a over a new leaf in 2014.
To do so, I enlisted the help of ThinkUp, a social media analytics service that tries to help users make sense out of their sprawling tweets and Facebook updates. I was hoping that by asking ThinkUp to analyze my feed and address specific questions, I could get some sense of just how the year went.
Part of what can make Twitter so tiring (and on occasion, kind of fun!) are the repetitive tropes and memes in which many heavy users and journalists (myself so very, very included here) get caught up. Back in October, The Toast's Mallory Ortberg rounded up a glossary of many of these overused phrases; just last week New York's Jessica Roy put together her own glossary of Twitter's most repeated "words, phrases, and inside jokes," all of which were run through ThinkUp to see just how much I'm adding to the Twitter's migraine-inducing echo chamber. So here goes... In 2014:
I never tweeted the terms/phrases: "#tcot," "ban men," "is everything," "wrote a thing," or "#tbt." Nor did I tweet any version of "can u not", "not all men"/notallmen, the shruggie ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, or "thirsty." And none of my True Detective tweets were jokes about Season 2.
• My only actual use of "shade" was here.
• My only use of #shotsfired was ironic:
• My only use of "can't even" was valid and accurate and not in the Twitter language context.
• I feel pretty OK about my use of "it's about ethics in…"
• My only use of "essential reading" was critique.
I DID, however (god help me):
• Tweet 40 times about something being "garbage."
• Have 72 tweets that included an all caps "THIS." And 18 that had some variation of "HERO."
• Tweet some version of "if true" 16 times (as in, "whoa, if true" or "big if true").
• Tweet 12 jokey "NSFW"s to things that were, decidedly, NOT NSFW.
• Tweet some version of the mansplain-y "actually" 95 times this year, making me an official monster of a human being and a disgrace to my family name.
ACTUALLY, though, my only tweet that actually begins with "actually" is this:
(My replies to others, however, have a GOOD bit of "actually…" going on. I'm so sorry to the legions of adults, faculty, and concerned citizens who tried to teach me manners as a child.)
• I tweeted once about "personal news."
• I had 56 "dangs" in 2014, as well as all kinds of folksy variations of the word, including "daaaaaaaaaaaanng" and "dangggg" and, well, you get it.
• I had only nine "hot takes," which is sadly far fewer than the number of actual hot takes that I produced.
• I'm disappointed that I had only 31 instances of "never tweet," which I plan to get tattooed on my person in 2015.
And then there are tweetstorms. Back in early May I wrote a column about a recent trend I was watching develop. I borrowed the term "tweetstorm" to describe it. The piece was intended to call attention to and, with a little luck, quite possibly extinguish the phenomenon of numbered tweet soliloquies without end. I should have known better. The piece, which had both strong and very mixed reactions, only popularized and served to bestow an official name to this practice. In my flailing attempt to put out this fire, I only gave it oxygen and today the tweetstorm is as popular as ever. WHOOPS!
Lesson learned: While my jargon was far from perfect, it was better than I thought. Maybe. In some cases, I was seduced by more than a couple of insidious Twitter tropes, which reveals that while I'm not a full-fledged monster, there is less distinguishing me on Twitter from the rest of the chorus of White Male Tech Writers With Jokes and Opinions than I might have thought.
Most of my uses of a lot of these 'net terms were ironic or intended as critique, but that doesn't really absolve me. It's still the same noise, being piped into the timelines of the people who've chosen to follow me and, in some cases, upwards of 70 times for one term in just a year. That feels more like I'm the problem than a witty attempt at the solution.
So was that the problem? Were my worn-out jokes the reason why this year was more grating than the last? I looked at a slew of other metrics as well, including retweets (101 out of 1,253 total retweets were dreaded, shameful manual retweets, designed to steal the vanity metrics and credit away from the original tweeter...sorry!) and links (1,413 out of 3,484 total links were to my own stories). So maybe the problem was that I was being too selfish or at least too self-promotional?
Here's one of those super-helpful MTs:
But let's not take my word for it! Let's ask the men and women who hopped on my 140-character carnival ride and then wanted off. Earlier this year I signed up for Mr. Unfollower, a service that specializes in digital self-flagellation; each day at noon it sent me a nice little update of all the accounts that, fed up with my musings, decided to silence me once and for all. Every week, I'd get a handy and soul-crushing recap of my failings as a human being.
A lot of the time, these emails were full of bot accounts or follower-hungry folks who ditched me when they realized I wasn't on #TeamFollowBack. But on more occasions than I care to admit, I'd see real-life acquaintances, co-workers, and even friends remove me from their feed for good. This shouldn't have hurt, but it did, so I did what any completely unhinged person would do — and decided to email a few of them about their decision. Here are a couple of edited bits from their explanations, which I'm calling "Reasons Why I Extinguished Charlie's Digital Flame:"
From Unfollower Val:
There WAS a tweet of yours that pushed me over the edge, and it was this one:
I just DIDN'T WANT TO KNOW. I didn't want to know so much that I unfollowed you. I felt grody wanting to click on the link and didn't want to be tempted, because I'm tired of teenage boy Star Wars stuff and didn't want to contribute to whatever circlejerk (your word!) was going on. (Plus, I didn't think you'd notice!!)
I manicure my feed a lot. And I don't pay attention to my followers/unfollows, so I kinda just assume everyone else's feeds are fluid too. I do think Twitter is a toxic place in many ways, but can also be very valuable and powerful. It's just a river of info and humans and opinions and horrible things to look at and great things to look at. That's why it's wonderful. It's a reflection of life and human nature. But I also need it to work for me, so I definitely take advantage of being able to control my feed.
I don't really worry about my relationships with real-life people. The fact that you wrote me after I unfollowed you definitely reinforces my respect for you as a real person! Even though I didn't like your jizz tweet.
And finally, from Unfollower Matt:
I moved away from New York earlier this year, but I was still dragging all these people across the country with me that I'd physically left behind. Which was annoying! I left the city because I found it too busy/loud/noisy/stressful, but all those characteristics were still reflected in my twitter feed, so I just had to unfollow like 90% of NY/D.C. media Twitter in order to Find Peace.
If the social web has taught me anything it's that "casual acquaintance" is a really lousy leading indicator of "is interested in anything even remotely in the same universe I want to live in." I'd rather see every boring tweet coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture than anything someone I met one time at a media party in 2009 thinks is compelling enough to immediately follow the word "THIS." Oh and speaking of which! Meeting someone one time at a media party in 2009? This is not a binding agreement to have to hear their every thought five years later! (There's a reason you only met them once.)
So why does any of this matter? The easy answer is that it doesn't. When I nuked my feed I wrote that Twitter is "series of snap decisions usually rooted deeply in the context of the moment, many of which will later be revealed as mistakes," and I still stand by that. And yet, in my time thinking about writing and researching this piece, it's hard to deny how large a role, for better or worse, Twitter and other social media have played in my life over the last eight years.
Earlier this month, ThinkUp told me that in 2014 I tweeted 114,208 words. According to ThinkUp's average, that totals about 415 pages — 415 pages! That's astounding and, in my mind, makes Twitter hard to write off as a dumb hobby. Nor do I now feel comfortable dismissing it as a silly, nonrelevant, "lol, it's just Twitter, guys" inconsequential activity. To do so undercuts how I spend good portions of my workdays, and how I get news, story ideas, joke around, sometimes sow friendships, and generally do my job, which I love. Is Twitter stupid? Yes. It's also fun, maddening, revelatory, toxic, full of fucking #brands, supremely weird, hilarious, perfect, and the absolute worst. Like the rest of the internet it is, more and more, a direct reflection of our reality and humanity. Sure, it's broken, but that's because we are.
To spend an entire year on Twitter is, by nature, exhausting. In a lot of ways it is, as one of my unfollowers alluded to above, like living in New York City: It's relentlessly paced, and you are, like it or not, at the center of all of the few really good and bad things as well as the bulk of the things that seem terribly important in the moment but that you can't quite remember come year's end. 2014 seems like the year that many of Twitter's most obsessive users reached their breaking point with the service, and for good reason. There's a lot to love, but arguably more to hate. Maybe it will get better; maybe people will leave and it will get quieter; maybe it will silence the voices we so desperately need to hear and become irrelevant; maybe we'll keep getting frustrated, only to continue to toil on it and complain. That's unknown.
But what we shouldn't do — and what I'm going to try not to do from here on out — is dismiss what happens on Twitter as pure frivolity or unworthy of critical examination. The internet has always been part of real life and the time spent on social media is real time spent with real people; on some days time on Twitter might even account for the bulk of all of my human interaction, and while that might be no way to live one's life/sad/totally fine/whatever, it doesn't change the fact that it is a world in which I've chosen to spend significant time.
It's so easy, given the name, the short-burst nature of the service, and the constant, ear-ringing noise to downplay the things that happen on Twitter and, more importantly, to complain without ever taking the time to stop and try to figure out how you can make both yourself and your experience better. And yet, there's something kind of ridiculous about that. So far this year, I've tweeted 11,516 times. Isn't anything you do upwards of 10,000 times worth examining critically?
So this year, I'm going to hold myself accountable. If last year's focus was on the noise around me, 2015's will be about the noise that I'm creating, an acknowledgement that, for now, I live here and I might as well start acting like it. Maybe that's not enough to make 2015 more enjoyable, but I think it's worth a try.