the circle game

A year-and-a-half ago or thereabouts I deactivated my Twitter account and was very happy to escape the place. But I have a new book coming out, and one’s publisher always reminds one that social media are super-important for promoting books, and Twitter is the only mainstream social media platform I have ever used, so … earlier this year I re-activated the account. Round and round.

At first it didn’t go badly. Twitter created a new setting that allows users to hide replies from anyone they’re not following — an important and decade-overdue step. Also, when the lockdown started a good many people enjoyed using Twitter as a place to re-connect with people they had fallen out of touch with. There was a positive vibe.

For a while. It didn’t last long. The old habits of malice and ignorance soon reasserted themselves. And even the best-natured, gentlest people would regularly feel compelled to share some horrific news item or appalling celebrity/politician/journalist tweet. I could get Twitter’s filtering of my replies only by using its own apps — its API doesn’t provide that feature to third-party apps, naturellement — which regularly served me ads I didn’t want to see and promoted tweets I would’ve paid to avoid. (I have been asking for at least ten years why Twitter doesn’t create a paid level where that kind of shit can be escaped.) Frustrated by all that, I would return to a third-party app — I like Tweetbot best — only to be confronted by replies I was even more eager to avoid.

My feelings about replies from strangers, I realized some time ago, are largely a function of my Southern upbringing. For years, whenever I got some random question or comment from someone I didn’t know, I would feel honor-bound to reply. That’s what a gentleman does, isn’t it? I was certainly raised to believe that when someone addresses you you have an obligation to respond, and to do so politely. (I didn’t always manage the “politely,” though.) After some years of obeying the promptings of conscience, I finally understood that four out of five strangers who addressed me on Twitter were not seeking good-faith conversation but rather were angry or needy or some combination of the two. And yet my felt need for politeness had me answering them for far longer than was healthy for me. That’s why being able to hide replies from people I don’t follow relieved me of my burden: I can’t respond to tweets directed at me if I never see them.

However, that didn’t altogether solve my problem. I still felt an obligation to reply to the people I do follow, almost all of whom are friends or at least acquaintances. So if any of them addressed me or tagged me in a tweet I had to come onto the site at least to like the tweet, maybe to comment. But that always ended up exposing me to a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t want to see. And so I would fulfill my felt duty to my friends but go away frustrated by what I heard and saw. Round and round and round.

That’s why I was I was really content during that year or so my account was deactivated: my friends couldn’t tag me there, so if they wanted to get in touch with me they had to send me an email. I wasn’t failing them by not answering their tweets, because there were no tweets to answer. Perfect!

But when I returned to Twitter to promote my new book, I fell back into the same frustrations as before. If I just didn’t have this Southern training that makes me feel an obligation to anyone who asks anything of me, I probably wouldn’t be in this situation, but you can’t unlearn your rearing. Or I can’t anyway.

My friends make fun of me for my long-standing ambivalence about Twitter, but since the 2016 election season I haven’t been ambivalent. I have despised it wholly. I believe that Twitter and Facebook have done unprecedented and unhealable damage to our social fabric — I believe that they are evil, and that no morally sane person should be comfortable using either of them. I do not say that every morally sane person should refuse to be on them — for some people the decision to be on social media is wholly justifiable and maybe even admirable — but if you’re happy on social media then you need to reset your moral compass.

So I wrote to my peeps at Penguin Random House and asked if I would be betraying them if I deactivated my Twitter account again. My wonderful editor Ginny Smith wrote back reminding me that Twitter is a “useful tool” — “but it’s not worth your sanity.” Exactly. Thank you. I’m outta there.

thread

Nothing is stupider than using Twitter to write anything longer than, you know, a tweet. This we know.

It’s a terrible experience first for the writer and then for the reader. Thread Reader is meant to make things less miserable for readers, and to some degree it accomplishes that, but whenever someone sends me a thread — I would never choose to look at one — you know what I inevitably think? Lordy, this is badly written. See, Thread Reader can’t do anything to reverse the damage the 280-character limit inflicts on a person’s writing: such writing is invariably choppy, imprecise, abstract, syntactically naïve or incompetent, lacking in appropriate transitions — a total mess in every respect. (Some of this happens because the writers get distracted by comments that start coming in before they’ve finished the thread, but an undistracted threader is still a poor writer.)

When you write a Twitter thread, what you are telling me is that you don’t care about your own ideas enough to articulate and display them in a proper venue. And if you don’t have respect for your own ideas, you certainly can’t expect me to.

You don’t have to create a blog of your own to post something to the web. You can use a free service like Rentry — I used to recommend also txt.fyi but I think it’s dead. You can even do what the celebs do and write something in Apple Notes, screenshot it, and tweet it as an image. There are a hundred ways to post longer-than–280-characters writing to Twitter, and when you write threads you are choosing the very worst one.

free as in more coffee

I use the Freedom app to keep me off Twitter for 22 hours a day. I get an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to check what’s happening.

Freedom isn’t perfect: especially on iOS it sometimes fails to kick in until I open the app. (Today mid-morning I reflexively checked Tweetbot and chatted with folks for a few minutes before I realized that I shouldn’t be able to do that. I quickly opened Freedom and then found my way blocked. Relief!) But overall it’s great.

I tend to think of Freedom in theological terms, as a technological instrument to produce instant infused righteousness. After all, did not Augustine say — see the last paragraph of the City of God — that the blessed are truly free because they are unable to sin? And does not Freedom prevent me from tweet-sinning? (I see that I need to add prevenient grace to my theology-of-social-media vocabulary.)

Anyway, here’s the best thing about Freedom: It allows whole cycles of tweet-rage to pass me right by. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and check Twitter and see some outrageous thing that some dunce tweeted the previous day or evening, something that I might be very tempted to respond to — but by the time I see it that person has already been raked over the coals so thoroughly that he’s already dead. It’s great. Thanks, friends, for doing the Lord’s work for me so I can have another peaceful cup of coffee.

one more post about Twitter

I deactivated my Twitter account more than a year ago, and set a recurrent reminder to log in every 28 days to reactivate and then deactivate again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to let my handle go to some other person who would no doubt bring shame onto the noble ayjay name. This little dance became tiresome, and my publishers like it when I broadcast useful (read: sales-related) info on social media, so I decided to make the account active again and leave it that way.

Twitter is even worse than I remember it being. The same compulsive temporary madness-of-crowds obsessions — sure, of course, Kobe Bryant is the most important person in your life, even though you’ve never mentioned him before and will probably never mention him again — but conducted with a greater intensity than I had remembered. Also, it seems that the reply function is now reserved as a dedicated performance space for sociopaths (if you don’t believe me, look at the first ten replies to any widely-read tweet).

What a horrible, horrible thing Twitter is. If the people who work there weren’t sociopaths themselves they’d shut the whole thing down for the good of humanity.

So I’m bringing back Freedom, which I had used in the past but set aside when I left Twitter. There will be 20 minutes a day when I can see Twitter, mainly to be sure that things I post here actually show up there. I’ll spend the rest of my time praying that the whole platform will die a swift and irreversible death.

eyeballs

The issue of my newsletter that I posted today is concerned largely with the Hong Kong protests, but let me add a note to that. In that post I quote Maciej Cegłowski, who has been in Hong Kong participating in the protests, and he recently tweeted:

So let’s keep this in mind for future reference, okay? If you are a tyrannical government, or you work for such a government, and you want to get your lies about what’s happening in your country before as many eyeballs as possible, Twitter is ready and eager to sell you access to those eyeballs.

a plea to journalists

Peter Hamby:

Candidates who make policy-by-Twitter, the ones who chase every micro-news-cycle, risk losing sight not just of what voters care about, but also why they’re running for president in the first place. […]

Those loudest voices on Twitter aren’t marginal. The platform has become a petri dish for the formation of elite opinion, with outsized power in the political press, and it has provided a lane for smart and clever people who deserve a voice to have one. But the convulsions of everyday Twitter, a small club of media elites and professional opinion-havers, are plainly disconnected from the concerns of most Democratic voters. There’s a real risk that otherwise smart, promising 2020 candidates begin to self-sabotage in their haste to appease this microscopic cluster of social-media activists just because they’ve got a megaphone.

This pattern of self-sabotage-by-Twitter is being repeated in various circles of our culture. Consider, for instance, the knots that publishers of young adult fiction are twisting themselves into by trying to appease tiny groups of angry people who have declared themselves the voices of their ethnic group — a pathetic phenomenon that Jesse Singal has recently been documenting, in depressing detail, in his excellent newsletter.

It’s really astonishing how few people can summon the critical facility necessary even to ask whether a person who claims to speak for all black or Latinx or trans people actually does. But I think it’s very relevant that this dance between triumphant resentment and instantaneous appeasement happens on Twitter: the pace of the medium seems to activate users’ fight-or-flight instinct. And then the ordinary mechanisms of human pride kick in, and people double down on their first responses rather than step back and question themselves.

I’m not even going to bother asking politicians to get off Twitter, because how many of them have ever declined the offer of a megaphone? But if we’re going to start repairing the damage that Twitter has done, and continues to do, to our social fabric, the leaders in this endeavor need to be journalists.

Recently a journalist commented to me that he is on Twitter because, for better or worse, that’s where the conversations in his profession take place. I think that’s definitely for worse, not better, and I think every journalist would be better off not participating in those conversations. Here’s why:

  1. Journalists talking to other journalists ad nauseam all day long leads to a kind of professional hermeticism, which in turns leads to limited intellectual horizons and a lack of independence.
  2. The utterly false assumption that people on Twitter are characteristic of the society as a whole leads to laziness: asking questions to the people who follow you on Twitter is something you can do in bed — way easier than putting on some clothes and going out to talk to your fellow citizens.
  3. That assumption also leads journalists to treat lunatic-fringe ideas as though they are commonplace. When your daily journalistic practices render you unable to distinguish between the most vitriolically-expressed ideas and the most widely-shared ones, you cannot do fair and accurate assessments of the national, or even the local, mood.

I truly believe that the climate of hatred that Thomas Edsall documents in his recent column has arisen in part — and maybe in large part — because of journalists who spend too much time on Twitter and as a result become mouthpieces of the anger and hatred that dominates the lives of some of the worst among us. American journalists, by immersing themselves so regularly in that anger and hatred, have extended its reach. They are passing along the contagion; they need to start washing their hands.

So, journalists on Twitter, for the sake of accuracy in reporting, for the sake of your professional integrity, for the sake of our nation: Delete your account.

two thoughts on Twitter

After being away from Twitter for a few months, I have two thoughts.

The first is that I wish I had departed years ago.

The second is that when I peek at Twitter, the whole enterprise seems so weird. It’s not that it seems worse than I had remembered, nastier or stupider; rather, the fact that people spend time on that platform now strikes me as absurd, inexplicable. And I was tweeting for eleven years before I departed! It’s remarkable how quickly my mind has re-set itself to the pre-Twitter norm.

welcome to the new Twitter

Hi, and welcome to the New Twitter™! Over the years, many of you have told us how tiresome and time-consuming it is to type your tweets. Well, we have listened, and we have a solution! From now on, you won’t need to type your tweets at all. Instead, you’ll just click or tap to choose one of the following words, which we have put in hashtag form to promote ease of searching:

  • #cuck
  • #disrupt
  • #inclusive
  • #innovate
  • #intersectionality
  • #loser
  • #MAGA
  • #privilege
  • #sad
  • #whitesupremacy

We’re confident that these ten words faithfully represent the full intellectual content everything that users of Twitter say — but with the added bonus of concision and clarity! From now on, to use Twitter you’ll just need to select one of these words and hit the “Tweet” button. And you’re done! — with less bother and fuss for you, and lower bandwidth costs for us. It’s a big win all round!

And one more thing: you’ll see that our new, custom-designed “I am literally shaking with rage RN” emoji will be automatically added to each tweet. Yet another way that we’re here to serve your needs!

the “gradual decay” of Twitter

Am I finally done with Twitter? After years of leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back? If I haven’t learned how to leave Twitter, at least I’ve learned how not to claim that I’m leaving Twitter. But I’m closer than I’ve ever been.

There’s almost never any pleasure in visiting Twitter now, just the utility of finding out what my friends are up to. Still, something in my brain remembers better times, so left to my own devices I check in far more often than makes sense. So lately I’ve been using Freedom to block Twitter except for a brief period each morning and a brief one each evening. I have found that I don’t miss the place, yes, but also that more and more often I forget to visit when the window is open.

Now that Twitter is finally hobbling the third-party clients that make using the site bearable, and is continuing to get bad publicity for its inability to control bad actors on its platform, I’m seeing in my RSS feed a number of suggestions for how Twitter can be fixed. All of them are ideas that have been put forth for a decade now — adding a paid tier, forcing the third-party clients to show ads, improving the ability to block users — so it would be very strange if Twitter started making intelligent decisions at this late date. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t known for his wit, but I think often of what he said some years ago about the creators of Twitter: They drove a clown car to a gold mine, and then fell in.

Twitter’s current leadership are flailing around right now, looking for ways to fix their platform, but there’s virtually no chance that they’ll make good choices. They have never understood their own product, in large part because few of them use it themselves, and a dozen years in that’s not going to change. And for people like me, it’s too late anyway.

There’s a very moving passage in one of Samuel Johnson’s essays about how friendships end that captures much of how I feel about Twitter:

The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint, and too numerous for removal. — Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense: but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased is silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless; as, when the vital powers sink into languor, there is no longer any use of the physician.

But if my friendship with Twitter is dying, I still care for the friends whose company I have enjoyed there. I hope I will hear from them elsewhere — maybe even at micro.blog.

farewell to Twitter?

(Cross-posted, with edits, from Text Patterns

A few weeks ago I deleted my private Twitter account — it was a good way to keep up with friends, but I found it impossible to control it (via disabled RTs, muted strings, etc.) well enough to prevent the frustration from exceeding the pleasure. That left me just with my public account, which I have been using primarily for linking to my own writing (e.g. blog posts like this one) and to cool things I’ve read by others. But I really really want to be out of the Twitter ecosystem completely — for obvious reasons: everybody knows that Twitter is horrible, there’s no need to belabor that point — so I have now deleted the public account too.

My chief concern with being off Twitter altogether is that I’ll be unable to provide a signal boost to people who are writing or making interesting things that other folks might not notice — and for that reason I could, I must admit, come back. So when Twitter notifies me, 29 days from now, that my account is about to be deleted, I might have a moment of weakness and log back in. (Twitter does prompt you when your account is about to be deleted … doesn’t it?)

I am aware, of course, that most people who read this blog get to it via my Twitter links, so I am perhaps making myself more marginal than ever. Who will even see this post? But if you happen to see it, and want to see more, please try RSS. It’s great. Most of the cool things I read or see are posted here, or on Text Patterns, or on my Pinboard page. And all of those have RSS feeds.

P.S. Have I written before about quitting Twitter? Have I quit Twitter before? Yes on both counts. I am pathetically irresolute. 

UPDATE (a few days later): Several people emailed me pleading with me to come back to Twitter, just for linkage. I guess for a great many people RSS is just a foreign technology. And since I can set up automatic posting to Twitter, why not? So that little experiment didn’t last long….

Joe Posnanski wises up

About 15 or 20 years ago, I realized that talk radio was wrecking my writing process. I would be writing a column, and I would hear the talk radio voices in my head screaming, and I thought: “This isn’t helping me.” And so I stopped listening to talk radio. That’s sort of how I feel about Twitter now. All of the good — and there’s a lot of good in Twitter — just doesn’t for me outweigh the negativity, the rashness, the time-suckitude. At some point — I wrote about this — I figured out how many words I have written on Twitter, and it just about broke my spirit. I’ve written a full book on Twitter. A full, lousy, grammatically challenged, snarky, largely unfunny book of snap judgments and surface-level philosophy. I don’t have time for that. I have real books to write.

Joe Posnanski. Every few days or so I check in on Twitter and I see people still trying to write about important, complex matters there. They think, Hey, we have 280 characters per tweet now and I can link thoughts together in a tweetstorm. And then they produce inarticulate, disconnected, logically-challenged clumps of assertion— even when they’re perfectly capable of writing articulate, connected, logically clear arguments, at least when they’re on platforms that don’t enforce the equivalent of the electrical jolts used to keep Harrison Bergeron from thinking clearly.

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

what Twitter does to journalism

Earlier today I tweeted: “Gap that needs to be filled: the journalism that journalists ignore while spending all day every day insulting each other on Twitter.”

I’m serious about this. I only follow one account on public Twitter (a truly vital one), but I had for some time a Twitter list called “Politics” that contained the accounts of some of the reporters I have the most respect for. I just deleted that list because all these people do is snark at each other and at commenters. They call each other names, they trade insults with random people who criticize them, they RT most such insults — basically, America’s political reporters think and act like sixth-graders. And they’re on Twitter all the time. You can’t learn a damned thing by following any of them — or any of the ones I know of, anyway.

Journalists are always saying that they have to be on Twitter because that’s where the information is. I think that’s bullshit. Twitter is where the childish bickering is, and that’s what seems to make journalists happy. I’m now going to begin my search for journalists who aren’t on Twitter, or are rarely there: those are the ones who are more likely to be doing some actual research and reporting.

Twitter’s missing manual

A ton of people have been linking to this, which is meet and right, because it’s excellent. (There were even a couple of things I, Past Master of Tweets, didn’t know.) However, I need to make a few small edits:

• Due to the nature of Twitter, it’s common for a tweet to end up on many people’s timelines simultaneously and attract many similar replies within a short span of time. It’s polite to check the existing replies to a popular tweet, or a tweet from a popular person, before giving your two cents.

After “polite,” add “but almost unheard-of.”

• It’s generally considered rude to barge into the middle of a conversation between two other people, especially if they seem to know each other much better than you know them, and especially if you’re being antagonistic. There are myriad cases where this may be more or less appropriate, and no hard and fast rules. You’re a passerby overhearing two people talking on the street; act accordingly.

In the first sentence of that quote, delete “It’s generally considered.” Such behavior is of course rude, but nothing on Twitter is “generally considered” rude. Alas.

One other etiquette matter I would mention: some people have figured out that I have a locked account and tweet at it, hoping I will notice and (I guess) respond. To me, this is the equivalent of walking up to a hotel-room door that says “DO NOT DISTURB” and pounding on it. This annoyance could easily be eliminated if Twitter had a setting for not showing me @-messages from anyone I don’t follow* — a setting that surely many people who suffer actual harassment on Twitter would want to take advantage of, at least at times, and which ought to be the default for locked accounts. Locked accounts aren’t very private if you regularly have to deal with noise from strangers.

* My bad, Twitter-for-web does have that setting — it’s just, I believe, not part of the API and therefore not available to any Twitter clients, including Tweetdeck. But I have found that even if I use Twitter-on-web, which I never want to do because of its annoying eccentricities, that choice is not sticky: I set the tab to “show replies only from people you follow,” and if I leave that tab and return to it the setting has gone back to “show replies from everyone.” Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for reminding me of the setting on the home page.

excerpt from discussions on the Twitter HQ Slack channel

A: We’re still getting hammered in the press — well, everywhere really — for all the abuse some of our users take. Do we have any new ideas about how to fix that?

B. I’ve got this idea for adding a kind of news feed, we can call it … hang on … yeah, let’s call it “Moments”

A. “Moments”?

B. Right. “Moments”

A. And this will help us deal with the abuse problem how?

B. If we put it where the Notifications tab used to be people will click on it like all. the. time

A. Okay, but …

C. You know this “140 character” thing has been an albatross around our necks for EVER

A. Hang on, can we get back to the issue I was raising?

C. I mean, *one hundred and forty*? Why not, like, TEN THOUSAND

B. LOL

D. LOL

E. ROTFL

E. We’re totally doing this

Twitter

So sad about Cedric the lion!

So sad about Cedric the lion!

So sad about Cedric the lion!

The guy who killed Cedric ought to be put to death himself.

So sad about Cedric the lion!

The guy who killed Cedric ought to be put to death himself.

Why do you care about lions more than black people?

So sad about Cedric the lion!

The guy who killed Cedric ought to be put to death himself.

So sad about Cedric the lion!

Why do you care about lions more than the unborn?

The guy who killed Cedric ought to be put to death himself.

Why do you care about lions more than black people?

So sad about Cedric the lion!

Why I Don’t Believe Twitter Will Do Anything to Address Abuse

Today I tweeted, “Okay that Twitter says it will deal better with abuse, but policies are only as good as their implementation. I left @flickr because they wouldn’t even respond when I was being harassed, in plain violation of their ToS. So policies as such are empty.” (FYI, I tell a very brief version of my experience with Flickr’s unresponsiveness in this post. And you can read more about Twitter’s new policies here.)

A few minutes later I got this response:

 

I followed, and provided the old case number. But all I got in return was a link to a page for reporting abuse — something I did a long time ago. So I replied, “Well, I already did report the abuse. And nothing was done. So basically you’re asking me to start over. If you folks want to do customer care, you can pick up the ball where you dropped it.” Flickr’s reply? “Thanks for helping us to make Flickr a safer place! We really appreciate it!”

In other words, a big fat middle finger extended right in my face. Publicly, Flickr expressed concern and responsibility; privately they mocked me.

This is what I mean when I say that stated policies mean absolutely nothing — indeed, in some cases, as with Flickr, they are PR ruses designed to hide total irresponsibility. (And remember, I was a paying customer of Flickr when they they couldn’t be bothered to address the abuse. Twitter has no paying customers, and no real competitors either.) I see absolutely no reason to believe that Twitter will do anything to curb the torrents of abuse that afflict so many of its users, especially women. I’d be happy to be proven wrong; I don’t expect to be.

All-Purpose Responses to Expressions of Puzzlement or Resentment on Twitter

  1. Here, let me google that for you.
  2. If you read a few other recent tweets of mine your confusion is likely to be remedied!
  3. I think you just tried to cram 500 words of meaning into 140 characters, so, alas, I find your reply incomprehensible.
  4. Thank you for sharing your passionate lack of interest in what I just tweeted about. Had I known that in advance it would have had no effect on my tweeting, though.
  5. Please do not take my tweet as an indication that I wish to conduct a debate on Twitter. I don’t use Twitter for that.