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.