On Bidding Twitter Adieu
"The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children."-Maggie Smith
I was today years old when I realized that my Twitter addiction might have finally broken my brain (exploding mind emoji). I sat down to write a ten-thousand word tome about the difficulties we're all experiencing trying to survive in a pandemic with a collapsing proxy government run by pharmaceutical companies and oil oligarchs. All that came out was:
I hate it here.
Journalists have long been accused of talking in soundbites, as though it were a bad thing to know how to edit your own thoughts before you speak them aloud. As though direct and concise sentences are somehow inferior to a rambling stream of consciousness when we're only afforded ten seconds of airtime. Do you know what you can say in ten seconds or less? If you're American, a lot. We hate silence, after all. The average American will start talking if there's a pause longer than two seconds. So there's a need to avoid dead air and media training teaches us how to speak in snippets. Writing that way, too, seemed the next logical step in our always-on culture.
And many days, Twitter feels a lot like it's just dead air-filling snippets. Except it's not really dead. All the talking heads are talking at once and the rest of us, we just have to believe our voices are worth being heard and we'll throw them out into the ether, for better or worse.
Some of us have been told that we have to do this to raise awareness of our existence: Platform-building, they call it. For a while, that meant documenting our thoughts about every contestant on Next Top Model with quirky, not catty, commentary. But the days of live-tweeting television or awards shows were replaced by Zoom happy hour screenshots before disappearing entirely. Now all that's left for many of us is to opine on every major policy fuck-up with the commonly-held view of WTF. Or WTAF. Or WTELF. We're mad as hell at this dystopia; we are all that dad walking out onto his balcony, screaming FUCK into the void.
Or we are packaging our every emotion in the meme-speak of the moment. Our collective grief has been captured in quips about hitting the wall or pictures of a bomb-flattened silver sedan in downtown Beirut, covered in dust and debris, MOOD spraypainted in black on its passenger door.
We make ill-considered comparisons to life in Nazi Germany and joke about how dystopian 2020 (and 2021) feels, our timelines interrupted only by RTs of our horoscopes telling us that riches are in our future if we just believe that the sky turning purple has something to do with baby witches hexing the moon.
To people not on Twitter, the cultural conversation found there can sound delusional. We have all, collectively, jumped the shark. At a convention of branding people held in Germany a few years ago, Jack Dorsey said he wanted the platform to remain open, transparent so we could all see the inner thoughts of those running the political machinery, including the media. And it's done its job. I now know one popular lefty editor's NSFW pastimes, that an editorialist's precocious child has problems potty training, that two writers may or not have dated once. I think a lot about that tweet recreating dialogue at a Harvard orientation event, where a woman is supposed to have said, "I learned that there are stupid people everywhere."
Same, girl. Same.
Turns out, when you don't see other people for a long time, you latch on to what little contact you have with the outside world that you do get. I find myself far more invested in these invented bits of conversation than in some members of my own family. At least on Twitter, if I want right-wing propaganda and conspiracy theories I have to go looking for it; in my online bubble, it's not inserted into every single conversation.
All this leads me to ask myself, each and every time I log in: What in the world am I doing here. I take mindfulness classes reminding me of the need to set my intentions. And to question every move I make: What is my intention here. When I log in to Twitter, the answer is usually two-fold. First, I am lonely for adult conversation. Second, I need a shot of dopamine to balance out the ever-present cortisol coursing through my brain in what is easily the most stressful time most of us have ever experienced.
Even though I know that Twitter will never actually give me those things.
Some days it feels a lot like being in an abusive relationship, with me needing to navigate the abuser's mood swings. Are we happy today or will I be threatened for tweeting that women who are sexually assaulted demand respect, no matter the skin color or asylum status of the perpetrator? Dare I be myself and speak what's on my mind or will that ruin my chances of getting a real job, with benefits and everything?
I say I'm a good editor but what client will believe me if they log in and see a tweet with random capitalization and a gif of Sponge Bob hunched over, holding his back. BUt hOw ElsE wIll i grOw mY fOllOwIng If All I do is prOmOtIOnAl twEEts?
I don't have the career of a Teju Cole or Ta-Nehisi Coates so I can't really log off for good. But many days it feels like this platform has permanently fucked my brain. It feels like I've spent my entire life on Twitter but when I look back, I see it's just been a quarter of it. If I look through my camera roll, I'm more apt to find a screenshot of some dank meme than I am of my own child—not because I have so many screenshots but because my kid doesn't want their picture taken without permission, something rarely given. Still, it's one hell of an archival view of a life. And before you ask: No, I didn't join Twitter because I had a kid and was bored. I joined because by having a kid, I made myself unemployable in Germany and Twitter was one of the only ways for me to build a freelance career with editors based in the US, people I would otherwise not have had much contact. And that's the fucked up nature of all of this. To have a career in writing, we have to network with our editors on a platform that feels abusive and is literally rewiring our brains. My only rule has been that to separate my work life and my life as a parent, I don't tweet when my kid is around. Needless to say, I've been tweeting a lot less through the pandemic.
Shortly after realizing that to have a career, I'd need to build a Twitter following, I set up a Finsta and then switched my handle to my real name. In Germany, there's a real push to have everyone on social media platforms reveal their real names. Yet journalists who post under their real names are held to a higher legal standard here; by nature of the job title, we're expected to be more trustworthy and fact-based. It's a hard line to toe. We can be sued for defamation for calling a fascist a fascist but if one particular pseudonymous journalist doesn't like our reporting, he can send trolls to harass and threaten us with no consequences. Which he does, surprisingly frequently; his targets are always women who disagree with his ultra-conservative perspective.
It's not new or unusual, I guess, but that doesn't make it any less disturbing. As a permalancer at an international media house, I was told in my first week that I could be fired at any time for my tweets; later, I was told that if I cared about meeting our strategy targets, I needed to use my un-official account to promote the company's stories. Outside of business hours, of course. Unpaid reach.
I soft-blocked my editors to avoid being fired for my tweets and was banned from the social media team for it. When I eventually quit, I had to delete my account in order to bite my tongue about the harassment I experienced there. To keep from announcing that I'd left after finding out my male colleagues earned more for doing less and being told that if I wanted equal pay, I'd need to prove my worth. Other journalists who used Twitter to call out racism and sexism in the workplace sat down with lawyers beforehand to cover all bases. I couldn't afford one, nor could I afford to torpedo my burgeoning career as a foreign language journalist in a country where less than 10% of newsroom employees are foreign-born or second-generation immigrant journalists.
Because of that permalance position and several of the stories I wrote, I have people from around the world following me, expecting to see some sort of expertise on peace building in Afghanistan or freedom of speech in Mexico. Sure I’m an expert on those things. But all they've gotten recently were diatribes on Germany's inability to switch to digital learning in the early days of the pandemic and its impact on school reopening today because that's my new beat: Trying to sell stories on whatever the hot topic of the day is. I'm not a fast writer but I can't wait six months to be paid so flowing longform essays and investigative pieces are out for me.
These followers do not realize that my (now former) colleagues have been using my tweets as a litmus test, taking my tweets into concept meetings, pitching them for their own stories to editors who hated me for being unprofessional and having more followers online. They do not realize that a tweet I wrote about Germany's problem with domestic violence had been embedded in a propaganda article meant to prove that Germany hates women. That for a while, googling my name could redirect you to a porn site that claimed I recommended dating German men. (I would never!). They do not care that unlike Kim Kardashian, I am not being paid thousands of dollars for these hit-or-miss tweets and that some days, I am on Twitter because I am desperate for commissions so I can keep the lights on.
Without institutional support, the threat of libel makes some of us even warier of exactly what we say as we subtweet 45 or his cronies, call out sexual harassment without naming names, make thinly veiled references to whoever is the latest person to have wronged us. I know I have become warier after a threat of a libel lawsuit slid into my inbox, subject line: "Internet speak." Someone I knew was mad that I made fun of a German tradition. I'd tweeted it while enduring yet another lecture that included something to the effect of "we know foreigners don't know this, but in Germany we blah blah blah" and an upside-down face emoji. Or was it an Obama shrug gif? I can't remember my offense that well but the email detailed it, along with several others that were deemed by the offended party to be reputation-damaging. Turns out people who aren't extremely online have thinner skins than those of us who spend our days shitposting, trading jabs and shouting at each other all for a bit of pay. Honestly, I'm not sure that's a bad thing.
Yet our online words are often misunderstood or misconstrued. Taken out of context, void of the tonalities that separate sarcasm from sincerity, our tweets can and will be used against us in a court of law. We can TweetDelete everything but screenshots last forever. Why are we doing this again? And will we ever recover the brain capacity lost to this reconsidered style of speaking?
For those of us who have spent far too much time on Twitter, the damage may be far too great already. Instead of soundbites, we find ourselves constructing our sentences with pull quote tweets in mind. We think up tweets that reflect old memes. Tweets that create new ones. Tweets which reference pop culture and brand names alike. Which feature watermelon La Croix and White Claw martinis because natty wine o'clock is just so pre-pandemic but anyway time is relative, ammirite? Who needs a clock anymore when time has lost all meaning. It's like a verbal Salvador Dali painting. It's just all tew much.
Or is it just me?
BRB: My menchies are overflowing.
By Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Maggie Smith, "Good Bones" from Waxwing. Copyright © 2016 by Maggie Smith.