Learning Not to Be Tormented by the Twitter Torrent

I took a vacation from work last week, but I’m not good at vacations. One way or the other, I usually find some way to taint what should be a chance to relax with stress and labor. Sometimes that source of stress can be my own children. Not so much this time. This time, it was Twitter.

At first I had narrowed this epiphany to the bunch of jerks who attacked me when I tweeted in support of Anita Sarkeesian, and after my post on video games’ brutalization of women. And yes, that was stressful, and it’s not my fault that lots of people are jerks and decide to act on their jerkishness. But as the sun set on the last day of my time off, I realized that jerks on Twitter weren’t the sole problem for me, nor even at the core. It’s Twitter.

Two weeks ago, I, like hundreds of thousands of people I suspect, allowed the harrowing and upsetting news from Ferguson, Missouri eat me alive, night after night. I felt a kind of moral obligation to keep my eyes affixed to Tweetdeck as every outrageous development crossed the zeitgeist in real time. I could be of now help, and I couldn’t change the minds of those who thought the police’s siege was justified, but I wouldn’t allow myself to stop internally churning over every distressing incident. Tweet by tweet. Helpless watching and tweeting my feelings only served, in the end, to put a dent in my well-being.

It wasn’t a bad idea for me to be informed, or to feel a deep compassion for the peaceful people whose very humanity was being challenged by our system, there represented by a militarized police force. I know there is real value in being well-informed and empathetic . But there is educating yourself, and there is abusing yourself.

In the midst of the blowback over my tweets and posts about Anita Sarkeesian and video games, I found myself wounded with every attack. Sometimes the lashings came from people I sort of knew on Twitter, which stung in a particular way that unleashed all sorts of self-doubting anxieties. But even the stupid and overtly hostile attacks from trolls and other miscellaneous dingbats hurt. These were snarky, mean-spirited attempts at zingers from fools, devoid of sense, and they still upset me.

Put aside why I “let” these things affect me as severely as they do. Folks, this is what it is to be like me. The better question to ask is why I place myself in such a position where I can be affected.

Marco Arment recently discovered something similar after a Twitter-fight with a tech journalist, which apparently really got to him, and he’s not exactly a shrinking violet:

Much of the stress I felt during this is from the amount of access to me that I grant to the public….We allow people access to us 24/7. We’re always in public, constantly checking an anonymous comment box, trying to explain ourselves to everyone, and trying to win unwinnable arguments with strangers who don’t matter in our lives at all.

We allow this access because of what we feel we’re getting in return: all the benefits of the Twitter firehose, every tweet in real time from those we’ve chosen to follow, plus (and this is the big one) a platform to reach as many people who choose to follow us, plus however many people follow them, should they pass our content along. When Twitter’s great, it’s really, really great. “It’s like 51% good and 49% bad,” as Brent Simmons recently put it. “I don’t see it getting any better. Hopefully it can hold the line at just-barely-worth-it.”

And it’s not just about people ganging up on me, it’s about exposing myself to the Great Torrent of Feelings that Twitter can become. As I just talked about in my last post, Twitter and other social media can, at their worst, serve as platforms for one group of people to vociferously agree with each other at the expense of another group of people, who are just, like, “the worst.” Regardless of my orientation to this dynamic, whether I’m in the agreeing-group, the dissenting group, or simply watching it take place, it’s dispiriting, frustrating, and if it’s about an issue or group of people I care about, upsetting.

Here’s Frank Chimero, expressing something that rings true for me as well:

My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream.

And here’s a kicker: While the groupthink and mob dynamics are Twitter at its worst, I think Ferguson is an example of Twitter at its best: the real-time documentation of an existentially crucial event, with contributions from people who are participants and first-hand witnesses to developments, along with analysis and reaction from people watching from outside. But just because it’s important and useful doesn’t mean it’s healthy for a given individual to drink all of it in night after night.

As I grew wearier this week, I took breaks from Twitter. I didn’t do any kind of cold-turkey abstention or detox. I just put it aside for a while. I took almost one whole day away before finally writing and posting my article on video games, and over the course of the week, I affirmatively decided not to allow Twitter or social media to be a part of my routine or my passive phone-checking. I chose not to put it in front of me when I was playing with my kids. I assembled some toys and organized my daughter’s room with only a podcast, and little phone checking. I rode my bike more than I ever have. I turned off all of its notifications for reading a book on my iPad. I even checked out some dead-tree books from the library, in large part so that when I was reading them, the Great Torrent of Feelings could not reach me.

As I so often write under this blog’s banner, social media is best used with great intention. I usually mean this in terms of fostering your personal identity or in curating what content you’re exposed to. But it also applies to how much of your time and attention you allow it to claim overall. I have defaulted, I fear, to a stance in which the Twitter Torrent was granted passage through my nervous system as often, and for as long, as anyone else using it wanted. This week, while not the most relaxing and diverting vacation I could have hoped for, has at least taught me to be more specific and, yes, intentional, about my time in the Torrent.

Hat tip to Alan Jacobs, from whom I found a couple of these quotes, and usually deserves many hat tips.

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