Pulling the Plug: Leaving Social Media for Parts Unknown

It took me a year to make a rash decision.

The decision to leave social media, I mean really quitting (not pausing, taking breaks, silently checking here and there — quitting), came rather unceremoniously for something where I had spent lots of energy and time over the past five years. FIVE YEARS. Unless you are 80plus, five years is a long time for any person to think about the past. Besides, if you are 80plus, five years is an even longer time if you look to the future.

A friend had sent me a mail: Why not quit? Why not, indeed. Ten minutes later and over 6000 followers, plus who knows how many thousand tweets, were gone. Just like that. The account was deactivated. I’ve simply done it. Smellosopher, my handle, did not exist anymore. In 30 days, if I did not log in again, and the account will be gone — for real. 30 days. Nice try, Twitter. But I mean it.

Leaving social media, complaining about its detrimental effect on health and democracy, has become somewhat fashionable recently - and an excellent way to make some money, too (several books and podcasts now talk about the dark side of Twitter, Facebook, et al.). So I cannot claim much originality or novelty for my thoughts about leaving. Still, I do claim thoughtfulness.

My grounds for leaving Twitter told me something about myself. I cannot cope long enough with people in large public places, and I like them too much in small but intense conversation to have social media be my social space. Social media starved me of something I cherished. It took me a while to recognize that I was drinking salt water while wondering why I was thirstier than before.

Something changed for me profoundly in twenty-twenty. Sure, everyone’s life was thrown back at them with new terms and conditions (the small print revealed how much of it felt like a scam). People seemed to cope differently. But too much of life suddenly went online and that changed the current and charge of social media.

I recently talked to a good friend of mine. Sometimes we don’t call for months, only to have an intense string of calls over several days. She mentioned that she knew a girl, many years ago, who had a mental breakdown when her family managed to escape from East to West Germany. (Yes, it was a while back.) She had a mental breakdown because she came from a state where everything mattered in the sense that everything had an externally imposed meaning, as everything was watched by others. What you said, how you said it, when you said it, and when you did not. Every expression, word and gesture, could be read into some kind of social commentary. You honestly had to be cautious about what the neighbors would think. People you knew, people you trusted, people you loved — or people who simply should know better — could turn on you. In contrast, in West Germany, nothing mattered that much. What you said, what you wore, when you talked, or whether you talked at all. Her whole framework of meaning, social structures, interaction, and consequently of herself broke down. Its sudden absence left her with nothing through which to understand herself. She was traumatized, later institutionalized. Don’t get me wrong — this is not a call for East German times (in fact, far from it). It’s a reminder that how we define and enact communication becomes our social structure of meaning, its content and creation. In the end, these social enactments of communication further affect and transform our self.

Twitter has been good to me and for me. It has helped me to find and connect with people I may not have known otherwise. Some I will now have the pleasure of having conversations with by other means. Twitter has also helped to circumvent some of the gatekeepers of the academic community to find other readers and outlets for my work. It gave me a voice and helped me develop that voice, find different forms of expression and communication and connections. So it really has been a great tool, personally and professionally.

That is why I am now leaving. Because, over the last year, Twitter has started breaking and taking my voice. It used to be a great playpen to toss around half-baked ideas, get those occasional little hits from rapid exchanges with some value of spontaneity, and find things thrown into your timeline you did not know existed. It was open-ended. Then it got all Victorian. Even though, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Instead, every utterance quickly became a display of mannerism. Every gesture could be turned to mean something to someone who might be watching. Who knows. That’s the trick with Twitter — people read much less of your musings and are much less interested in you than the instant hits from likes and retweets suggest. And why would they?

In a way, pandemic Twitter feels like an embodiment of the clash between East and West Germany. Not much of your thoughts and expressions matter to anyone, really. They get lost in virtual limbo pretty quickly and daily. At the same time, everything can suddenly be made to matter and make a social example of you. (Blimey, I once was chastised and ended up in a long spat with Rando 2.0 for quoting Habermas.)

You play a role, and you better play it well. Repeat after me. This. Insert some clapping hands and signal widely. Or use some other slogans and keywords to show how edgy and contrarian you are. Pick your social cliché wisely — because there aren’t that many, and no one is going to read that second or third tweet you send. You will be what others say you are. And not simply to some strangers on the internet. Because it’s entirely unclear who reads you and who is a stranger these days. I’ve never met some of the people I frequently talked to on Twitter. Don’t I know them on some level? Do I, or do I not? I genuinely don’t know.

Perhaps not being on Twitter will diminish the chances of being read (important for someone who writes) and people being aware of my work. I will not know of some other people either, with their writings and works. However, I did find a good lot of that in a time before Twitter — because I wanted to, and I still looked for things. It is time to engage more actively with people and ideas again, not have things thrown mindlessly into my timeline. This is not knowledge. I desire more time to think instead of being frequently perplexed by thinking of myself as potentially being thought of. It seemed that I judged myself more, and more harshly, when I spent time on social media. That kind of social navel-gazing won’t tell me about the things I do want to know. It follows no line of curiosity. And it won’t make me a better or just more interesting person. It won’t make me someone you’d want to have a conversation with.

So what made me leave Twitter? Couldn’t I just use it less or differently? If you can, good for you. I couldn’t. I had to go because it was not an add on anymore, not for me. It had become a silent driver of thoughts and attitudes. Also, my decisions are built from various strands of experience. Some are somewhat accidental. I recently watched “Pretend it’s a City,” the new documentary by Scorsese on Fran Lebowitz. One thing Lebowitz observed hit closer to home.

A writer trains to observe and make distinctions, as characters in novels and other art forms live within the grey zone. That is what makes them so human to us. These grey zones feel out of bounds on social media, though. Judgment on others is either strikingly hash (OMG, just go away and kill yourself!) or idiotically overenthusiastic (YAAAS, my queen! You are the greatest!). No one can live on either side of that divide, not long enough to retain some sense of personality. And some people feel more uncomfortable with this duality as a measure of a person. I remember that Lebowitz paused at some point in that documentary and then uttered those fateful two sentences: “I don’t think there’s any people like me in a young generation.”

Pause.

“They wouldn’t be allowed to be like me.” Perhaps I am too uneasy for Twitter. With the point being: I don’t want to be the kind of easy that works on Twitter. I’d like to be a person you’d want to have a conversation with.

I also desire words to have meaning again, meaning that is not mere mannerism.

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