I’m really serious about quitting Twitter this time, I promise. I deactivated my account on March 15th and declared the event to my friends in Slack. They earnestly congratulated me, because they all know how exhausting and distressing Twitter can be. But now that I’m gone, their new joke is tweeting that I “don’t exist.”
It’s not the first time I haven’t existed, and sure as my inevitable death, it won’t be the last. But my nonexistence on Twitter didn’t stick right away. When I first quit on the 15th, I came back three days later because I decided that I wanted to tweet about a new project.
Then I got owned, and I deserved it:
It doesn’t feel good to quit something over and over again — especially when everyone knows you’re coming back. When I deactivated my account again for real on March 25th, my friend Casey Newton wasn’t buying it: “writing about people deleting Twitter should be like reporting a missing person to police. You have to wait at least a day.”
And so I returned to Slack to declare, once again, that I had quit Twitter. But now I’m subject to a real financial penalty. I’ve agreed to pay Casey $1,000 if I reactivate my Twitter account, and I really don’t want to cut that check. It’s an absurd amount of money. Fortunately, I can’t think of a single tweet that would be worth it.
I know this sounds like a stunt or a joke, but it’s not. Hours after I deactivated my account and put a bounty on it, Chrissy Teigen announced she, too, would be leaving Twitter. When I saw her goodbye letter it felt like it was in my own handwriting. “This no longer serves me as positively as it serves me negatively, and I think that’s the right time to call something,” she wrote. “...one thing I haven’t learned is how to block out the negativity.”
That’s not to say my experience on Twitter was anything like Chrissy’s. Twitter works differently when you have millions of followers and an endless eruption of mentions and replies. (Even rarer: her tweets often generated coverage from reporters and created entire news cycles.) And like other women on the internet, she received years of public abuse simply for being herself — except at a scale few people will ever experience.
But everyone is exposed to the online abuse of others at scale, even if they are not targeted by it. And that means Twitter is a horror show for people who feel real anxiety just from witnessing anger and cruelty. I’ve received plenty of abuse and threats through Twitter over the years because of my work, but the stuff that actually sticks with me is what I see happening to others. Whether it’s learning too much about the sacrificial character of the day or falling down a thread of abusive replies to a random tweet, it’s difficult to avoid “negativity” on a platform that seems designed to reward it. Even the “nice” intermittent rewards that Twitter gives us — Llamas on the loose! Small boulder the size of a big boulder! — are at risk of becoming their own nightmares.
Making a change when you’ve been worn down for so long can feel more like something that’s already happened instead of a clear moment in time that separates past and future. I’m worn down, and that makes quitting Twitter feel a lot easier. (Well, that, and theoretically owing Casey a thousand bucks.) But the stress from Twitter’s toxicity is not the only reason I’m leaving.
When Twitter doubled the length of a tweet from 140 to 280 characters, the company acknowledged “the challenge of fitting a thought into a tweet.” That people have mastered the challenge speaks to the deeper problem that comes with using a tool for more than a decade — the way it shapes how you experience the world. How it makes you form words and sentences to fit certain kinds of boxes. How it makes you feel compelled to fill those boxes, and why. How these things alter the rhythm of your life.
In that same blog post, Twitter said that doubling the length of tweets made people spend more time on Twitter. It’s widely known that these tools are designed to keep you locked in, and yet it’s still easy to overlook how a collection of software decisions can change parts of your consciousness and personal identity.
I’ve never liked the moral panic around “internet addiction,” but there is something resonant about the metaphor. (Let’s just leave aside stuff like the New York Post calling screens “digital heroin”.) The little voice I once had in my head telling me to smoke cigarettes actually never sounded much different from the little voice telling me to tweet. I will let other people figure out the mechanisms behind that — all I need to know is that, for a time, I heard and I listened.
When those little voices go away, you find how much room there is for other kinds of thinking — in different shapes of time and color and texture. In 2014 I permanently quit Facebook after a few failed attempts. It didn’t take long to stop seeing things in my head that were Facebook-shaped. I found other places on the internet to enjoy and other ways to communicate with people. Just because Facebook and Twitter are free doesn’t mean you have to let them live rent-free in your head.
This past weekend, a thought passed through my mind in the shape of a tweet and I felt the urge to tweet it. But I couldn’t, so I didn’t. And as the thought drifted away from me, I felt lighter. It wasn’t put on a permanent record. I didn’t stop to watch my phone and see if anyone else would acknowledge it. I let it go, closed my eyes, and felt the sun on my face.
The birds in my backyard tweeted approvingly.
Update April 16th, 2021, 8:53 AM ET: 40 minutes after this story was published, Chrissy Teigen rejoined Twitter. I wish her the best.
Update March 4th, 2022, 1:55 PM ET: The author has paid the $1,000 penalty and resumed tweeting. Life comes at you fast, eventually.