Why I deleted my Twitter, and why maybe you should too

⇠ back | date: 2022-10-18 | tags: culture, tech | duration: 16:59 minutes

I deleted my Twitter account this month. It was a decision that I had struggled with for months (if not years), and one that I want to talk about. This article is a collection of thoughts gathered through conversations with friends on this topic. I was advised to turn these thoughts into a blog post.

If you are struggling with your relationship to social media and having a hard time cutting ties with some platform (in particular Twitter), maybe this blog post will be helpful to you.


I got addicted to Twitter in the run-up to the 2016 US election. I was going through a bit of a moderate phase back then (sandwiched between the punk days of my teens and the anarchy of today) and I became part of "liberal twitter", consumed liberal memes, and enjoyed dunking on conservatives. Of course I didn't think Trump would win.

After the election results this behaviour intensified. I sought refuge from the world that had shattered my understanding of society by sliding deeper into the filter bubble that had sheltered me from reality in the first place. And so I revelled in making fun of Trump and his supporters, celebrating the "covfefe" and body shaming, and intensively following the discourse™. Of course it didn't make me any less miserable.

The band-aid for the pain that I felt, the realisation that the world didn't work the way I had swindled myself into believing, soon didn't satisfy my need for comfort and so I became more dependent on instant gratification through social media. I was unable to truly comprehend the extent to which I was addicted to the thing that was hurting me.

Doom scrolling is a well known phenomenon in our terminally online society and we talk about it as if it was unavoidable. As if it was an individualist problem. We know that it is bad for our mental health, yet rarely do we talk about it on a systemic level. Why do we all put up with these circumstances and why do we all keep making excuses for the systems that make us miserable? This, to me, is the core of how many people engage with modern social media platforms.

I had taken longer breaks from Twitter before, deleting the app off my phone, bargaining with myself about how much I wanted to share. But I always fell back into its orbit. I feel it's appropriate to use the language of addiction around this subject. And it wasn't until I truly admitted to myself that I had a problem that I was able to let go and examine the frameworks through which I had engaged with online society, and the impact that these systems had had on me and my life.

In the following sections of this article I want to outline some of the mechanisms that have kept me hooked for so long and have made it extremely difficult to escape its consequences. Lastly I also want to talk about a possible way out and some alternatives as to how to engage with the online.

The fear of missing out

Social media weaponises "FOMO", the fear of missing out. Twitter is particularly good at this, advertising itself as the platform "to know what's happening". Twitter users know it first is the actual current tag-line to entice you into signing up.

I believe social media has had the strangle-hold over our collective psyche at least in part because "we" have designed a society where being outside your own home is miserable, exhausting, and toxic. To have a good time outside you need to spend money, or you need to engage in some kind of social event. Merely the act of being outside is punished through car-centric design and architecture. Not to mention the noise that personal motor vehicles cause and their effect on the mental well being of city dwellers. I have been fortunate in a way, living in the suburbs of Berlin (for the time being), meaning that I only have to walk for about 5 minutes before I end up in the Brandenburg forest.

This has actually been a life-saver. It has meant that I was able to escape stressful situations over the last few years (of which there have been too many) by going for a walk, disconnecting through nature, and re-grounding myself in a very basic way. It seems silly to even talk about this but having the ability to go for nice a walk has been linked to a significant improvement of mental health1.

The unfortunate reality is, that many people do not have access to this basic human need, and so, social media can often seem like an enticing alternative. This is an especially important angle considering the way addictive design is used in social media apps to give you a false sense of gratification.

Over the last decade we have all become more and more aware of global events to the detriment of our collective mental health. Permanently wired into "what's happening" creates the illusion of control, where none is possible. I'm not arguing for ignorance here either. I don't think that shutting yourself off to what is happening in the world is a reasonable alternative. But we must examine the ways that our current modus operandi is damaging to us. We must especially become aware of how the fear of missing out will drive us to engage for longer and beyond our personal limits to handle the stress that knowing the horrors of the global capitalist system causes within us.

Becoming a brand

When I created my Twitter account back in 2012 it was for me to shit-post about video games, and to keep in touch with various friends around my life. Around 2017 a slow shift started to appear in the way that I used my account. It was gradual, and imperceptible to me at first. Over time I was changing from being a person to being a brand. This will probably not be everyone's experience. I know people who are 100% the same in person as they are on Twitter (even with large-ish follower counts) and I assume this is not a problem that everyone is going to have.

Still, it is something that I have struggled with, and that I know people much "larger" than me are also struggling with. My audience on Twitter was still relatively small, yet I stopped feeling confident in being able to share myself as-is on the site. In one part this was because it made me uncomfortable to share intimate and private parts of my life with thousands of people online that I didn't know. In other parts it was because my political and societal outlook shifted and radicalised. My views became less socially acceptable, and so, I started filtering myself online. This was small at first, but over time it built up a wall between me and my Twitter brand.

On one hand I felt this weird obligation to use my platform, to leverage the following that I had for the work that I was doing and that was important to me. On the other hand I felt repulsed by the idea of having to pretend to be someone I wasn't to be accepted.

I want to quickly explore the shape and form of online communities (through my experience obviously -- I have done some research into this but sociologically things are more complex than this) because I think it will be helpful to explain how this shift from "person" to "brand" happened.

Broadly speaking, internet communities fall onto a spectrum between specialist and generalistic.

Specialist communities are those built around a specific common interest. This could be part of your identity, it might be a hobby, or it might be a shared profession. It's important to know that this is only a part of you and while it's easy to find people who are also into this thing, often any other overlap is coincidental or not guaranteed to result in connections that you will want to maintain. In my experience these communities end up feeling shallow because the social overlap is limited to a particular subject. It is certainly possible to build otherwise nuanced relationships with people in these spaces, but it's not as easy.

(Again, this model has its limitations, especially for communities by marginalised folks, where a shared life experience provides a common backdrop to society that influences every other aspect of someone's life.)

Generalist communities are those that are polymorphic, meaning that a (more or less) diverse crowd of people come together (maybe under a very loosely defined banner) to talk to each other. While it will be possible to meet people who share a wide variety of interests to you, it can also feel like searching for a needle in a hay stack because there are a lot of people, and finding potential friends in a huge diverse crowd of people who you may not have many things in common with can be difficult.

Most social media sites will reflect any number of community variations on this spectrum and Twitter is no exception in that. There are subtle differences in how these categories work depending on how you engage with the platform. In my time on Twitter as an individual I felt like I was building multiple sets of specialist communities. Once I became a brand however this shifted and the focus relied more on building a generalist audience. No longer could I assume that my followers were sympathetic to me, and so came the consequences of presenting my authentic self in front of an ever-increasing crowd of judges.

The "algorithm" & the timeline

A few years ago social media platforms started pushing for non-chronological, behaviour curated timelines. At first this caused an uproar, when users stopped seeing their friends' posts in their feed and instead started seeing random sponsored content; whether someone had paid for it or merely engaged with it. At this point you will also see content recommendations from groups and hashtags.

But this controversy died down over time, as could maybe have been expected. Ironically running a poll on Twitter these days whether people use the algorithmic or chronological timelines yields in a heavy filter bias, which "shows" that most people are using the chronological timeline. Of course, most of your followers won't actually see your post in the end.

Non-chronological timeline design is at the centre of modern corporate social media sites. The goal is no longer to facilitate meaningful exchange between users and instead the focus has shifted to keeping users "engaged" for longer. The customers are ad-buyers and the commodity is your time. This is another open secret that we all conveniently ignore. You may think that you are above this, that you can't be manipulated into spending more and more of your precious time on this planet in front of your phone or laptop, refreshing, scrolling, refreshing, scrolling, but considering that the designers of these tools fall prey to their own creations 2, you are not.

Importantly "algorithms" are also arbiters of content, and in the ideal case, equalisers. Someone with very few followers can have a post "blow up" if the algorithm blesses it, and someone with many followers can have their work buried if the algorithm deems it unsuitable. This might not be a problem for your shit posts. But when you try to use a platform to advertise your work, especially when you are financially dependent on it, this can be a scary prospect.

Twitter is by far not the worst platform for this, nor is it the one with the worst effect. Sites like YouTube, where artists spend hundreds of hours creating videos, are much more affected by this. But the mechanisms are fundamentally the same.

Social capital vs. Perceived social capital

Algorithmic timelines on Twitter feed into the dilemma between our perceived social capital and our actual social capital. Social media has largely become mandatory for branding, for advertising your work in some way. Especially if you are self employed or an artist of any kind, your livelihood may depend on your ability to promote your work and getting whatever you are doing in front of the eye balls of other people. Having a large following on Twitter will definitely help with this, but it's by no means a guarantee. Other platforms suffer from this too (again: see problems that smaller YouTube creators face3 that those who have "made it" no longer do).

I think this is the aspect that I struggled with the longest. I didn't judge my Twitter account by the actual social capital that I gained from it, I judged it by the perceived social capital that I thought to gain from sticking around. The reality of the situation was that any time I would genuinely talk about my work, advertise something that I had made or was proud of, my Twitter audience was useless. Almost as an insult the most popular of my posts were shit posts. Having recently talked about this with some friends, both with smaller and significantly larger audiences, this seems to be a somewhat common experience.

It's extremely difficult to distinguish these two values and to really understand what actual benefit you are gaining from sticking to a known habit. A lot of it is going to be projection. And fantasies will make it hard to quit. Don't think about the one time your work was valued, think about the hundreds of times that your work felt ignored.

Whatever current drama is happening

Twitter is stuck in a perpetual cycle of despair. One could argue that this is a more general trend in the 24-hour news-cycle-society that we live in, but Twitter manages to put its unique spin on it.

More importantly, no matter what is currently going on, you will find a lot of people threatening to leave Twitter if X happens or if Y doesn't happen. But they never do. At this point I don't think anything is going to make them actually leave Twitter. No design changes to the platform did it, the Nazis didn't, Donald Trump didn't do it, this acquisition by a certain apartheid profiteer won't do it either, and whatever the next thing is that's going on in the future won't do it either.

I truly believe that Twitter brings out the worst in people, whether it's the capitalist grifters who need an audience, or self righteous trolls who perpetually feed the discourse. It gives you the illusion of control by letting you curate an experience bubble, while barely even giving you that.

In the end, Twitter has become too large an investment in the hearts and minds of its users to give up. And to be honest, I've had enough of it to want to make excuses anymore.

In conclusion

I was in London at the beginning of October, watching the closing performance of The Prince at the Southwark Playhouse. After the play I walked around Elephant & Castle with a friend and we talked about social media and the performances we all play for each other (in line with the play, which you should definitely watch on or offline if you have the chance).

It was in that moment that I went fuck it.

We only get so many years on this planet and the world is a truly horrific and heart breaking place. And we are going to need all of our collective strength to change things. If we even still can. One thing I am certain of however: social media culture is not going to help us.

Corporate social media has been designed to keep us engaged to the detriment of our mental health. Being informed of something does not necessarily increase your agency over the situation. Instead it may simply be giving you the illusion of control by exploiting your emotional reactions and well-being.

Delete your Twitter account. You can do it. I believe in you :)

/ Afterword

One last thing I want to talk about is alternatives. I am still online, I still talk to friends. I even, in a sense, still have a public persona. I use the fediverse5 6 to advertise my work, and have done so for years. In fact, every time I posted something on Twitter, I also posted in on fedi. The differences in feedback were astounding. It wasn't that every post got a lot of attention, but the ones I truly cared about did. Not only were they widely shared, they created conversation... honest to god feedback, discussion, and interest. Something practically unknown to me on Twitter.

Now... as a certain TV writer posted on mastodon.social back in 2017: "I wonder if being on here during my twitter breaks is like when I tried to quit smoking using cigars", and he might be right (love your work Dan).

I think the crux of the issue is how you approach your use of technology, and what kind of interactions that technology fosters. I don't want to turn this article around in the afterword and insinuate that any problematic relationship with social media is your own fault. It isn't. But, I think you have more power over your habits that you give yourself credit for.

I have three accounts on the fediverse: a public one, where I post realistically the same stuff I posted on brand-Twitter before it made me miserable, a semi-public one, where I share selfies, random things I'm working on, and a sort of micro-blog, and a private one where I talk to just close friends. The expectation to have multiple accounts with varying degrees of publicness is ingrained into the fediverse in a way that I've never really seen it on Twitter.

And yet, I wonder how much time I spend on the elephant website and whether it is useful to my life. In the end everything is a balancing act. And while I can still see a lot of good reasons to stick around on the fediverse (imperfect as it may be4), I can no longer say the same for Twitter.

Giving up on Twitter doesn't mean giving up on online society. Especially if you live in an isolating place (like the suburbs, or more generally North America), it can be incredibly helpful to find a wider community online.

But please don't use a switch in platform as an excuse to not examine the underlying relationships you have with the online.

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-15004-0 

  2. Watch "The Social Dilemma (2020)". It's not a great documentary; in my opinion it falls short in its analysis of what social media and the manipulation of public opinion actually means, outside of a very narrow "someone help me balance this, my democracy is dying". But there are some insightful interviews in it, by people who have worked on various social media sites, talking about their own experiences with social media addiction. 

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HiNVQkamA4 

  4. https://sporks.space/2021/02/02/mastodon-really-is-crumbling-and-it-will-only-get-worse/ 

  5. https://fediverse.info 

  6. https://wordsmith.social/elilla/a-futuristic-mastodon-introduction-for-2021