Twitter, as Perceived by a Cranky and Privileged Old-Timer

Crude marker drawing of Twitter's "Fail Whale" illustration showing a sad whale and "Something went wrong" text
“Fail Whale” from Charles Hope on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nota bene:

Folks, this is a long, rambling brain fart. It’s not advice. It’s not judgement. I’d say the Trump administration probably started the larger national discourse around ditching Twitter for personal sanity reasons, but anecdotally I’ve seen an uptick in essays, blog posts, and news articles over the past year about why we should leave Twitter (or why a particular writer did leave). That just got me thinking and, as is so often the case for me, I needed to get those thoughts out of my head so I could start thinking about other stuff.

How did I get here?

I joined Twitter in March of 2007. The service had been open to the public for the better part of a year, but after my friend Patrick told me about Twitter’s usefulness during the South by Southwest conference, I finally had to give it a try. It was lonely on there for a while; most of my real life social network was still on MySpace or Facebook. In the years it took for people I knew to join Twitter I followed the handful of folks I knew personally along with internet personalities I knew about through other channels such as blogs and notable tech folks. I never followed too many people because I was, and remain, a “Twitter completionist” who prefers to read everything in my timeline.

I was on Twitter during its undeniable glory days. Despite the high probability of Fail Whale sightings, I was there for all the experimentation of 3rd party apps before Twitter ever had their own (I still love you Birdhouse!). I witnessed the emergence of hashtags and retweets. I rolled my eyes when traditional media leaned on the new-popular-web-thing trope that people were only posting about their food. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.

I met people through Twitter that I now call friends, some of whom I have since met in real life. There was a lot of promise in the platform when it was young, and even while it was growing.

Twitter started changing.

Far smarter people than me have written about how Twitter mismanaged its own growth. Twitter just didn’t seem to know what they wanted to be when they grew up. It was always broadcast platform-as-social-network, but at some point it started shifting in tone and usage more heavily toward broadcast and further from social. So-called power users started complaining about Twitter’s disregard for its theoretically most ardent fans (kinda silly in hindsight to suggest a VC-backed user acquisition machine like Twitter paid any mind to “ardent fans”).

On a personal level, I started to see a lot more duplicate posts and retweets from the people I followed. There was a Twitter-wide explosion in the use of retweets. Folks were posting threads that should have been blog posts. Many of my friends grew bored, gave up, or stuck with Facebook as the single attention sink for their social and parasocial needs. Most of the people I followed who stuck around gradually shifted their use into commiseration, news/culture/meme ingestion and sharing, and political/social complaint. This meant my timeline turned increasingly negative, occasionally interrupted by a funny meme or video.

Why the hell am I still here?

To be clear: I’m a straight, white guy. This means I have little risk of randos trying to stomp on my stamps whenever I express an opinion online. I can criticize Richmond For All, anti-vaxxers, Elon Musk, or Donald Trump without having to worry about a brigade of dude-bros jumping down my throat as if its their personal duty to shut me down. That’s hella privilege. But that doesn’t automatically make Twitter something I can use everyday without feeling the sort of emotional or psychological toll written about with increasing frequency in the press.

Here is how I make things work, for me. I totally get it if, for various reasons, it is healthier for you to dump Twitter if you’re still here. It is, honestly, probably for the best.

1. I’ve maintained a low follow count.

As of this post, I only follow 107 accounts. I’ve periodically unfollowed accounts that appear abandoned. If we know each other and I don’t follow you, it’s not personal. I just strictly control how much of what kind of content makes it through on my Twitter timeline. I’ve disabled retweets for a number of accounts that I DO follow. There are people I know in real life who have followed me without my following back because I’m hesitant to add more to my timeline. I know people who appear to use Twitter as a form a solidarity and information sharing which is very cool, and helpful for some of my friends. For my timeline, however, that means following a few users in the same social/topical circle brings a lot of duplicate/similar posts about the same topic, news article, local event, etc. If you want to know what this is like, follow three or more of the local journalists in your area. Invaluable perspective and excellent news sources? Yes. Every single one of them posting all the same details about the same local story at the same time? Also yes (with all love and respect to Richmond, VA’s excellent reporters at RTD, Virginia Mercury, VPM, and elsewhere).

2. I stay off the official website and apps.

I still use a 3rd-party app (Twitterrific has been my jam for many, many years) which lets me see a linear, reverse-chronological timeline with no ads (for now), Fleets (RIP to a stupid one), or trending BS. I don’t get suggestions for who to follow or notifications about likes and new follows for the people that I follow. I have robust muting/filtering capabilities which let me fine tune my timeline whenever the need arises.

3. Who am I, anyway?

Finally, I’m nobody. Honestly, my best defense against the unrelenting poo-storm of Twitter is personal obscurity. I haven’t pursued obscurity; I too crave the dopamine hit of likes/florps/hearts/upvotes/whatever Twitter is calling it these days, but I’ve just never been noteworthy enough locally or otherwise to draw a lot of followers and the attendant attention.

The long and short of it is that I’m scrupulous about what I allow in my timeline, and I’m invisible enough on the internet to avoid the ire of any real heat (I’m also terrified of becoming Twitter’s main character, so I’m not one to make controversial statements in the first place). I’m not trying to convince you to stay on Twitter or offer a blueprint for surviving the avalanche of negativity, but as people continue to pontificate on what Twitter does to our brains and how to escape, I just felt like cataloging why and how I’m still a daily active user.