The rise and fall of my use of Twitter

I first joined Twitter in 2009 under a pseudonymous account before restarting in May 2012 with my present account. I began to use it more over the last five years for a few reasons.

First, unfiltered news. There is no algorithm determining what content I see. Instead, it's simply the most recent content, all there, if I choose to follow those feeds. I prefer RSS for time-shifting, but it offers the same kind of function.

Second, professional disintermediated contacts. You can talk to people all over the world, in your field and related fields, in a very easy way.

Third, journalists live there. To the extent one is interested in sharing ideas with journalists, they frequently look to Twitter for news and sources.

Fourth, branding. The crass term is simply a reality--it is a way of gaining name recognition in a fairly simple way. (This is particularly true because I have a blog with content I frequently share to a broader audience.)

Fifth, engagement with law professors. Many other law profs are on Twitter, and the discussion occurs there in a way that, perhaps a decade ago, discussions might have occurred on blog comments sections, or listservs. It's a great way to virtually meet people outside of conferences.

But, over time, I found that these benefits has lost much of their appeal, and the cost-benefit analysis has moved me away from using Twitter.

There have been increased attempts from Twitter to tell me what I ought to believe is important, a new kind of filter to the experience. Trending stories are the first in that effort. Moments, another. Autocompleting search terms or displaying preferred search results, still another. And occasionally, it will display "live" events at the top of my feed that it believes I ought to heed. In each of these circumstances, I've found the content offensive--not because it somehow offended my morals, but because it was so utterly trivial and banal that I wondered why it would, in its vaunted algorithmic way, decide I would have any interest in these silly and trite things.

I have found that the reward from "status" on Twitter is simply not great. For journalism, it remains, sadly, nearly ubiquitous. A majority of media inquiries now start from a tweet; indeed, a non-trivial number of media mentions fail to even inquire of me and simply (lazily) cite my tweet. Using Twitter less means fewer citations in journalists' pieces, but such is the tradeoff. Furthermore, I've found that a lot of media now focuses on what people say on Twitter, and then how others react to those statements on Twitter--a deeply meta, and often, I think, deeply superficial way of thinking about newsworthiness.

Furthermore, I've watched a number of law professors (and others) lose a significant amount of their credibility (in my eyes, at least, and I think, to some degree, in the eyes of at least some others) by succumbing to the allure of fleeting social media fame. It moves beyond branding into a quasi-celebrity status. It's something that I want to separate myself from.

I've experienced moments like this. Consider this tweet, which went somewhat "viral" at the end of 2017. I have lacked the self-control in terms of time spent on the medium. I've reveled in the dopamine pleasure of notifications telling me that someone, anyone, has read my stuff, or interacted with my stuff, or acknowledged my existence in this pithy format. And this kind of "viral" sharing was utterly unfulfilling--fluffy stuff, dopamine hits without any meaningful return.

The good of Twitter, I've found, has increasingly become banal as a form of escape. The pleasant or non-controversial sides of Twitter feel increasingly vacuous (or, at least, I've grown quite aware that they are so). Pleasant people exchanging superficial and trite hashtag greetings and emojis have left me wanting.

And perhaps most of all, I found visiting Twitter a joyless, even painful, experience. It was a chore, or a necessity, not a pleasant way of learning about the news. If it's not the banal, it's the stranger shouting angrily, or the self-laudatory sarcastic point that demolishes or obliterates or decimates one's (usually political) enemies. I found my blood pressure too quickly and easily rise. I found myself defensive, typing out a hasty or angry or sarcastic response, only to delete it. (Occasionally it escaped my self-editing, to my detriment, I think.)

I would find myself thinking lamenting the lack of subtlety. Or, more significantly, the lack of the ability to have an actual conversation. I found total strangers willing to say consistently hurtful things (fortunately, only rarely to me; too often, to many undeserving targets). I saw the herd mentality of social media, where errors spread like wildfire or outraged mobs congregate. I found that many of the cutting tweeters would be perfectly pleasant to have a conversation, even a disagreement, with when face to face, perhaps for hours over a meal. Twitter has been destructive to that end, at least for me.

I realized that I wanted to read more long-form articles, and that I was dedicating too much time to the moment. Many pieces I was reading were not deep or interesting, but designed to secure a click from Twitter with a controversial or sensation headline (hardly a new practice in media, of course, but one that increasingly annoyed my consumption of news in this format). I receive a print Wall Street Journal every day, and the curated content there is sufficient for most major news, even if it may take 24 or 48 hours to dig deep into "breaking" events. I also subscribe to The New Criterion and First Things for long-form cultural commentary, and I dedicate too little time to those things. Finally, I was perpetually reading too few books (in particular too little fiction), and I needed to cut trivial reading.

I've chopped probably 90% of my Twitter use this year already. I hope to cut it even further. I will still use it, of course, just less frequently. I'll tweet rarely, but I'll do so to, say, share this blog's content.

This is not to say that others have not calculated the cost-benefit differently, and that others might not do much better. Others have thrived on Twitter, and I've come to deeply respect (in some ways, more deeply respect) the work of many because of Twitter. That's a cost, and a loss for me.

These are also, of course, generalizations. There are exceptions to every single thing I've said. And others' experiences may well quite differ from my own.

And it's not to say that it might not improve. Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick has offered a thoughtful and measured take on best practices for Twitter, one that I hope will be widely shared and adopted in the future. (UPDATE: Professor Josh Blackman today posted his own helpful and thoughtful guidelines.)

For me, though, it's time to cut a lot of my use of Twitter. I hope to distance myself from a medium that, I think, on the whole, is more cost than benefit. I'll revisit my habits on an ongoing basis. But after a few weeks with the app uninstalled, and interacting very little with content in the Twitter stream, I feel fairly confident that I'll keep going like this for some time. I hope to blog slightly more (longer forms of such thoughts with more nuance and editing). I hope to read far more.

And I hope to keep away from the tyranny of the urgent for a little while.