FYI: This post is a rewritten and expanded version of this post that I published on Dreamwidth two years ago.
I’ve long been a pretty avid user of Twitter. I first made an account towards the end of 2007, but it was 2010–2011 that was really “peak Twitter” for me. That was when I had lots of friends on the platform, and we could use Twitter basically like a big group chat. I faded off Twitter for a few years while I was really into Tumblr, then returned when I got fed up with Tumblr… but by that point my friends there had stopped using it, and I’ve been more of a passive participant, mostly using it to keep up with news and current events, ever since.
The problem is that I don’t think I enjoy using Twitter. Or, well, actually it’s complicated. I find lots of cool stuff through it, funny things and informative things, stuff that I probably wouldn’t find otherwise. But my Twitter feed is also full of things that I would not consider “cool stuff”. Some of it is “bad stuff”, stuff that upsets me or actively pisses me off. But a much larger proportion is simply stuff I could take or leave, stuff I’m indifferent to – but if I have hundreds of tweets to try to catch up on, this category becomes irritating just because there’s so damn much of it.
Anyway, a couple of years ago I came across this tweet that I felt captured the Twitter predicament well:
The ridiculous part of Twitter isn't that it's like panning for gold in a sewer, it's that you often find it, albeit irregularly.
Intermittent variable rewards is the formula for addiction.
And you know… this struck me as absolutely true. Not only about Twitter, but other sites like Reddit – certainly it was like a tic for me for a while, when I was procrastinating or bored or just not thinking about what I’m doing at all, I’d open a new tab and go straight to Reddit, even if I’d only just closed Reddit. I’d scroll and scroll, and probably 95% or more of what I saw wasn’t that interesting (or even downright aggravating)… but then I’d spot something interesting, or funny, or cute, and I guess the reward centres in my brain would go DING! All the aggravation would be forgotten. And then I’d keep scrolling.
Twitter, in some ways, is even worse because I browse it strictly in chronological order, no algorithm. Algorithms definitely have a lot of problems, but to put it this way – these days I’m a lot better about Reddit; I open it once or twice a day and scroll down until I feel like no more “good stuff” is cropping up. Twitter being chronological means it takes a lot longer for me to go through my feed, and the longer it takes the more it feels like an obligation. Which is awful, since scrolling Twitter is definitely not an obligation!! But I also don’t want to switch my Twitter to “top tweets first” mode, because I don’t trust Twitter’s algorithm at all to show me the tweets that I will most enjoy (while Reddit – a different kind of site – has an easier time selecting good stuff).
I should note that when I unambiguously don’t have time for Twitter, like because I’ve been working or socialising, I skip huge chunks of timeline with no guilt. Where Twitter is the worst for me is when my time is flexible – like I would like to work on my novel, or I know I really should do some housework, but there’s no deadline on those things so I procrastinate with Twitter. If there’s nothing actually stopping you, it can be compulsive to check it constantly because if you don’t, you miss things! At least once your timeline moves beyond some certain speed, anyway. And that’s extra annoying because about 95% of the tweets you’re trying to catch up on are not that interesting… but you just don’t want to miss the 5% that are!!! And if those “gems” could only be reliably posted or retweeted by the same small subset of accounts each time then your life would be easy. But they’re not.
In my last edition of this post, I talked about wanting to wean myself off “firehose”-style social media. The main reason was that I was not making great progress on my novel because I was spending way too much time on social media (and in the two years since then, guess what? still haven’t – although social media’s not entirely to blame). The problem I’ve had is that I haven’t found a way to replace the good things about Twitter for me. In the last week or two, I’ve tried subscribing to journalistic outlets through an RSS reader instead, but you know what? If anything, that makes me spend even longer reading news and analysis each day than just using Twitter does, and it’s a lot less enjoyable. I feel more compelled to read an article that appears in my RSS reader than I do to read an article that gets linked to on Twitter. RSS is great for following blogs, and it’s even OK for news headlines, but it’s tough for websites that publish lots of lengthy analysis or investigation pieces. If there’s more than like, two articles a day from a specific site that’s just too much for me. And I can’t follow all the sites I occasionally read articles from in my RSS reader. Really I need people to sift through them all for me and just link me to what’s good. So… Twitter.
Perhaps the better solution for me is to be more judicious about how many accounts I actually follow on Twitter. Now to be fair, I’ve done multiple rounds of “Twitter culls” in the past, unfollowing or muting those that seem to have a poor signal-to-noise ratio for me. It’s just that as I keep picking up new accounts to follow, I need to stay on top of it. I also need to make sure, if I actually cut my Twitter feed down to that low level, that I don’t just replace that time with more time on Reddit or what-have-you. The whole point is to carve out time for things that feel rewarding, which “firehose” social media does not.
With my interest in “Small Web”-type stuff, I definitely come across a lot of people who are happy abstaining from traditional, “firehose” social media entirely. Now if I were a busier person than I am, I think I’d have to, but for the time being I think Twitter, at least, benefits me – not because of the platform itself (which has got shittier and shittier over the last decade) but because of the people who use that platform. For me it’s not very social for a so-called social media platform, but I like it for, basically, crowd-sourced news. (Good thing it was only Google and Facebook getting threatened by our government, and not Twitter!) But I can’t help but be aware of its addictive qualities, and I know I could do a lot better making sure it works for me, and not against me.