I gave up browsing Twitter on a campsite in Dorset. It had been a long time coming, delayed unduly by the question of what would distract me while I was taking a shit. (Crosswords, as it happens.)
No great epiphany prompted it; rather the steady trickle of stupidity passing by my eyeballs everyday eventually took its toll. A website that is always running on full retard wears you down, and I was so tired, as the wokies say.
Judging by the release of the Social Dilemma my decision was unusually with the zeitgeist. The backlash against social media has been bubbling for a while, but few diatribes against Big Talk have been so slick – and with such obviously crap dramatic sidebars.
As described by my colleague Jazza in our latest podcast, the doc is in many ways unsound. Social media is not making us all join the alt-right, believe the earth is flat or develop body dysmorphia. Edge cases matter for new technologies, but the documentary is sensationalist and misleading.
It is also important to note that social media’s beneficiaries include those with the least access to the old printing presses. Part of the panic about new media is always that it lets people speak who established gatekeepers would prefer kept quiet. This time is no different.
And yet, as evinced by my abstinence, I still think the film has a point. I have now largely given up Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube, except for popping in when a google takes me there (or when I tumbled down a rabbit whole of Oasis documentaries). I read newspapers in much the same way, always passing through.
What eventually got to me is the stupidity – oh God, the stupidity. It wasn’t even the gormless rage of the ill-informed, but the arcane idiocy of the over-educated, pumping drivel into the atmosphere every day drove me away. I’d lose hours of my week musing on some over-intellectualised drivel typed out by a blue tick from America’s bizarro media landscape armed with a PhD in bollocks.
Admittedly I run a podcast based on two friends chatting shit about the week’s event, but there is at least a shrug in the proceedings. We know that we don’t know. Nuance is tricky to convey on Twitter because it’s written down and the character space is necessarily limited, even if you type out a thread. (And threads really should be blogs.)
As the phrase goes, the medium is the message. As Neil Postman noted in Amusing Ourselves to Death, television elevated the visual over the thoughtful. This is a problem because what appeals to the eye is not what appeals to the mind, and this leads to bad political decisions. We’re still living with that.
Postman was probably premature in lauding writing as the antidote though. What plays in 140 or 280 characters is rarely that clever, and has turned Twitter into a dunker’s paradise. You could replace half the platform with quote tweets just saying, “Oh, yeah?” without losing anything.
People are of course entitled to their stupidity, and I have often been grateful to express mine on social media. There are also lulz to be had online that only work on social media: the memes, the in-jokes, the references. I’ve laughed harder at hastily-typed online snark than many a carefully-crafted comedy.
But ultimately it’s not worth it. The signal to noise ratio is bad, while the insight to annoyance ratio is even worse. Having a glibness factory buzzing in your pocket all day has subtle but lasting costs to your focus. For me, that cost is too high.
Perhaps the greatest victim of this is the press, which as New York Times hack Bari Weiss has noted pays too much attention to the twitterers. Not enough journalists are willing to be damned after publication because of blowback on social media. We’re all worse for that.
So, aside from publicising new content, I’m done. My absence will not affect the above a jot. But sometimes a personal boycott is all that’s available.