Why I’m leaving Twitter fifteen years after I first jumped into an unending stream of news and tat…

“You have to understand, most people are not ready to be unplugged…”

-Morpheus, The Matrix

I promised last week that I would explain why I’m leaving Twitter. Well, I’ve got my archives from them now so that I have a copy of everything I’ve shared with them over the years since 2007 and I’m ready to go.

It’s not a case of personal frustration with the constant man playing. The mute and block functions that were invented do help you deal with that. But in fact blocking people with whom you don’t agree is a key problem.

How proprietary platforms like Twitter and Facebook work is that each of us encounter a world we have curated for ourselves, to suit our own tastes, habits and outlooks but which is not actually shareable with others.

“I have no way of seeing your social media feed” says Jaron Lanier, “I therefore have lessened powers to empathise with what you think and feel.” He goes on to explain further…

We don’t all need to see the same thing to understand each other. Only old fashioned authoritarian regimes try to make everybody see the same thing. But we do need to be able to peek at what other people see.

Empathy is the fuel that runs a decent society. Without it, only dry rules and competitions for power  are left. But [social media] is precisely tuned to ruin the capacity for empathy.

It’s a couple of years since I read Lanier’s polemic Ten Arguments for deleting your social media accounts. I knew I’d enjoy it just by looking at the list of his eponymous arguments, which run as follows:

Social media…

  1. Takes away your free will.
  2. Contributes to the insanity of our world.
  3. Turns you into an a**hole.
  4. Manipulates truth.
  5. Is destroying the meaning in every word you say.
  6. Annihilates your ability to be empathetic.
  7. Makes you miserable.
  8. Takes away your economic dignity.
  9. Is the reason politics are so awful and impossible.
  10. Hates you.

I agreed with the analysis (who wouldn’t?) but couldn’t bring myself to say yes to the harshness of the remedy (ie to walk decisively away from it and stop contributing to the mess) and gave it a few years of looking it.

He doesn’t really pick out Twitter (it’s just my own poison), but references any service that’s apparently given for free but then uses the data you surrender to it to sell as advertising to a third party in order to survive.

Twitter is not the worst in this regard but in a very specific way it is destroying the meaning of what almost any of us say about anything, leading to what some scholars have refered to as context collapse.

Professor C Thi Nguyen notes in an article about why jokes often fail so catastrophically on Twitter:

…the mechanism for context-shredding is built directly into Twitter. It’s the retweets. A couple of unlucky retweets, and suddenly your tweet is splayed across tens of thousands of screens of people who don’t share your background context, who can’t interpret your tweet properly. Jokes are read straight; ironic mockeries of racism are read as actual racism.

This kind of thing is so familiar that new media scholars even have a name for it: context collapse. And we know the usual results: misunderstandings, firings, shaming, mob pile-ons. To be sure, not every Twitter pile-on is the result of misunderstanding. Some pile-ons are clear-sighted responses to perfectly legible statements. But many of them involve context collapse.

This humourless literalism is everywhere, from mundane rudeness to the rise of a whole set of culture war memes that increasingly crowd out matters of much greater substance and material concern to the ordinary.

My problem with Twitter is not just the personal overload (though that is a factor), but the burgeoning idea that governing a country is as easy as writing a tweet, or at least it would be if the current lot weren’t in power.

I’m not deluded enough to think that my exit will make much difference to the direction of travel, but I am actively withdrawing my consent to act as one more “un-ironic Matrix battery” to the benefit of unaccountable others.

I want to preserve more time for what John Kellden calls the Community of Inquiry model that we have been trying to run here on Slugger for nearly 20 years where often…

…a rich set of different perspectives are brought together towards creating insights and sustaining a community of inquiry — one of the challenges is — the topics and posts that could potentially provide the best, most profound and most actionable learning — generate the least amount of learning.

At least on Slugger we all share the one space. We can argue and disagree and fall out and make up, but there’s no trickery in the light. Generally we don’t avoid those who see the world differently from us by blocking them.

I’ve heard it over and over again that the greatest value that people get from joining the Slugger community is how they get to interact with people and opinions they might otherwise never encounter.

In a world high on the drug of radical simplification these are likely to be the most valuable people in our lives. They teach us to see the world from another angle, and spot the icebergs we can’t from our side of the ship.

Lanier’s rule is that you should pay for your news, opinion and services. That’s some of what do with your donations, by recycling some of it into paying for what we have left of mainstream journalism.

As he indelicately puts it, “funding a civilization through advertising is like trying to get nutrition by connecting a tube from one’s anus to one’s mouth.”  Wouldn’t be my choice of words,  but it is why I’m stopping Twitter

So I’m off. My 15,700 followers will have to find another way to stay in touch. We’ll still have the @sluggerotoole account so people can still find us, but I won’t be there in any meaningfully personal way.

As my late friend, the dramaturg Chris Johnson once wisely observed from experience of how form in theatre operates, every time you close a door, you also force others open.

As I edge into my early 60s, I’m interested in slower ways of thinking and working with people who understand we need time to do better placemaking, and politics. And that it takes more than just the tweeting of hopes/fears.


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