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Jul 12 / Great Apes

What I Learned In My Week Without Twitter

Some people take Twitter breaks because they feel like some element of the service is toxic for them.  That’s not the case for me.  I like Twitter a lot (as you can probably tell if you look at how many tweets I’ve made).  I’ve met cool people through Twitter (like, real life meeting, not “we exchanged a few tweets where we bonded over agreeing how awful the Mars Volta are”), I’ve learned a lot from people on Twitter, I’ve laughed a lot, I’ve found tons of cool things to read or listen to or play, and so forth.

Nevertheless, I decided to take a week away from Twitter.  Why?  Because – to put it as melodramatically as possible – I was starting to wonder how Twitter was affecting my mind.  We are all deeply affected by our environment, and the technology we use is a part of that.

People often object to the idea that we’re shaped by our environment by arguing that people are rational and know what they’re doing.  For example, when the issue of whether people are influenced by video games comes up, people will argue that only an idiot doesn’t know fantasy from reality, and so of course video games don’t influence people.  And in the big picture – the “does playing Grand Theft Auto turn players into violent sociopaths?” picture – I agree, people aren’t influenced by video games.  But that’s a very narrow idea about what “influence” means.  [As an aside: No one ever seems to question studies showing that video games can positively influence players.  Funny, that.]

Let me give you a simple example using a different technology: e-books.  I do most of my fiction reading on a tablet these days.  One of the cool features of e-readers is that if you select a word in the text, a dictionary will pop-up with that word’s definition displayed.  Cool!  But something weird has happened as I’ve spent more time reading on my tablet.  Sometimes when I’m reading a paper book and come across a word I don’t recognise, my brain will briefly be struck with the idea that I should press my finger to the page to find out what the word means.  Now, I’ve never actually pressed on a paper page and been surprised that a dictionary didn’t come up, but the seed of the thought is there.  Reading on an e-reader has affected how my brain works; it has influenced me.

Let’s bring this back to gaming for a second (I swear I’m going to get to this Twitter thing soon).  I’ve always had a short attention span and I’ve always had some problems with patience.  As I’ve gotten older, games have gotten much more immediate, and I’ve played more of them.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve also felt as though my attention span is getting even shorter (thankfully, my patience has grown as I’ve aged).  I don’t know for sure that my attention span has gotten shorter, and if it has, I don’t know for sure that playing a lot of fast, immediately rewarding video games has anything to do with it, but it seems like it’s a plausible explanation.  And that’s the sense in which being affected by my environment is of interest to me.


So for a while I’ve been wondering how Twitter has subconsciously influenced me.  It’s become a pretty big part of my life.  It’s one of my most frequently used methods of communication, and it’s become my primary source of things to read (I rarely visit home pages of news sites any more).  So it stands to reason that it’s impacting me in ways that I hadn’t realised.  But what are they?  It seemed like the best way to find out was to stay away from Twitter for a while and see what my brain did in the interim.

So what did my brain do?  The first thing that I noticed was how hard it was to stay away.  Twitter is usually one of the first things I check when I sit down at a computer, and I sit down at a computer a lot of times most days.  I didn’t really need to avoid Twitter to know that, though; your brain wants to do anything it’s used to doing a lot.  That’s not specific to Twitter.

One of the more interesting things I learned was just how vital the idea of sharing had become to my life, and how integral Twitter has become to my sharing.  I share things on Facebook and in e-mails and that sort of thing, but I mostly share things through Twitter.  Partly it’s because of the design of Twitter itself, but a lot of it is just audience; I only have relatively close friends and family members on Facebook, but on Twitter almost anything I say is seen by thousands of people (I checked Twitter Analytics for the last 48 hours of tweets I sent before I went silent, and most were seen by 3000-5000 people).

It was actually surprising to me how much more . . . shallow my web browsing felt without being connected to Twitter.  I would read something that was really interesting and then . . . nothing.  I would file it away in my brain so that if I’m lucky it’ll help me win at Trivial Pursuit eight years from now.  But I often really wanted to share things I read.  Like, I would finish reading something interesting, and my brain would immediately say, “Share this!  Other people will think it’s cool too!”  But most of the time, I had no one to share with, and it was a weird feeling.  I had the same feeling when I came up with a joke and there was no one around to tell it to.  And I had the feeling again when I discovered a cool new band and wanted to tell people to listen to them (you should check out Hop Along).

I hadn’t realised until this past week just how integral sharing had become to me.  Reading something interesting is cool enough, I guess, but reading an interesting thing and then letting other people know about it and knowing that now they’ve read an interesting thing too, and maybe in some way there’s some sort of connection between you because of this . . . well, that’s far more interesting to me.

Another thing that I noticed was how much of what I read I find on Twitter these days.  I don’t visit a lot of home pages any more.  One thing that I’ve heard a number of people talk about is how they don’t really read publications any more so much as they read individual writers who they find interesting, and that those writers work at a diverse array of places.  That’s true for me too, but a big part of that is because I follow interesting writers on Twitter and read their articles when they link to them.  When I wasn’t on Twitter I didn’t know when those interesting writers had done something new and I didn’t read it.

In a broader sense, my web browsing felt kind of aimless.  One day last week I visited the home page of The Atlantic and I found a few interesting things to read, but man did it ever feel weird to find things to read that way.  It’s true that I don’t read sites any more, I read writers.  But that statement only gets me half-way there: I don’t read sites, I read interesting links I come across on Twitter.

These are definitely weird things to discover.  I feel somewhat uncomfortable knowing how much something so central to my life as finding things to read and learn about is essentially mediated through a for-profit company that basically views me as a means to generate ad revenue.  On top of that, the company could disappear at virtually any time or change the way the service operates in such a way as to render the things I like to use it for difficult or even impossible.  I don’t really expect that to happen any time soon, but presumably it will happen at some point, and I don’t really like the idea that things that matter to me are so reliant on a corporation.  But that’s the trade-off we’re always making with web companies, I guess.  We let them become central to our lives (seriously, we do – think about every Google service you use and how often you use them), and in the process we become reliant on them.  But that’s a way more complex topic for another day.

If I’ve learned anything over the past week, it’s that I use Twitter for sharing and learning.  Which are two of my favourite things to do, so maybe that’s why I like Twitter so much.

There are probably other ways that Twitter has affected my brain that I haven’t noticed, and maybe they’re unnoticeable.  The subconscious is, after all, beneath the level of consciousness.  And there are probably ways in which Twitter interacts with other things, and those things collectively influence me, and good luck ever untangling that mess of environmental conditions.  It’s also pretty likely that I noticed some other interesting things this week, but I didn’t keep any notes, so now that I want to remember them I can’t (I’ll probably remember them on Wednesday and be really irritated, like when you come up with a great joke five minutes after it would have actually been funny).  But such is life.  Maybe if I’d been on Twitter at the time I’d have tweeted it out, and then there would have been a record of it.

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