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Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks: Issue 8
The One About Breaking Up With Twitter
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell
Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self, by Manoush Zomorodi
I tried to write a real essay about this, the kind that makes interesting points and arrives at unexpected conclusions, and then I dumped those first thousand words in the trash, because I think my thoughts about Twitter and social media are both too simple and too scattered.
The simple bit is that I deleted my Twitter account shortly after the announcement that Elon Musk bought it because I believe Elon Musk is a terrible person and I couldn’t abide using a platform he owned.
The scattered rest is that complex things are complex, yes?
I’ve had a complicated relationship with social media since I was a kid, since long before we called it “social media.” If you’ve never had a social media problem then I probably sound weird, perhaps a little pathetic, but as a life-long, hard-core, nerd-trending introvert, the online space has mattered to me, for good or for bad.
I’ve seen some good.
I’ve seen some bad.
I’ve been both.
With which short summation of ancient history concluded we’re brought to today, to Twitter. Twitter’s been alright. Sometimes it’s been fun. Sometimes funny. Sometimes important. I applaud the good people using it to do good things.
At the same time, Twitter is total garbage. I was never one of you good people using it to do good things. I was just another guy. I never had an audience, I was an audience. And I can say with the clarity of hindsight that that f…frustrating, fumbling, flawed platform fed my ugliest impulses.
Like, I’m glad I quit before the fall of Roe vs. Wade. I would have spent several days doom-scrolling memes, easily, and I would have made myself feel bad, and then worse, and all for nothing good, to no useful end. I can be upset enough on my own, thanks.
More troublesome than that, though, was how easy, how natural it was to dump my worst self there. Since deleting my account I’ve had occasional thoughts, and I've realized they were tweet thoughts, and being literally unable to tweet those thoughts has been fresh air after a storm.
I don’t miss it. I don't miss Twitter Darby.
After I quit, I did some reading, obviously, but less obviously, for me, as someone who usually just reads and reads and reads, was that I was actually looking for something specific in what I was reading, looking for…guidance, clarity, comfort? Something. Maybe just a way through a moment of melodramatic mourning for the loss of unrealized potential.
I knew I wanted to revisit Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which I just read last year; when I mentioned this to E., she suggested I also pick up Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self. I read them back to back and while everything is too complex to expect a couple books to simply make everything better, embracing that complexity is part of—eurkkkgh—the work. I don't know if I found what I was looking for but I can say both books planted seeds.
The books are loosely complementary looks at our contemporary reliance on technology and social media. To wildly oversimplify the relationship between the two: if Zomorodi’s book is the one in the smart suit with a headset microphone giving the conference talk about how to more effectively use all this stuff, Odell’s book is the one in well-worn Docs, standing out on the sidewalk, politely telling you on your way by why.
Zomorodi stays sort of agnostic about that—she uses the word “productivity“ often enough, and yes, it's the sort of assumed default goal most people have when they start thinking about digital detoxing. (Sure, I'd love to say I quit Twitter and then immediately, uh, produced! Uhm…things!) Odell questions that assumption, though; she wants you to consider throwing the whole oppressive, capitalist concept of productivity out entirely—productive of what?—and look at how your choices can influence the world around you, how they can help contribute to creating a better society, how they can help deal with the real problems and challenges of our moment, all while also remembering that, despite what the advertisement/attention economy would have you believe, it’s also okay to just be.
Reading these back-to-back, the practical mixes with the aspirational, and I feel influenced by both. I’m not following Zomorodi’s seven-step plan, but I can say I’m trying to do the little things. The phone goes away when I settle down to read at night. I try not to fill my brain with podcasts every time I go for a walk. That sort of thing. Nothing exactly life-changing.
Odell...she's got me thinking.
Between relating a lot of interesting social history and rich reminders of our humanity and actually almost, almost, convincing me to become a bird-watcher, Odell has also helped me realize as much as I feel like I should also delete my Facebook account—Facebook being, arguably, a far worse, more invasive, more negatively influential platform than Twitter could aspire to be—it's really not as simple as that, nor is that the thing that actually means anything. Quitting social media can be itself its own form of performative privilege, available only to those with expendable social capital, which I don’t feel I have. Quitting Twitter, I snipped a couple threads. Quitting Facebook, I'd fall off the edge of the earth.
All that said Odell reminds me that there is a better version of the Internet available to us; we can do this better, and that gives me hope. The version being shoved down our throats right now is business, and that business is not in our best interests, and our response to that is political, our free decision to accept or resist what we’re being told is "the way" matters. We can resist the decisions higher interests want to make for us—we can still choose what is worth our attention and why we deem it deserving. Odell argues against the idea that the system’s already won, that we’re hopeless to practice self-control: “The idea that I’ve already lost the battle of attention doesn’t sit right with me, an agential being interested in gaining control of my attention....” (Agency! I think Maggie Nelson—as discussed back in issue six—would be into this.)
Some of Odell’s interests have to do with community, those actual physical communities in the world around us, and those virtual that we can decide to connect with. Odell mentions some online platforms she’s interested in, which reminded me about the Micro.blog platform, the Kickstarter for which I threw a couple bucks at several years ago before promptly forgetting the whole thing existed. Since quitting Twitter, knowing there would be an itch I’d still feel compelled to scratch, I’ve started re-exploring it. I’m not well-embedded in the community there or anything, but wow, that place is so nice. It honestly feels weird; like, we’re allowed to be like this, online? Why aren't we?
The Micro.blog ideal is founded around the idea that you should own your content and data, not an advertising-revenue driven corporation that doesn’t care if you live or die (TinyLetter, the free platform through which this newsletter is delivered, lest we forget, is run by MailChimp, which was purchased in a, like, $10 billion dollar deal last year by Intuit, makers of TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint and Credit Karma; together they plan to "provide an AI‑driven, end‑to‑end customer growth platform for small and mid‑market businesses"—which is all to say, someone remind me to make sure I'm backing up my stuff so I can pick up my go-bag when the heat comes around the corner) which all squares up so nicely with my principles that I’m sad I hadn’t gotten hooked on it sooner. The “Discover“ feed there is hand-curated by a dedicated community manager, and from what I understand, there’s few to no bad actors out there in that space, which makes it a refreshingly pleasant, less addictive place to visit.
Most importantly for me, right now, I feel like the platform motivates me to put forth a better version of myself. I’m writing the occasional actual real post amongst the micro-blog length posts, and maybe it's all only worth something to me, but that makes it worth anything more than nothing, which is a nice change of pace.
It’s nice to feel like social media can be a place that encourages thinking more than reacting.
I know what you’re going to say: “Everyone who quits Twitter comes back, you performative jerk!” Which, yes, I know. I know because I’ve done it once before, quit and come back. This time, though? Nope. (And yes, I know, it's taken me so long to get this out, that Elon Musk is maybe now not going to buy it. And yet!)
The Jenny Odell book makes three rereads for me this year, for those of you keeping track at home. That’s a lot!
But really, read Odell’s book. I mean, again, I read it twice in just over a year, that has to mean something. It’s a quick but rich 200 pages, and there’s so much I haven’t touched on.
And then you should also read Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm, by Isabella Tree, and Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert MacFarlane. I’m not a “plants” guy—despite E.’s best efforts at pointing them out around our house, I still can’t tell you which is the rhododendron and which is the, uh, the other one—but Wilding made me kind of want to study weeds, because they are cool as hell. Underland was also just a five-star exploration of place and how much place there is unseen right under our noses.
And Finally, a Question For You
You have, I imagine, a top ten list of books. They’re your five personal favorites of all time, or the fifteen that have meant the most to you at extremely specific moments in your life, or the 37 books that have most deeply influenced your own writing, or however-many whatevers—your life, your list, your rules. You might not know every title that’s on that list right now—maybe you did yesterday, or ten years ago, or earlier this morning, but right now? How could you! You’re a whole new you! Question: given today’s version of that list, what's the most recent book you've read that you think might make the cut? Replies are open if you care to share.