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On Twitter Addiction and its Discontents

Earlier this week, Caitlin Flanagan published a provocative essay in the Atlantic titled: “You Really Need to Quit Twitter.” In this instance, the label of “provocative” seems obligatory, even though an objective read of the piece reveals mainly common sense. Which serves to underline the whole point Flanagan is attempting to make.

The article reports on the author’s 28-day break from Twitter after her relationship with the service had become increasingly fraught.

“My family’s attitude toward my habit has been…concerned, grossed out, or disappointed,” Flanagan writes. “My employer had given up and adopted a sort of ‘It’s your funeral’ approach.” She could no longer escape what had become obvious:

“I know I’m an addict because Twitter hacked itself so deep into my circuitry that it interrupted the very formation of my thoughts.”

So Flanagan asked her son to change her password. She signed a contract saying no matter how much she begged, he shouldn’t let her back into her account before the month had passed. She called it “Twitter rehab.”

Predictably, the experience was hard at points. Flanagan felt isolated and antsy. It was not the distraction or the breaking news information she missed, nor was it the ability to encounter interesting new people or ideas (in my experience, one of the most common themes of Twitter apologia), but instead the addict’s thrill of being part of something risky:  inserting her take into the digital slipstream; sweating that loaded beat before learning if she’d be lauded or attacked.

She decided to try to convince her son to give her password back early. “I gave him a very rational description of Twitter’s important role in a journalistic career, and how it keeps one’s perspective fresh in readers’ minds,” she wrote. He handed her a William James essay on habit formation.

On the positive side, Flanagan was surprised by how quickly she regained her once cherished ability to get lost in books. She had not previously accepted the degree to which the platform had inserted an uneasy restlessness into her attempts to read. The realization angered her:

“And that’s when I realized what those bastards in Silicon Valley had done to me. They’d wormed their way into my brain, found the thing that was more important to me than Twitter, and cut the connection.”

Life without Twitter felt different: “There was nothing to do except keep writing (freed from the story budget of Twitter, I actually had some interesting ideas) and keep reading.” It felt better.

As Flanagan notes, the simplest definition of an addiction “is a habit that you can’t quite quit, even though it poses obvious danger.” For many, Twitter has long since passed this threshold, but like Flanagan begging her son for her password back, we keep bargaining and explaining why it really is important.

Last I checked, Flanagan was still largely absent from Twitter, even though her 28-day rehab period has long since expired. Perhaps the real provocation is that committed displays of digital minimalism of this type remain so rare.

38 thoughts on “On Twitter Addiction and its Discontents”

    • Bob – that was a great essay and spot on. Thanks for sharing it. Good for you for quitting and staying out. It’s very sad that so many people are addicted to social media and the need to keep up with every bit of breaking news, and every mindless comment or photo. You made a great observation that many people ‘live’ in social media now. Regarding writers who are able to both keep up in social media and also get work done, I would offer an observation that in recent years I’ve noticed a marked decrease in the quality of work of some journalists. Many works are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, they are not cohesive, and the writer is clearly distracted.

      • Thanks Judy. I’ve never understood why so many writers/journalists would willingly give their writing and time (not to mention data) to social media companies. They’d be a lot better off starting their own sites.

        • Many journalists are now stuck working for entities that get their revenue from clicks and require the writers to pump out a ridiculous number of stories and plaster them everywhere on social media. It’s a practice that only the best of publications can avoid and a trend that’s squelching the talent of many up-and-coming journalists who might actually have the ability to do good work.

          Writers have no excuse.

        • I think part of it is how it *feels* like you are developing a fanbase. I mean, that’s definitely how it feels, even as a podcaster. But ultimately, the benefits I’ve experienced do not outweigh the costs. It wasn’t worth sticking around.

      • I agree with all the excellent points made in the original essay as well as the one you have posted, Bob. I wasn’t using Facebook that much these days anyways, but a stray email I received as part of a Facebook update made me decide to delete my account altogether just yesterday. I’ve held on to a Twitter account as I’ve started to use it to post the personal essays that I’ve started to write as part of the Ship30for30 challenge. However, I have made it a point to turn on the feed blocker and not follow any Twitter accounts, because that starts the process of consumption that I so want to avoid. I guess that you can stay away from the distractions this way and start using the platforms for good, but I totally get it if people want to quit altogether.

  1. What?!?!? William James wrote a book on habit formation? Where can I find said book? Kudos to Flanigan’s son for doing that instead of caving to his mother’s Twitter addition.

  2. JK Rowling is a prime example of someone who lost more than they gained by being on social media. I find it fascinating how she started out only tweeting sporadically but the more she increased her activity, the more backlash she received from her audience.

    • Rowling was very careful about avoiding Twitter while still working on the Harry Potter series (though, in fairness, it wasn’t as big of a cultural presence back then). Her account used to be a single Tweet saying she was focused on pen and paper at the moment. I think I might have even featured this in DEEP WORK.

  3. Twitter addiction is real. One more thing I don’t like about Twitter is that it runs on “hate speech” and “fake news”. The more hate speech & fake news (political, racial, religious, social, etc.) it promotes, the more profit it generates. Instead of sharing the information… twitter increases and aggravates the problems. I am not saying that Twitter does it deliberately but it is a part of its business model.

    • My best understanding is that they stumbled into that accidentally; a side effect of the timeline and algorithmic content selection. But it had a huge impact, because it was Twitter’s growing success the helped spur Facebook to shift from the social-centered wall model to their more addictive newsfeed model.

  4. I’ve found that quitting Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter are a lot easier because you can delete your account.

    YouTube? Not so much. It’s a free service available without the need for an account. It’d algorithms are clearly designed to keep you watching mindless videos for hours. It’s a lot harder to quit.

    Cal, any thoughts on quitting a YouTube addiction?

    • Block it! Delete the app from your phone and install whatever site-blocking browser extension will make it the hardest to get back to it. Delete/disable the web browser on your phone if you have to.

    • Cal has given a suggestion for YouTube use on his podcast: use it as a library, go there to watch the video you need, and leave without engaging in any of the “up next” or “suggested video” algorithmic nonsense. There are Chrome extensions like DFYouTube that can completely disable the algorithm, too.

    • I find that YouTube has its pros and cons. I am a guitar player, and there are many high-quality guitar lessons on YouTube that are not available in other places. What is the solution?

    • Remove/disable the YouTube app from your mobile. This is the first thing to do.

      Install a plug-in “DF Tube (Distraction Free for YouTube) on your desktop chrome/edge browser.
      After installing this plugin, YouTube won’t show all the recommended/suggested/distracted videos to you. It will show you only a “search bar” and “search results”. So you can control and decide what you want to watch.

    • I use ublock origin (ad blocker in chrome) to hide comments and recommended videos. You can use the picker in the adblock extension to choose and delete elements in the web page. Whenever I go to youtube home page, I see only the search bar and when I’m viewing the video I see only the video player – no likes/dislikes, comments, recommended videos. This prevents me from clicking and viewing other videos.

  5. I never wandered all that far (relatively speaking) into the social media landscape, but I did develop a Facebook problem. After reading Deep Work and Digital Minimalism and running the digital detox experiment for myself, I finally did a full account deletion shortly after the last election. I am now utilizing the positive aspects of technology much more mindfully (e.g., no email available on my phone, limiting my computer screen time, no social media, etc.) and I have returned to more of my analogue self (restored my original factory settings). My guitars, my vinyl collection (The process of having to turn a record over for side two has never felt so good!), and yes, lots of hand-held books. I feel so truly free and so good these days!

    I happen to be old enough to distinctly recall life before this mess though, so it’s easier for a “digital immigrant” like myself to peel back to just enough of the “good old days” to achieve a healthy balance. I do worry about the “digital natives,” like my own children, who don’t know the world any other way. Convincing them is tough and, typically, all I can do is try to lead by example.

    Your book on email is on my to-read-soon list so thanks for all the great work you’re doing, Cal!

  6. I’m so happy I have never been able to use Twitter. I always felt too narcissistic when going on there like.. What do I say? Just what I’m thinking? How is that important to anyone else? But I must say I do have a heavy addiction to Instagram. I run a nonprofit and go on there a lot to post and ready messages but a lot of times I find myself just going through the Explore feed like a zombie. It’s horrifying.

  7. I find that YouTube has its pros and cons. I am a guitar player, and there are many high-quality guitar lessons on YouTube that are not available in other places. What is the solution?

    • I’m a guitar player too. Using high quality Youtube instruction videos for learning songs and techniques is totally in line with Cal’s digital minimalism ideas, I think. It’s like he has said in his podcast: use Youtube like an encyclopedia or library, not like a TV.

    • I’m of the same opinion. There are some fantastic channels on YouTube so I see a real value to the service.

      I think that’s the solution: Pick what you want to watch intentionally. Decide what you enjoy, and use YouTube to further your enjoyment of that thing. Used that way YouTube is no different from a book, a class, a documentary, or an audio lecture–it’s a means of conveying information. I enjoy Medieval history and literature/film/game discussions, so I follow channels that focus on those things.

      I also use YouTube to listen to music. I know there are other ways, but I’m lazy and don’t want to set up new accounts. I’ve got YouTube, I can go to the artist’s personal channel and know that I’m listening to the music legally, simple. I’ll admit I occasionally let YouTube’s algorithm wander, but I’ve found there’s some value to it–I’ve found some great music that way, and fundamentally it’s no different from listening to a radio, which also has its own method for selecting music. (The intersection of this and my previous paragraph gets weird. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in Latin is something you need to experience once in your life!)

  8. Time to re-read Digital Minimalism. Thanks for a timely article. I’m not a Twitter person but Caitlin’s remark about severing the vital connection with reading really resonated (see what I did there?). Tonight I’m going to put my phone down and pick up Digital Minimalism and then Far From the Madding Crowd.

  9. I think your final point really nailed this Cal. Stories like this are so rare.

    The average person, even really young people, know how bad social media really is. I think there are very few people who are truly ignorant of the serious negative effects of excess social media use. Even the apologists. I would posit that most of them don’t really deeply believe their own rationalisations.

    Other commenters have already touched on the polarising nature of social media and it’s algorithms.

    It’s only getting worse, and then adding the layer of privacy and security concerns on top of all that.

    The continued widespread unrestricted use of social media is a significant problem that collective humanity appears almost at a loss, as to what to do about it. So most people just shrug their shoulders, and do what humans do best, which is continue on the path of least resistance.

    It is going to take something truly drastic (or sufficiently subtle and slow moving) to really wake everyone up to how bad things are getting.

    Sounds very doomsday, but society and our collective economies cannot survive an entire planet of social media addicted value producers.

    We can’t just keep employing social media addicts indefinitely. Eventually the money will run out.

  10. As this article demonstrates, the first step in overcoming any sort of addiction is to admit there is a problem. Fortunately for the author, she was able to also recognize the tremendous cost her addiction was having in terms of robbing her of other, more meaningful activities in her life. A good exercise after each session on a social media site is to reflect on those precious moments or hours that are gone forever and one can never get back.

  11. Hit the nail on the head -“An addict is someone who cant get rid of a habit even though he/she knows its damaging.”.

  12. “She signed a contract saying no matter how much she begged, he shouldn’t let her back into her account before the month had passed.” This is so reminiscent of Odysseus and the Sirens

  13. I wonder how often Caitlin checked Twitter even when she was not logged in. I am on it every day to witness the rage tweets from the left and the right. It was entertaining in the beginning. Now, I get tremors if I have not had my daily dose of rage nuggets.

    I don’t have a Twitter account and yet I am addicted to it.

  14. Not only Twitter – any social network may be addicting. But the problem isn’t in Twitter actually 🙂 People who have hobbies, understand the precious of their time, have a wide range of interests don’t spend their hours scrolling through news feeds.

  15. Is it possible to ditch Twitter when you work in the political sphere?
    I don’t think so.
    Whatever your role is, you have to be present on Twitter whether to monitor or influence or both…
    That said, it’s important to have a strategy on how to use it so as not to be taken in its time consuming addiction. Method & tools are the keys…
    i don’t even think that’s possible not to have the app installed on your phone as many in this sphere use it as a message app, at least for 1st contact…
    Well, as a conclusion, I would say you have to chose wisely which social media you use, 1 or 2, and stick to it in order to focus on your goal.


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