My Twitter Detox

I am a recovering Twitter junkie. I used to be addicted to the social media network—that is addicted to reading others’ tweets as opposed to tweeting myself. When I first joined Twitter in 2009 I would only read my timeline. I didn’t tweet anything myself until much later. At first I only followed a couple dozen people, but over time the number of people I followed grew and grew. I don’t know if it was some kind of obsessive compulsive trait of mine, but I felt a need to read every tweet in my timeline. When I woke up in the morning I’d scroll back through all the tweets I missed the previous night. Such a practice was manageable then because I wasn’t following too many people (in the dozens), and those I followed didn’t tweet too often.

Over the years, as more people joined Twitter, and I discovered new accounts, the number of people I followed ballooned to hundreds, making my timeline much more difficult to manage. I found myself spending increasingly more time reading tweets to make sure I didn’t miss anything “important.” I’d check Twitter first thing in the morning, then later in the morning, then before lunch, then after lunch, then mid-afternoon, then late afternoon, then before dinner, then after dinner, then one last time before bed—and repeat it all when I woke up the next morning. Without consciously intending to do so, reading Twitter had come to consume most of my waking life.

One of the blesses and curses of being self-employed is you can make your own schedule and work whenever you want. As a writer, while working I am always on my computer, connected to the internet—including Twitter. I’d leave Twitter open in my web browser and take frequent work breaks to scroll through my feed when I should have been reading and writing actual books. Eventually, I started noticing that my Twitter feed had become so unmanageable that it was causing me enormous stress to keep up with my timeline. The introduction of the “mute” feature helped to quell particularly prolific tweeters, but I would still find myself not having enough time to write because following Twitter had become so time-consuming.

As a writer, another drawback of Twitter was that even during off-time when I was away from my computer I would constantly check my feed on my phone. When waiting in line somewhere or during any moment of free time during the day I would go straight to Twitter. This didn’t seem too bad, as I was not doing anything more important anyway, so why not maybe learn something, right? Except, for a writer, those moments of free time with no distractions are essential for mind-wandering and creativity, which is the source of so many ideas. This is why there is the cliché of people having their best ideas in the shower—because there are no distractions. All you can do in the shower is think…or sing. (And I don’t sing.) If you fill every moment of free time with external ideas, you will have less internal ideas of your own.

For me, creative writing is a healthy addiction. I feel a compulsion to work on my fiction every day, and if I don’t get any writing or editing done that day I feel terrible afterward. I say it is a good addiction because I am actually creating something that is fulfilling for myself and (hopefully) others. An addiction to social media, on the other hand, veers more toward the negative side. I rarely felt “fulfilled” after spending hours scrolling through Twitter.

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I first joined Twitter in the summer of 2009 and was instantly hooked. The following year, in fall of 2010, I went on vacation to Europe and had no phone service, so I didn’t have access to Twitter for a full week. The first day or two I felt anxious, wondering what I might be missing, but I eventually forgot all about it and focused on my present surroundings. It felt refreshing to become more absorbed in the environment, especially in a new place, rather than constantly checking my phone. When I came back home, I started to scroll back through my feed to see what I missed the previous week, before realizing “who cares?” It’s old news, it doesn’t matter. That should have been a wake-up call for me then, but like a junkie, I went right back to the current feed.

I still had that obsessive-compulsive feeling, or FOMO, a fear of missing out. Twitter became my general news source so I felt an obligation to “keep up.” Although, as I wrote in this blog post, I came to realize following the daily news cycle wasn’t the healthiest or most educational thing to do. Yet I still clung to Twitter.

I recognized the issue of social media addiction much earlier with Facebook. I was one of the first people on the network back in 2004 when it was called “The Facebook” and was exclusively for college students. I quickly became addicted to the social network as all my friends from high school and college had joined, but by the time I graduated in 2008, just when the rest of the world was signing up, I signed off Facebook for good. I still have my account but never log on. I realized at the time that Facebook was becoming a major time drain. That was when I was beginning to write screenplays (and blogs), and Facebook interfered with my creative work. Yet around the same time I quit Facebook I started using Twitter, with the rationalization that it could help my writing career.

I admittedly found interesting and helpful things on Twitter including writing tips and opportunities. I followed many writers who recommended books, blogs, podcasts, and other writers to follow. Plus, as a writer, tweeting was a way to hone my craft. It is micro-blogging, after all. So I would use Twitter to write jokes, witty one-liners, or bits of philosophical musings. The 140-character limit helped condense my thoughts to their essence, to strip the fat—at least until Twitter doubled their character limit to 280 in 2017.

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In addition to having less characters, Twitter used to be completely chronological. There were no algorithms; it would just list the tweets from everybody you followed in the order they posted them. Starting in 2016, the Twitter timeline became algorithmic, meaning instead of showing every tweet of everyone you followed in order, it would show you selected tweets that they think you will like best based on your past likes and interactions. I preferred the chronological timeline—again, because I didn’t want to “miss anything.” So I started using a third-party application called Twitterrific which retained the chronological format. I also preferred that app because they didn’t have ads mixed in with the timeline. If you can believe it, Twitter did not used to have any ads at all.

One thing I thankfully never did was allow pop-up notifications from Twitter on my phone. I always disable all notifications for apps I download. Even while addicted to Twitter, I wanted to maintain some power over when I chose to indulge rather than constantly and randomly being interrupted by a ringtone telling me it was time to open the app and see something “important.” Had I not disabled notifications from the beginning, my addiction story would have been a lot worse.

About three years ago I started noticing that my Twitter habit was becoming a problem and seriously decreasing my writing productivity as well as increasing my stress. By then the number of people I followed was near a thousand, so keeping up with it all was impossible. I realized I had to do something. I decided I would no longer be obsessive about needing to read every single tweet in my timeline, so I switched to the regular Twitter app and used their algorithm to trim my feed. I would see the best of whatever they fed me, and if I missed something, so be it. I had to learn to accept that—to let go of the FOMO.

I would still check Twitter often throughout the day, but for less time on each instance (and less time overall). That was helpful as a first step. It felt like a weight off my shoulders, not having to obsessively read my entire timeline every day. Though even with the “aid” of the algorithm, the Twitter timeline is an infinite scroll. You could literally read your feed 24/7 and never “catch up.” The algorithm will forever feed you new tweets, even from accounts you don’t follow.

I gradually decreased the number of times I checked Twitter per day from around six to around three, and as a result I drastically increased my writing productivity. But that was all just before the dramatic events of 2020. Once the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I started reading Twitter more often. I once again felt that need to “keep up” and follow the latest news, especially because my health was potentially at stake. Then a few months later, I realized that was really just an excuse. I would have been better off had I not followed all of the Covid news so closely since it was constantly changing and contradicting itself.

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Originally, I mostly followed comedians on Twitter, making it a fun and happy place where people were constantly cracking jokes. But over time, Twitter descended into a cesspool of political polarization, especially during election years. In traditional message board-based social media (such as Reddit), the user seeks out obscure niches with like-minded folks, promoting mostly cordial conversation. In newsfeed-based social media, however, (like Twitter and Facebook) the user is bombarded by the most fervent commenters about the lowest common denominator subject: politics. Godwin’s law states, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Twitter is essentially one massive ongoing online discussion thread, hence everyone is constantly accusing everyone else of being Nazis.

With the increasing political polarization, every time I opened Twitter and scrolled through my feed, it would be a bombardment of negative news causing me anxiety. I had to step back and question what was I doing this for. So I cut back even further. I’ve gotten to the point where my previous view toward Twitter has reversed. I used to feel an urge to check my feed constantly, but now I feel an urge to not check Twitter at all. I still drop in occasionally, but no more than once a day, and only for a few minutes, just to get a sense of the zeitgeist and read a few of the top tweets delivered by the algorithm. Of course the Twitter experience can vary wildly depending on who you follow. If people play into the daily outrage cycle, then it might be best to mute their account or unfollow them altogether.

The time I used to spend scrolling through Twitter, I now spend flipping through pages of books (fiction and nonfiction), which is so much more fulfilling than the mostly ephemeral things you see on social media. I realized that I am much better served by reading something that will stand the test of time. If it’s not worth reading 100 years later, was it really worth reading at all? For most of the things you see on social media, the answer is no. The majority of tweets will not be worth reading a hundred days from now, let alone a hundred years. But great books that are already a hundred years old will almost certainly still be worth reading another hundred years from now. (See the Lindy effect popularized by Nassim Taleb.) So that is what I now do. I spend my time, which is so scarce and precious to begin with, reading great books—and writing what I hope will someday become great books of my own.

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A deceptively pernicious aspect of Twitter and social media in general is you don’t get to choose what you read. Sure, you can choose who you follow, but still, you never know what they are going to tweet. That’s part of the thrill and addiction of social media—it’s like pulling the lever on a slot machine each time you scroll through your feed. You may strike gold or you might go bankrupt. That surprise factor triggers dopamine rewards in your brain. The fact that you have to swipe down on your phone to refresh your feed is no accident. They deliberately mimicked the addictive slot machine lever effect, which casinos spent decades perfecting. In this sense, Twitter is digital dopamine—a literal drug in that it changes your brain chemistry. It’s the same with all other social media networks (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc.), and even traditional media like cable news, but Twitter was always the digital drug I gravitated toward most.

You can think of social media like fast food. It has been modified to maximize short-term satisfaction over long-term health. Both social media and fast food can be fine in moderation, but you don’t want to consume either all day everyday. You’re best eating food that’s been around a hundred years, just as you are best reading a book that has been around as long.

Social media gives you dopamine hits of surprise as you scroll through your feed, not knowing what you’re going to see, but that’s not the best way to consume information. It is better to proactively seek out information rather than mindlessly letting it come to you. If you have an interest in something, you should research that subject by finding a book or detailed article about it online. That is a healthier and more productive way to learn. Cultivate your own interests and seek your personal path toward knowledge rather than sitting back and letting the newsfeed algorithm bring random bits of information to you whether you’re interested in the matter or not. The algorithmic newsfeed controls your mind-space and attention so that you’re only focused on the top trending topics of the day, which tend to be the most politically charged. That in turn increases the polarization worldwide when politics is all anybody is talking about online.

Twitter keeps you informed about trending topics that in the long run don’t matter. For news and current events I find podcasts more useful, as there is less censorship and more nuance. With conversations lasting one to three hours, you can go deep on a topic and really understand it—not so much on Twitter. Though even with long-form content such as books and podcasts, I tend to avoid news and current events. You’re better off learning about history and philosophy to get a better perspective of what’s really going on in the world today. Again, focus on things that will stand the test of time. Most people think reading month-old tweets is preposterous, so why are they worth reading when they’re fresh? (Hint)

Of course there is some great content on Twitter that may in fact stand the test of time—true intellectually stimulating knowledge that can empower your mind. Indeed, tweets can be an art form and some accounts treat it as such, though they are the minority. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” To find those rare nuggets of enlightenment on Twitter you will inevitably have to mine through tons of toxicity. You have no control over what appears in your timeline and when. It is more efficient and fulfilling to proactively seek out the already mined gold of wisdom in books or in-depth blogs and essays, or even archived Twitter threads.

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I plan to continue my current routine of devoting the majority of my time to reading books then only scanning Twitter for a few minutes at the end of each day. I’ll continue to tweet myself, as I have for the past couple years, by using an app called Buffer. It allows you to schedule tweets in advance then posts them to your feed automatically. This means I don’t need to actually login to Twitter to tweet. (So sorry if you reply to me on Twitter—I may not see it right away.)

If I have an insightful thought I think would be good for Twitter, I don’t tweet it right away—I write it down in a word document full of hundreds of other potential tweets. I let the thought sit there for some time (days or weeks), then later come back with fresh eyes and edit it before considering if it’s really worth sharing. If so, I’ll add the tweet to my Buffer queue. Many of the tweets in my list have been sitting there for years and will probably never make it to my public feed. They’re simply not good enough to publish. It’s a quality control measure. If I just tweeted everything upon thinking of it, my feed would be full of inferior fodder. It also ensures that the tweet is evergreen, not just fleetingly relevant to a particular moment in time. I do the same with my blog. I have a word document full of dozens of potential blog posts in early draft form, and I come back periodically to update and edit them before I feel it’s ready to be published. (For instance, I wrote the original draft of this post months ago and would occasionally return to refine it over time into this final form.)

Part of me wants to not tweet at all—to not add to what I see as a societal problem. But then again, as a writer it helps to have an online presence. So I’ll continue to tweet what I hope to be a reprieve from the daily outrage cycle and polarized madness. I try to make most of my tweets evergreen so that they are still relevant and worth reading years from now. By planning my posts in advance, I always think at least twice about what I publicly say. Twitter might be a better place if more people did the same.

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When you’re addicted to something you are often unaware of the psychological and physical tolls it is having on you. You will not realize your dependence on something unless you detox and abstain from using it for an extended period of time. So it was that by giving up Twitter I realized the hold it had over my mind and body. Only then did I become free. I am no longer addicted, using the “digital drug” of Twitter mindlessly all day, every day. Now I am able to use Twitter in occasional small doses.

The safest and easiest thing to do when battling any addiction is complete abstinence and avoiding the problematic substance entirely (which is what I did with Facebook). But no drug, Twitter included, is entirely bad—it all depends on the dosage. To gain complete mental power and truly overcome an addiction is to learn to use the drug in healthy moderation. That is what I hope to have done with Twitter.

This is all not to prescribe how others should or shouldn’t use Twitter or any other social media network. I doubt most people suffer from my same compulsive need to read every post in their feeds. But if you do find yourself spending more time on social media than you would like, the aforementioned is what has worked for me. The less time I spend on Twitter (and consuming news in general), the less stress I seem to feel, and I don’t think that correlation is coincidental. Though as I said, Twitter is not all bad, which is why I still log on—just less often than I used to. Ultimately, you must make sure you are using social media and it’s not using you.

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