I surprised some people when I said I was taking November off Twitter.
I’ve been using Twitter since July 2006 (user #1568!) with almost completely unbroken usage since late 2007, so that reaction is understandable–most especially from those in my life who consider me addicted to my iPhone.
Twitter has done a lot of really great things for me. I’ve met a huge number of people I care about because of it, and a good number of those have become coworkers and colleagues–even closest friends. In fact, I’d say that outside of my family, most of "my people" in real life are folks I met on Twitter.
So what does it look like when shutting it off? The answer surprised me. I thought maybe I was addicted and that it would be a very hard experience, but it wasn’t. It was, however, a very educational experience.
It’s important to note that, for me, there wasn’t some trigger event. In a snap decision, I just had this feeling that came to me the second I walked in the door one evening–it was kind of a voice saying, "yep, done for now." I felt completely at peace about it as I deleted all my social media apps off my phone, laptop, and iPad.
I must re-emphasize the word peace.
The first evening off Twitter, I felt a level of peace I hadn’t known in some time. I just chilled out, danced with the kids, and read a book to myself for a very long time.
Even though I found it surprisingly easy to give it up, it truly was an addiction, to be honest: until that night, I felt obligated to check it–and often, despite whatever I was in the midst of being more important in terms of my stated priorities.
You’ve heard of Dunbar’s number, right?
Basically, we have a mental limit of approximately 150 people we can consider "friends"–people who we can fully empathize with. (I actually feel like this is something that has greater affect in more areas of our lives and world than we give it credit for.)
Though etymologically identical, there’s a useful contrast in the common meanings we give to the distinction between sympathy and empathy. We can sympathize with people we don’t know or understand, but we can’t really empathize. Empathy is deeper than feeling sorry for someone. It really means putting ourselves in their place and feeling what they’re feeling–something we can’t do unless we know them well or have a connection by way of a similar experience (in which case, we are rehearsing our own feelings).
Empathy is, in one sense, the mental capacity to run a (poor) simulation of someone else’s thoughts and feelings inside our own head.
There are people you know whose voice you can hear in your head (many times I can predict in my head with painful accuracy the exact words that are about to come out of my brothers’ mouths), or people who you even consult with in your head for wisdom ("What advice would my dad give here?")
From my experience, Twitter taps into this same mental capacity very well. The level of candor people often share on Twitter, particularly over time, has given me a strong sense of who some of the people I follow are, how they think, and what they value. I end up including many of the people on my Twitter list in the somewhat fuzzy set of people I empathize with.
As a result, I’ve actually been able to predict with frightening accuracy how well I’d get along and work with people I’ve followed on Twitter longer than a few months.
I got to know friends and coworkers Henrik Joreteg, Nate Vander Wilt, Jon Hjelle, and Eric Zanol almost entirely via Twitter before ever getting to know them and work with them in real life. Same goes for numerous other people "from the Internet" who I’ve gotten to know mostly on Twitter and IM, like Julien Genestoux, Amy Hoy, Chris Williams, Mikeal Rogers, and Paul Campbell.
So–great, right? What’s the problem?
Well, in general, it’s a very good thing. It helps people connect and build relationships in sometimes an even more meaningful way than they might in person, given that some folks (like me) communicate their thoughts and feelings more openly in writing than verbally–plus, it’s asynchronous.
But the problem that occurs is that it can be a huge mental lease we’re signing when we invite a few hundred people into our Twitter life. To some degree, it is choosing to subject ourselves to thousands of ads throughout the day, but ones that come from trusted sources we care about, so they’re actually impactful.
Even if the people we know aren’t explicitly selling things (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or Promoting their Personal Brand(tm) (there is everything wrong with that), we’re still choosing to accept their stream of one-second ads with some kind of message all day.
We’ve surrendered a massive amount of mental and emotional energy without making the explicit choice to do so–it’s simply imposed on us by subscribing to the channel and checking it.
If someone I know is going through a very rough personal time, I want to be there for them in a way that’s useful to them. Exposing myself to their pain all day is not useful for me or them in the same way it helps no one to watch TV news all day. Yes, now I’m aware of all the things that are wrong with the world, but I’m now overwhelmed and, as a result, ever more powerless to do anything about the things I can.
Mentally, we just aren’t capable of simultaneously empathizing with hundreds of people–let alone thousands or millions. The result is we either build up a calloused, jaded, or cynical defense against empathy or find a way to block out more.
I had one moment of weakness last month, when I logged into my other, private Twitter account, just to check in on what the 20 people I follow on that account had been up to recently. Within minutes I felt depressed, as I learned there was a conference canceled because people attacked it as a sexist speaker lineup and the organizers just folded rather than wade through the deluge of attacks or try to fix things, and then heard that Paul Campbell had received similar attacks on Úll last year. I just felt horrible for those organizers, and then for Paul, and there was nothing I could actually do other than feel bad. It served no one any benefit and it just derailed my evening.
Additionally, I get overwhelmed and discouraged by startup culture–the weird competition, bizarre fixation on Internet Glory (wtf), the intense negativity, the endless obssession with–well–all the wrong things. Just as equally, I have a violent reaction against people preaching things that sound like command-and-control management style, due to some personal experience. Yes, I could unfollow a bunch of people. But, ultimately, I still like a lot of those people and like much of what they have to say. I don’t believe that restricting the people I follow to only the ones I agree with 1000% of the time is healthy.
I’ll admit: I’m an annoyingly oversensitive person. I do believe this is both a strength and a weakeness. I have a tendency to go with my gut more often that not because it yells very, very loudly.
I also have a tendency to listen carefully to any criticism or disagreement I hear, internalize it, reflect on it, and evaluate it, then conclude some thought on it. Until I do that, it just sort of hangs there in my head. The degree to which it dominates my headspace is largely a question of how much it impacts me.
It’s very possible for me to read one line in an email or a tweet and have it completely retrack my brain with questions and thoughts that have to be resolved before I can move on–or at least accept being unresolved about, which requires a conscious decision.
I hear "you need to stop worrying about things you can’t control" but the problem there is that in many cases, I can do something–I’m not powerless. I put most of my energy into things I’m involved in, believing that I can make some kind of a difference. Why would I limit what things I think I can do something about? And I certainly don’t want to close off the tendency I have to reevaluate my own thoughts and decisions in light of others’ opinions and perspectives, because I think this oversensitivity "flaw" makes me a better leader by making me a better listener.
There was a point a month ago when I wished for what I could best call an "introvertcation"–you know, an "introvert vacation"–just an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts for a decent stretch of time. Especially through the season of preparing for and delivering our conferences this fall, I began to feel more and more like I could not find a way to quiet my head.
What I realized is that in closing Twitter entirely, I got that. My head felt more silent to voices that weren’t mine.
I’ve realized–Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually agreed to allow residence inside my brain.
The funny thing is that in my work, I am constantly trying to avoid the interruptive scourge of meetings in my days, even though meetings are a very important part of my job. I even try (very hard!) to avoid checking email constantly.
It’s pretty simple: if I have my email turned off and I set aside a day with no meetings and no commitments other than to the work that’s on my mind, I am going to do very good work, using my best creativity, and will produce in good volumes.
In a day with even one simple standup meeting, I feel like the entire day’s focus has a layer of thought dedicated to that meeting–light stress and perhaps some preparation fills up more than the specific calendared time slot.
This is the reason why I prefer to write early in the morning before speaking to anyone, if I can–there’s nothing in my head except the one thought I want to write. In fact, for the record, I sat down and began writing this at 8:30 and have been writing continuously since then, with absolutely zero interruptions. (It’s now 11:00.)
I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.
That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be–either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.
I’ve realized how Twitter has made me break up my thoughts into tiny, incomplete, pieces–lots of hanging ideas, lots of incomplete relationships, punctuated by all manner of hanging threads and half-forked paths. I am perfectly fine with unfinished work–in fact, I doubt I’ll ever be a better finisher than I am a starter. But I’ve found that my greatest joy, deepest peace, and most valuable contributions come from intentionally choosing where to let my focus rest.
As a result of this experiment, I choose to intentionally put more uninterrupted thought into things one relationship, one idea, one piece of writing at a time.
"Grow, prune, grow" is good advice in most areas of life and I think it applies here as well.
I’m not going to quit Twitter (though that’s something I’ve actually considered doing), but I’m going to put it in a box, just like I’ve done with email from time to time (and need to do more).
I’m going to say "no" a hell of a lot more in my life than I ever have, in order that I can put more energy into an increasingly curated set.
That is much harder for me than quitting Twitter for a month–or even quitting Twitter entirely.
If your Twitter "uptime" is over one year, I strongly encourage you to try taking an extended break, just to reimagine what your life looks like without it. You might find more areas of your life you need to grow in than just overcoming your technological addictions.
Entirely coincidentally, a couple weeks into my social media fast, I heard one of my personal heroes and friends, Chris Williams, share his own thoughts on disconnecting from Twitter (etc) in his fantastic CascadiaJS closing talk. I knew he’d quit Twitter, because we’d talked over IM about it several times–and that was certainly a piece of inspiration for me to experiment withdrawing from Twitter. (Thanks, Chris!)
(Apparently Chris gave a similar, but silent, presentation at JSConf EU, but I didn’t know about it until just now when searching for his CascadiaJS talk.)