People often try to sell social media to skeptics by claiming that it is a great way to organize your favorite Internet content, as well as a place to express yourself. If you “follow” astute individuals, publications, aggregators, retail sites, restaurants, and anonymous self-help-axiom dispensaries, you can create, ostensibly, a rare media feed that can sustain you.
Sure, you might get sucked into your ex’s livetweet of Bones, but Twitter also lets you catalogue your favorite links to all those New Yorker #longreads you’ve been missing since discontinuing that print subscription. Or maybe you’ve been planning on hitting that jaw-dropping, 4000-word-long Intercept exposé that made your coworker file off his “Obama” bumper sticker, or this piece about a hypothetical David Foster Wallace author-hero in the age of social media (or not). There are also Andy Dick’s Periscope updates and Lenny Kravitz’s dick. That’s a lot of stuff to like without bothering with a click through.
The true believers aren’t wrong, if you curate your account reasonably well, you can hop onto Facebook or Twitter site and quickly get a sense of what’s going on in the world, or at least the parts of it you care about. You can also sometimes engage in healthy dialogues about important issues, and interface with people in far parts of the world — or on the fame index — that you would never otherwise be able to reach. But, if you are not careful, you can let the pace distort your own sense of temporality and balance. Before you know it, part of your sense of self may be replaced by the urge built into every platform by every good UX designer, the urge to engage.
Perhaps the most revelatory and demoralizing experience you can have on Twitter is to look back through your “Favorites.” For those of you who don’t know, the “Favorite” is the Twitter equivalent of the Facebook “Like” or the Instagram heart-thing. Unlike those services, however, Twitter catalogs your “Favorites” in one discrete, fully public section of your profile. Even the most fastidious and controlled Twitter users will visit this list, and find that they don’t recognize the person staring back at them in the mirror. I probably don’t need to tell you, Twitter freak, but you’ve endorsed opinions you don’t actually share, expressed support disingenuously, and placed your seal of approval on plenty of things you didn’t even click on.
These common actions could be deemed abuses of what The Wire calls the “Here-Here Favorite” (sic). You’ll come across, perhaps, many faves and “retweets” (as in, other people’s tweets you repost on your profile) made in a very short span of time. A friend has shared an opinion about a world event that has just happened, a TV show, a sliver of #WTF cultural gossip, or a Crockpot Indian food recipe. Maybe you trusted their opinion categorically, or maybe it just looked like your kind of thing (shudder “on-brand”?). Maybe you wanted them to know and remember you exist, maybe you wanted to impress your followers, or just a single crush who might be watching — in any case, something in you compelled you to repost without engaging. If you stare too long at one of these inexplicable faves-or-RT strings, more and more dark hypotheses about your latent or pathetically obvious motivations unfold. “No, seriously, I cook!” your favorite screams. “This chicken biryani did turn out really well.”
Perhaps you favorited or retweeted as a way of “sav[ing] for later” (Wire calls this the “Practical Favorite”). You were thumbing through the Twitfeed on your phone, bored, perhaps in a place you shouldn’t’ve been — in your cubicle, at dinner, sur la toilette — and it wasn’t the time to be reading more than a sentence or two at a time. But lost in the endless scroll, the only way to go is forward. It’s easy to feel like you will fall behind if you don’t keep refreshing. Exhausted, face-down in bed, the phone still clutched limply in your hand, you’re left with vague opinions or biases of indefinite origins, a bunch of articles you read the first paragraph of, a sinking feeling in your stomach or a headache, and you can’t retrace your steps to figure out what happened along the way. It’s too painful.
Yes, non-Twitterers, you should be wary. Twitter is, as you suspected, a weird, walled-off community, in which all the residents spend their days clanking frantically around in virtual hamster wheels. It is propped up by a Borgesian system of arbitrary conventions, ciphers and superstitions that scan like sociopathic gobbledygook to outsiders. Everyone’s trying to get out, and no one is trying to get in, because it seems sad, and it is.
And day in and day out, you glean only the ghost of ideas and the shadow of information, but maintain the well-manicured, Googleable image of enlightenment. Perhaps someone, “IRL,” will ask you your feelings about a hot-button issue (did you hear about/how do you feel about what Trump/Sanders/Kanye/John Oliver/Kaitlyn Bristowe said about this?) and you’ll be at a loss for words — hard-pressed to say anything other than the most simplistic positive or negative endorsement. It could be even worse: “Hm, yeah, I saw something about that…seems weird.” Empty phraseology might slip out before you can interrogate it. Later, feeling blue, you revisit your page, and figure out that — according to your records — you are supposed to have a lot more to say on the subject than that.
Worse, when these empty “Right on, man” favorites pertain to parties that one knows in the non-Twittersphere (in my case, maybe another writer, perhaps sharing in-depth, long-form work they’ve spent a great deal of time and energy on), you feel not only a hint of emptiness in the “brand” you have constructed, but the tenuous and questionable foundations of your Twitter relationships. What kind of a friend — or rather, “follower” — are you anyway? What’s in a “follow”?
At moments like these, one truly grasps the most sordid connotations of the term “consumption.” We buy, unless we resist hard, what we are sold, no matter how much we think of ourselves as independent thinkers or even contrarians. Our more developed contrarian thoughts, even, may have been built in opposition to information we constructed from hearsay. Obviously, this makes the opinions themselves worse — hasty and reductive. In the most degenerate instances, we jump to extreme, steadfast positions about things based on our own insecurity about not knowing about that thing. It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by whatever it is that happens when human fallibility hits a well-designed interface.
We are what we eat, or more accurately, swallow whole.
But take it from me, despondent users: reaching straight for “Deactivate” is not an effective solution. You’ll come crawling back to fill the lingering void, and maybe — God help you — you need to maintain your account for professional reasons. Really, the only way to combat the insidious favoriting and retweeting virus is to pull back from the centrifugal forces at work on Twitter with all your might. Very strong-willed users may be able to turn a heavy new leaf and clean up that “Favorites” section as a strictly save-for-later function; more than likely, though, the tide will rise up again — some international disaster, or wardrobe malfunction — and pull them away with it. The best way to resist is to slow the pace of your feed by muting (turning off notifications from certain users) and unfollowing (basically, defriending, on your end). Less information to work with increases the likelihood of attentiveness, and even better, less obsessive engagement.
You often end up going to Twitter to turn your brain on “low” for five minutes or two hours; there, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you are using it. Our conscientious parents used to fear for us when we were glued to our TVs, N64s, or Tamagotchis, but now our old-wives’-tale brain cells are at risk in a dangerously interactive environment. Like any other social media platform — or indeed, element of life — the axiom “only in moderation” must be applied, somehow. These days, there’s almost no table at a restaurant where someone isn’t flipping through their feeds; the goal posts of “moderation” are constantly being moved. Figuring out a balance takes a very personal sort of discipline, and making plenty of missteps along the way. If you don’t have the wherewithal, then go ahead and cue the funeral march.