Have you seen Kathryn Schulz’s essay in New York Magazine—”That Goddamned Blue Bird and Me: How Twitter Hijacked My Mind"—in which she talks about how, in three short years, she descended into full-blown Twitter addiction? Major echoes of my own experience.
"I love Twitter," Schulz explains. "A complicated love that includes agape and occasionally some eros and for sure the capital-P Platonic love of fine minds meeting, and also, who knows, probably sibling rivalry and Stockholm Syndrome.”
I think this encapsulates my feelings toward Twitter, as well. It’s the social media platform I miss most, the one that kept me company on countless trains, plane and automobiles. The one that introduced me to people I’ve subsequently met in life and admired from afar. The one that allows to me share the interesting things I see and read and hear with the world, the one that pretty much guarantees I’ll have an audience, because what’s so hard about reading 140 characters?
Twitter is a commitment-phobe’s dream, but it can be something of a harsh mistress. It plays a tricky game with my ego. When a follower I respect responds to one of my tweets, the sense of approbation is immediate, if ultimately ephemeral. At the same time, I have something like 220 followers, and compared even to some of my younger relatives—who have more than 1,000!—I feel like I might as well be screaming under water.
For someone like me, someone for whom success is measured by the size of your audience, Twitter is an effective (and maddening) benchmarker. The chase for more followers, more retweets, more favorites perpetuates engagement. It’s a vicious cycle, one in which I find myself observing the world through the lens of potential tweets. The crazy guy masturbating on the subway, the angry woman yelling at the post office, Sarah Paulson owning any given movie or TV show—I look at the things that surprise, shock or delight me and think, “How can I synthesize this into 140 characters? Will this be the tweet that finally helps me break through to 300 followers?”
Schultz describes this phenomenon as a symptom of addiction, and I’m inclined to agree with her. She says, “It’s one thing to spend a lot of time on Twitter; it’s another thing, when I’m not on it, to catch myself thinking of — and thinking in — tweets. This is a classic sign of addiction: ‘Do you find yourself thinking about when you’ll have your next drink?’ etc.”
My friend, who’s sober as a lifestyle choice, recently said to me, “There’s a lot of research that shows how social media highlights the addictive aspects of people’s personalities.” At first I thought, no way. You can’t be addicted to social media, not in the clinical sense. But the more I consider the effect Twitter has had on my thinking—the way it has altered the function of my brain—the more I am forced to concede that I, Tommy O’Malley, am a Twitterholic. And although I have no plans to stop entirely, I’m gravely concerned about my behavior.
I will say that taking this monthlong break feels like an effective strategy for self-preservation, one that I should employ more regularly. Going forward, maybe I’ll take one month off every year. Or perhaps I’ll take a week off every other month, so as not to miss too much at once. I need to do something, anything, to salvage what’s left of my unadulterated thought process. I’m going a bit cuckoo without my social media, but I understand that it’s a necessity. Were I not on this break, I never would have been forced to contend with the severity of my dependency.
Yesterday, Nelson Mandela died. I can only imagine what social media looked like, with all of the pleas for attention masked as sorrow and concern. I found out about his passing in a text from my boyfriend, who added me, “I’m your Twitter now.”
Part of me is glad I missed out on the circus surrounding Mandela’s death. Whenever there’s a tragedy—and dying at 95 years old, while sad, is not necessarily a tragedy—people feel the need to identify with it. And thanks to social media, we can make anything all about ourselves.
After Sandy Hook, I remember someone in my Twitter feed saying something to the effect of, “OMG my uncle lives two towns over from Newtown.” My response (in my head) was, “Congratulations. Children were murdered.”
And that’s not to say I’m immune from the impulse to frame major events within the context of my own experience. When I heard Mandela died, I remembered a trip my boyfriend and I took to Cape Town last year. We visited Robben Island, where he was a political prisoner for 27 years. Our tour guide was a prisoner at the same time as Mandela. We saw his cell, the courtyard it overlooked, the open sky under which it sat.
I realized, in hearing about Mandela’s death, that all I thought about was myself, my memories. He left a remarkable legacy—one that is not without its stains, to be sure (friendships with dictators, hyperactive militarization, etc.)—and, I think, changed the world for the better.
But if I were on Facebook, what would my response have been? I probably would’ve changed my profile picture to show my boyfriend and me standing under a giant statue of the man in Johannesburg’s Mandela Square.
Because social media—like all addictions—makes you selfish.
© 2013 Tommy Jordan O’Malley