Long and self-indulgent post about my month off Twitter

This year I decided to do Twitter-Free January. (I just googled it and apparently it’s not a thing. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I did it.) I would like to share what changed in my life and what I learnt during that month off Twitter.

My anxiety noticeably reduced. I still get anxious, but I discovered that if you stop spending huge chunks of your day reading bad news and people’s angry/terrified reactions to bad news, you feel calmer. Who knew? A friend wisely commented: “If you’re going to take a month off Twitter, this was a good month to choose.”

Almost certainly related to this: I became less politically aware. During my month-long Twitterbreak, my main sources of news were BBC radio, the BBC website, the LRB, Private Eye, the Guardian (online), Facebook and tumblr. That sounds like enough to be going on with, but I honestly think that being off Twitter meant I still missed a lot of important news and perspectives.

I also missed out on friends’ news. People update Twitter on their lives and think that’s the same thing as updating their entire friend circle. I think some people were a bit confused or annoyed with me for not keeping up with their lives. But that didn’t apply to more general news, because:

People enjoy sharing news from the wider world with people who haven’t heard it. Remember at school when one person was off sick and everybody would ring them in the evening to “ask how they were”, which meant “fill them in on the day’s gossip”? That doesn’t seem to be a thing any more, because even if you’re ill enough to be hospitalised you’ll probably be taking your smartphone with you. But people like being bearers of news. Saying: “I’m taking the month off Twitter so I’ve been missing loads of news, what’s been happening?” turned out to be a great conversation-starter.

Twitter drains your social batteries. I’m an introvert, and I’ve always seen Twitter as the easy alternative to “real” social interaction. What I didn’t realise until I stepped away is that Twitter drains your social batteries too. Twitter-free me was way better at coping with things like work-related networking and house-guests arriving at short notice, to the point where I actually enjoyed things I would normally dread.

I made more social effort during my time off Twitter. Instead of hanging out on Twitter hoping vaguely for connection, I reached out to specific people. I went out a lot more than I’d normally do in January, I made more phone and Skype calls and I sent more emails. I was expecting to feel a lot more lonely but that didn’t happen.

It’s still lonely and boring being the only person in the room who isn’t staring at a screen, but I knew that before the Twitterbreak, because I already thought it was rude to stare at your phone in company and tried not to do it. During January I accidentally discovered a positive aspect to having everybody around you glued to their phone – you can eat really messy food without being embarrassed, because it’s basically the same thing as eating alone. Nothing to do with my Twitterbreak really, but a good revelation to have as you scoop up the fallen filling of a collapsed burrito with your hands.

(Sometimes I wonder if being the only person in a social group who isn’t occupied by a screen is like being the only person who isn’t drunk. Hard to judge because I’ve been the only person without a phone or tablet in their hand literally hundreds of times, but I’ve been the only sober person at a party maybe twice in the past 15 years. Now looking forward to the comments suggesting that I should have done Dry January instead of a Twitterbreak.)

Yes, if your friends use Twitter to organise meeting up, being off Twitter means you’ll miss out on seeing them. I missed out on the kind of casually-organised thing where someone says “Hey, who’s coming to the pub tonight?” But that was OK, because overall I had more social interaction than usual and it felt like the interaction I did have was more enjoyable.

Facebook is still quite boring. I will never get addicted to Facebook in the way I was addicted to Twitter. There’s something intensely un-addictive about it. I think it could be because the content keeps being moved around and hidden. If Twitter ever switches to a Facebook-style dicking-around algorithm, I think lots of people will find it very easy to leave.

Most of the good stuff on Facebook is screencaps from Twitter. The best stuff on Twitter is screencaps from Tumblr.

I went to four protests during January, which is more than I’d usually do in one month, but I think the Twitterbreak meant that I was slow to hear about things happening locally. So I guess I’d say you feel more motivated to get out and do activist stuff, but you don’t hear about things so quickly.  The fourth protest I would never even have known about if my partner hadn’t mentioned it a couple of hours beforehand.

Nothing bad happens if you take a social media break. A couple of people used Twitter direct-messaging to contact me while I was away, but I’d set up email notifications for that, so I didn’t miss any attempts to get in touch with me specifically. But most people didn’t notice I was gone. And that nebulous feeling that the world will somehow collapse if you’re not keeping up with the shitstream of terrible news in real-time? That feeling fades after a few days away from it. And the world doesn’t collapse. Well, it’s collapsing right now, but I truly don’t think it’s because I took a 30-day break from refreshing my feed.

Towards the end of my month off Twitter, the internet connection to my house was disrupted by dickheads digging up the road outside. Those four or five days with a flaky connection were very stressful and reminded me just how much my work depends on the internet, how much important information I keep online with the expectation that I’ll be able to access it pretty much instantly. I think I could easily live without Twitter, but my life without an internet connection would have to be wildly different. And that’s partly because…

You can totally waste time on the internet without Twitter. I would love to say that my Twitterbreak freed up the time for me to double my billable hours, write a sonata and embark on a round-the-world yacht race. Instead, I archive-binged on blogs, browsed Tumblr and Facebook and Pinterest, read lots of online news. Yes, I did get more real-life stuff done, but I still spent plenty of time staring blankly at the internet. However, I felt as if I was making a slightly more conscious choice about what I read. My habit of going automatically to Twitter meant that I’d been using it as a news source, a feed reader and a social club. I’ve decided I don’t want one social media channel to be all those things for me any more.

Could I break the staring-at-the-internet habit entirely? I don’t think so. I was getting into trouble at school for daydreaming before the web was even a thing. I still find it easy and frankly tempting to just stare into space for longish periods. This is just the person I am. I need to gaze vaguely at things. If the internet stopped existing tomorrow, I would just gaze at other things. When I’m not on the internet and my brain goes into dreamy mode, I stare vaguely at things like trees and passers-by and my snoozing cat. Maybe it’s “better” to gaze at those things than at a screen, maybe it isn’t.

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