Posted tagged ‘twitter’

Long and self-indulgent post about my month off Twitter

February 2, 2017

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.

Toddlers, technology and my inner Puritan

February 8, 2012

One of my friends mentioned recently that her 3-year-old son recognises the Twitter icons of some of her friends. She mentioned it in a “isn’t he clever?” spirit of mild mum-boasting, but the news freaked me out. Then another friend, whose baby is less than a year old, commented that her kid has “seen loads of Twitter already!” and I was weirded out anew. They both asked me why I had a problem with this.

So I’ve been trying to work out: what exactly is my problem here? Why does it feel so wrong and unnatural?

I wouldn’t in any way freak out if somebody told me their 3-year-old can name all the animals in their favourite book. That would seem completely normal to me. And recognising recurring icons on Mummy’s Twitter feed is very similar: it’s just a question of recognising a picture you see regularly. But perhaps some of the weirdness here is because the Twitter feed is for the adult and not meant for the child.

Two things about parents and children that aren’t exactly secrets but nobody tells you:

  1. Little kids are usually more interested in things adults, especially their parents, are using than in the things that are specifically created for the child’s own use.
  2. Parents are frequently bored by their own children, but it’s apparently unacceptable to admit it.

The first “secret” is obvious within five minutes of encountering a toddler in the company of its parents: children will ignore the colourful, interestingly textured toys specifically designed to stimulate their growing brains and instead make a beeline for Daddy’s keys, Mummy’s handbag or, if possible, the most dangerous and unsuitable item in the room.

When a toddler visited us a few days ago, I wasn’t the tiniest bit surprised that she ignored the big fluffy toy rabbit we gave her and went straight for a shelf full of books she can’t read. When her mum pulled her away from the books, I did the usual routine of pretending the rabbit was talking, but the toddler didn’t give a flying fuck. She ignored me and ran into a different room, where she immediately found a box full of batteries to play with. The only time I’ve ever managed to interest a toddler in a cuddly toy is when I genuinely forgot the kid was in the room and started playing with the toy myself. Then, all of a sudden, it was interesting enough. (I’ve noticed that the relationship to toys is very different in older children, especially when they’re socialising in groups, but that’s a different story.)

To move on to the second “secret”: parents have tools for getting themselves through the boredom that dare not speak its name: friends, television, books, mind-games, an obsession with getting kids to sleep and yes, the internet. Combine this with the child’s interest in anything the parent is doing without them and it’s logical that kids will latch on to whatever the parent is using to handle the boredom. So of course it makes sense for a kid to spend a lot of time looking at Mummy’s Twitter feed, even leaving aside my feeling that there’s something innately attention-attracting about anything that glows. (My guess is also that furtive Twitter-checkers get more attention from their kids than those who actively try to interest the child in what they’re doing.) So saying “My kid recognises lots of Twitter icons!” is effectively admitting two parenting “secrets” in one go.

But that doesn’t really explain why it seems so wrong to me. OK, so it’s partly because I grew up in the early Eighties when hardly anybody had a computer at home and I learned to use a computer many years after I’d learned to read and write. So I expect a logical progression that goes: learning to read books, learning to write, getting reasonably good at both reading and writing and then learning to use a computer. The idea that you’d be exposed to computers or smartphones before you could read or write “properly”, using paper, is odd to me because it feels like doing things the wrong way round. (Also, my parents had the vague idea that it would stunt my development to play too many computer games or watch too much telly, so my childhood exposure to glowing screens was limited.)

I was a Brownie leader in the early/mid-90s, a nursery assistant in the late 90s to early Noughties and a school librarian around the same time. So my first experiences of child-related responsibility date from a time before smartphones or tablet computers. More to the point, most of my experience of dealing with kids has involved a specific, time-limited job. It would be inappropriate to check Twitter in the middle of nursery sing-song time, just as it would be inappropriate to get out a book and start reading. But I’ll admit I did enjoy it when the nursery watched a video, or when the Brownies were absorbed in some activity, because I could relax my attention, drink tea and chat quietly to other adults. These days maybe I’d skip the tea and chatting to refresh my Twitter feed on my smartphone. It’s the same kind of light, semi-distracted entertainment.

What I’ve never experienced is the job of actually being a parent, getting past the platitudes of “it’s a full-time job, you know!” to the reality of inescapable 24-hour responsibility. I’ve never done the work of being just around, putting in the tedious hours of quantity time that are actually more important than scheduled quality time. My experience has either been about work (including voluntary work) or it’s been a time-limited social interaction with someone else’s kids. So the idea of long-term, open-ended responsibility for a child is foreign to me, even though that’s the reality of actual parenting. The closest I’ve come to that mix of responsibility and boredom is various jobs where I absolutely had to “man the phones” and “hold the fort” and couldn’t leave the room even though nothing was happening. And in a situation where I had responsibility but little to actually do, you bet your sweet bippy I surfed the web. (And felt a bit guilty despite the knowledge that I was doing precisely what was required of me.)

So that’s part of the answer. The idea of a parent repeatedly checking Twitter in front of their kid weirds me out because it doesn’t match the way I interact with kids myself. And that’s because I’m not a parent.

But there’s more to it than that. My reaction also involved feeling that on some vague moral level, a child being familiar with Twitter is just Wrong. I think it’s partly because boasting about your kid recognising Twitter icons is breaking the social expectation that you shouldn’t admit trying to do other things while “spending time with” your child. Of course there are many other ways of breaking that expectation: talking about your kid getting in the way when you’re cleaning the house, or copying you shaving, or whatever. And, as I said earlier, a parent who is focused on something else is in fact a subject of intense interest to a toddler. If you tie yourself in knots waving colourful toys at them, they’ll probably lose interest and look for something dangerous to play with instead.

But the Twitter thing still shocked me, more than seeing my niece pretending to swipe a credit card or mimicking adult conversations on her toy phone. And it’s taken me days to work out why: it’s because I have an expectation that mothers should emphasise the work they do but play down the fun and relaxation they have. My own mother tells and re-tells the story of how I once tipped her bucket of water over when she was working as a cleaner. That’s an OK story for her to tell because she features in the story as someone who’s working. But she was embarrassed when my sister was asked in primary school to draw a picture of her mum and drew a picture of her sitting down. “All the things I do… and you draw me sitting down?”

Even now she’s a ridiculously hard worker, working at least 20 hours a week even though she’s supposed to be retired, going to the gym several times a week and keeping her house show-home spotless. She hated board games and jigsaws when I was a kid for being “pointless” and “a waste of time” and now things have moved on, she dislikes blogging and Twitter for the same reasons. She’s now, like me, actively trying to have more fun, but I think for a long time she had the idea that fun was what happened when you should be doing something else. And I never realised, until my tech-savvy friend called me on my ick-reaction, how much of that attitude I’ve internalised.

The funny thing about unquestioned assumptions is: when you actually look straight at them, they mostly change or dissolve completely. I’ve had a few days to think about why a tiny child seeing Twitter seems so wrong to me, and now I’ve worked out why, hey presto: it doesn’t actually seem so wrong at all.

Swatting butterflies

January 24, 2012

I used to have a boyfriend who, like many of the people I deal with, had what I call “a hole in the head”. Things that were obvious to others were not obvious to him. Most attempts to point these things out went through his ears and straight out of the hole in the head, leaving his eyes blank and his brain untouched. (Of course, we split up, not because he had a hole in the head but because his hole in the head didn’t match mine.)

He was once stopped in the street by a woman doing a survey about something like satellite telly. As he explained to me afterwards, he stopped to give her a long rant about the survey topic “because she had big tits”.

Now, I have plenty to say about badly-designed surveys that don’t let you get across your real opinions, and about people who stop you in the street when you’re just trying to daydream, and maybe she did ask a lot of stupid questions, but this still bothered me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re saying that BECAUSE she had big tits, BECAUSE you found her attractive, you decided to stop and give her a big angry rant about satellite telly?” My boyfriend looked confused, but I could tell this was one of the times where I’d got through to him. I think he was confused because the woman, in his mind, was very much secondary to his killer arguments about satellite telly or whatever the hell it was. I followed up with some predictable comments about how she certainly wasn’t going to fancy him back after that display of aggression, and I really think it got through. At least, he’d remembered she was a person, rather than a pair of breasts attached to a clipboard, and that was progress.

I’ve said before, in passing, that wolf-whistling is not about attracting women; it’s about reinforcing dominance of public space. It’s about reminding other people: I am the looker here, I get to judge stuff. Reacting to attractive women by trying to make them listen to your boring opinions is part of the same set of behaviours. You’re using their social conditioning against them, for a start, but you’re also reminding them that drawing any attention is dangerous because it sets up more social traps to avoid. You’re putting yourself in the comfortable role of “inevitable consequence” and them in the uncomfortable role of “person who needs to be careful”. Effectively, you’re punishing them in some small way for their attractiveness.

It’s a similar thing on social media. I don’t get much street harassment these days, and for that I am unambiguously grateful. But on social media, every day, I get micropunishments for being too interesting.

I’m on Twitter. I’ve built up a few hundred followers by being reasonably interesting, and I get retweeted when I say interesting things. But the more followers and RTs  I get, the more attention I attract – and lots of that attention comes in a form that makes my heart sink a tiny bit every time. I can guarantee that if something I say gets retweeted more than ten times, I will get a reply I don’t want. It might be outright aggressive and/or insulting and/or weird, e.g. “Your not only boring but your ugly [sic]” or “Christians like you think you’re helping charity but you’re actually supporting jihad”. But more often than not, it’s just a little “correction”. I’ve done my sums wrong, you see, or I’ve made a general statement that – shock horror! – isn’t true of that particular individual, or I’ve made a spelling mistake, or I’ve shown too much sympathy for a group in society when that group has placed itself beyond sympathy by behaving in an irrational way.

The commenters are saying to me “You’re wrong, you know” but the subtext is “You’re wrong, and I have a right to correct you and have you listen to that correction”, and the deeper subtext is “You’re wrong, but if you weren’t interesting with it then you wouldn’t have to put up with being told so.

Mostly, I think “OK, this person is boring and humourless, they lack both empathy and reading comprehension skills, and they make me tired, but they mean well.” But when it happens over and over again, it has an effect and it does force me to change my behaviour. I think twice, three times, before posting a funny remark even if I know my friends will find it funny, because I can’t bear to see the flurry of humourless responses – and feel my social conditioning tugging on me to deal with them politely. “I think you’ll find the story about the chicken crossing the road is a hoax. Check Snopes.

We’ve heard a lot about the abuse meted out to women for the crime of being visibly female on the internet. I’m not saying that I have it anywhere near as tough as some of the high-profile women who’ve spoken out about this.

What I am saying is that every day, the drip-drip-drip of “corrections” and of drive-by nastiness starts to get to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t get “corrected” about something. And I don’t think a week goes by in which a complete stranger doesn’t seek me out online to tell me exactly why they’re not following me, or to tell me how they think I should change what I say to be more pleasing to them. I don’t know if they think I’ll welcome the criticism; maybe they’ve forgotten that I’ll have any reaction to it at all. Either way, their conviction that their own opinion is too important to suppress overrides any consideration of how I’ll feel. (Needless to say, these are very rarely people who have any interesting, original content of their own.)

I don’t know what to do to stop it. I already know that “I was joking” and “Yes, thanks, already Googled that, see my next tweet” and “I wasn’t asking for your opinion” have very little effect in terms of stopping the flow of micropunishments. And when I don’t know what to do to stop it, that’s usually a big clue that it’s not my behaviour that should be changing.