In April of 2008 I created a Twitter account and actively used it more or less until June of 2020. Twelve years feels like a long time in technology, even if it’s really just a blip. For the first few years it was a lot of fun. I networked with people around the world, and learned about lots of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I was involved in the “archiving” of Twitter data at the Library of Congress, which was a great opportunity to get a feel for what working with that volume of the data is like–even when the project itself foundered when it came to grappling with the question of how to provide meaningful and ethical access to the collected data.
Twitter helped me connect with and learn from others involved in designing for Linked Data, which was a new name for an old idea—a dream of another World Wide Web. Understanding and critiquing the philosophical ideas behind the semantic web, and seeing how some of the goals of Linked Data were at odds with the commercial web sent me back to academia to study sociotechnical systems.
In 2014 I watched protests in Ferguson unfold on Twitter after the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer. Trying to collect and analyze these Twitter conversations as part of the Documenting the Now project, while also practicing the ethics of doing this work was a gateway into a world of activism, design, and social and political theory and practice that remain extremely important to me.
But, somewhere along the way I got a bit lost on Twitter. I started to pay more attention to the likes and the retweets, and the follows. It stopped being so fun and random–but I didn’t really notice because I was caught up in the stream. I didn’t know what it was like to wake up in the morning and not pull-to-refresh my timeline before I’d even had a cup of coffee.
A few months ago I decided that I needed to take a break mostly to get some writing done on my dissertation. I noticed that I was finding it difficult to concentrate on my research, and that when I was away from Twitter it got significantly easier. It’s a conundrum in a way because I’m not sure I would have started a PhD in the first place if I wasn’t in conversation with some of the people I’ve been able to follow and chat with on Twitter.
When I took the break I thought I’d be back in September once the heavy lift of my writing was finished. But honestly, I’ve felt quite a bit more calm not constantly checking my notifications, and feeling the urge to drop little notes documenting my life into Twitter.
The stress level of the content on Twitter is high: there’s the fear of missing out, and the fear of not reading everything, the occasional bouts of envy bubbling up, the seething hatred and hopelessness of some of the viral content–and the machine learning algorithms that quietly feed this content because of the engagement metrics, even when you opt out.
Instead of going immediately back to Twitter after my writing break I somewhat randomly tuned back into my social.coop Mastodon account. I found people were still there in the fediverse talking about things I enjoyed: open source software, left politics, archives, art, and design. I felt like I was actually learning from people again. The fediverse feels a bit off the beaten track, with all the random instances people hail from, and the fluidity of people moving around from one to the other. It feels like a wild experiment, which really is what drew me to Twitter in the first place.
So after the time away I’ve decided not to return to Twitter after all. I’m not going to delete my account or my posts. I always engaged with Twitter as a form of public discourse, so I’m going to leave the content I put there as a record of that. I have a snapshot of my archive which I’m planning on putting online once I’ve purged it of some of my personal information which doesn’t really belong on the public web.
I’ll probably keep an eye on DMs and respond to notifications when I happen to notice them. I also plan on leaving active some IFTTT recipes that automatically send a tweet when I publish a blog post here, or edit a Wikipedia article, etc. But I’m going to stay off Twitter for day to day communications. I do hope you will come and follow me at social.coop from one of the many fediverse instances – but hey, no pressure, ok? I’m always at email@example.com so drop me a line some time. And clearly I’ve missed the memo about blogging and will continue to write here. The World Wide Web is still a good idea friends.