We are too comfortable laughing about how Twitter hurts us.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with existing in contradiction. It’s okay if you think Twitter is Bad but you are still compelled to Tweet and go on Twitter because Twitter is also kind of Good! You feel informed, there are funny posts and you sometimes learn something valuable.
There are real people inputting their real opinions and information and effort into this apparatus. Twitter is Real, constructed of Real People.
It certainly feels Real. When you stare at it, when you learn the horrible news, when you see the wonderful news and the compelling arguments and the terrible Tweets and hilarious Tweets, Twitter is part of Reality. People get fired over Tweets. It feels as though it’s more of a decision to NOT have a Twitter than it is to organically sprout one, because you are a member of society, and society happens on Twitter. You don’t choose whether or not you tweet, you just try to make good tweets, try not to make too many bad ones.
But having Twitter is not a requirement in any society. You do not have to have a Twitter. Nothing forces you. No legal document requires it, no government administers it, it is entirely possible for you to go your entire life without scrolling through Twitter or posting on it.
So what exactly is this thing? Recently the new CEO of Twitter has referred to it as an “online public square”, The Place where the Public Conversation occurs. It’s an enticing idea. It feels that way, and it feels like our public square is run amuck with rapscallions and radicals, made manageable by the jokes. But this isn’t the truth about Twitter. This isn’t what Twitter is for.
It is not a public square. It is a private company. It is not a state run service. Twitter is not accountable for fostering “productive discourse”. Their only single actual responsibility is towards profit.
And it makes its money through advertising.
This is the information age. We are out of land to colonize, so we now operate in the colonization of minds. Billboards in your brain. Know this.
When the product is free, you are the product.
You are not a small part of this. This is about you. Your conscious experience is the coveted commodity.
Your attention is being bought and sold. Every second you spend on social media you are being manipulated and optimized as perfect products to sell to advertisers. This includes everything. The fun, informative, and frustrating times on Twitter. The time you felt someone didn’t deserve to be getting cancelled for something so petty. The time you felt someone really deserved to be cancelled, so you started enjoying the fireworks. Gouging yourself on new threads.
Consuming. Producing. Existing in their space. Living through the intangible instead of in physical, material, immediate reality.
It makes no difference to Twitter. So long as you are staring, scrolling, liking, retweeting, or posting, you are a labourer for the company that pays you no wages. They don’t even need to pay too much attention to what you think, what you watch or what you care about. They simply sell your eyes to any company that will pay for them, and they work around to the clock to keep you inside of their cyberspace so that those companies pay them more.
Everything else is allowed to exist, so long as it serves the peak priority. Every real feeling, relationship, thought, experience, pleasure, despair, all of those things you have lived on Twitter (as I have), all of them are Very Real. I don’t deign to discredit or devalue them. Most of us have gotten some important experiences and powers through Twitter, but Twitter exists primarily to generate profit. It does so with slot machine addiction techniques and advertisements. All of the value that lives on Twitter exists, but it serves the God of attention capture. Above all else, they must have your attention.
They must have your eyes.
You are a cyborg.
We are not awaiting the impending apocalyptic circumstance of a microchip being inserted into your brain. There is already a microchip hacking your brain.
It’s outside of your body, but you carry it on your person 24/7, every day of the year. You look at it when you wake up and right before you go to bed. You know where it is right now. It’s never too far away. You use it for work, you use it for school, it mediates your relationships, and you intuitively reach for it when you’re bored.
Your brain chemistry, your body and your conscious experience, has completely integrated your phone into itself as an appendage.
Maybe this isn’t as nightmarish as it sounds at first. After all, a pencil or a hammer are also technologies, the use of which also makes us a cyborg. But there is something different about your phone. You don’t simply use it as a tool to achieve some purpose, after which you are free to put it down. The phone blurs the boundaries between intentionality and impulse, necessity and indulgence, entertainment and boredom.
Is this because of Angry Birds and Candy Crush? No. It’s not the screen inherently, it’s not video games, it’s not just passive activities. Things like those have existed forever, and you can measure for yourself if you’re wasting too much time or not.
What is much more concerning is that the same addictive optimization techniques are applied to your emotional and intellectual life. The addictive attention trap is not just some video game, but a seamless extension of the most intimate parts of your existence. A vehicle for your emotional life. A place where your Self and your relationships dwell.
The place you get your news is the same place you get your memes. You will form opinions on public figures, you’ll flesh out your opinions on your friends, and you will craft your conception of the entire world.
Social media makes you a very different kind of cyborg than other tools. This tool mediates how you think.
So is Twitter for fun? Is it the online Public Town Square of modern discourse? Or is it a private company profiting off of optimizing engagement? Can it really be all of those things?
What is your new limb doing to you?
Must you allow it?
Your new limb comes with a new brain. You’ve grown the synapses necessary to intuitively wield this new tool in your pocket.
Your fresh cyber social media synapses are interesting things. Just like the synapses you use to control your hands to lift a cup of tea to your mouth in the morning, your social media synapses are attuned to using Twitter, navigating its incentive structure effectively.
The incentives and ambitions of tea-drinking are fairly clear. Tasty drink, maybe a caffeine boost, warm liquid soothes throat. Try not to spill it on you! Leave the tea bag in long enough but not too long, hit that right frequency. Pick your favourite mug to make it a pleasant aesthetic experience as well as a functional ritual.
What are your Twitter neurons concerned with? Well, they’re mutations on your real-life social synapses.
You desire human connection, community, and discussion. You want to be around people, you want to laugh, you want to care, you want to be up to date, you want to feel like you are a part of something.
This is what drives you to make friends. It’s how you fall in love, and it’s how you get involved in things you care about alongside likeminded people.
The promise of a cyberspace service like Twitter is that it will augment social life. It breaks the barriers between you and the world, allowing you to connect far beyond your circumstantial physical locale. You can now continue to interact with your real life friends in little ways 24/7 through this medium, unhindered by the constraints of each others busy schedules.
You can see what the planet thinks. The planet can see what you think. Your opportunity for social, intellectual, and emotional interaction has been multiplied by a factor of infinity.
How wonderful! Maybe. There are conditions.
There’s a profit motive, of course. Always remember, the sole purpose of a corporation is to make profit. The product or service they provide, their customer base and their “mission statement” are all completely fungible and interchangeable. The only thing that has to be there no matter what is profit.
The advertiser model predicates the generation of this profit on your constant impulsive usage of the app and your feeling of obligation to be on it. Advertiser driven social media platforms seek to instil the feeling that if you are absent from them, you are missing out on humanity itself. You are not doing your part to participate in Public Discourse in the Online Public Town Square.
So your new limb of social life is necessarily shrouded in this duplicitous slot machine structure and emotional manipulation. But what of the actual service it provides?
Twitter is and has always been a place to share bite sized pieces of information in a never-ending, fast paced flow. It is an aggregation of glimpses, tiny partial windows into holistic complete beings.
These little fragments of ideas and people are then ranked by Likes, Retweets and Replies. All of these three metrics fall under the single concept of “Engagement.”
Engagement is an abstract, flattening metric. The amount of engagement a Tweet generates has absolutely no indication of the content of said Tweet. It could be absolutely anything. People could love or hate a Tweet, and that Tweet would register either passionate response as “High Engagement.”
In a recent appearance on Bill Maher, Elon Musk (current Lord of Twitter) responds to a question on cancellation and Twitter rage thusly:
“You have to say like, what does “cancelled” mean? Y’know… people attack you on Twitter that’s one thing but frankly that’s just an increase in engagement. So I would just ignore it.”
In addition to it being funny to hear Musk come very close to the leftist talking point that “Cancel Culture Doesn’t Exist,” it’s also very revealing that Musk can so easily equate a negative online experience to a positive increase in engagement. It’s actually supremely fitting that someone who has publicly criticized Cancel Culture so easily flipped to dismissing its power and even celebrating its profitability now that he helms the medium through which it is most often enacted.
Plus, Maher’s question about how to fix the volatility and reactivity of Twitter goes completely unanswered.
Musk simply suggests that volatility and reactivity are profitable in terms of capturing attention for advertisers. In response to “Why are Twitter users so angry,” he practically responds: “It’s a feature, not a bug.”
I am not interested in debating the quantitative balance of Good Things versus Bad Things that happen on Twitter™. I am concerned with the qualitative rewiring that occurs in our brains as we use Twitter to create and consume these Things.
I want to tell you about your thoughts. They flow through you dreamlike, shapeless, immaterial. You’re not in control of what thought you will have next. You don’t need to will them into existence. They arrive, formed, pulling at your attention and identity. They possess you for their own sake, like parasitic spirits that desire to use you for their own ends.
Ideas are mysterious, wondrous miracles throttling us 24/7 365. An unending stream of involuntary experimentation in search of elusive value. Imagination becoming reality, the physical past lost but memory persisting, the subjective hallucination of concepts constantly manifesting and altering the trajectory of all things.
But ideas don’t arrive in a vacuum. They are always a response to and interaction with experience in the physical world. There is no pure universe of “Mind” separate from “Body.” The existence of any idea is entangled with the place/time/circumstance in which it is formed. Thought is a process of both “doing and undergoing.”
Therefore I would not deign to haughtily suggest your “Pure Thoughts” are being manipulated in some unprecedented way simply because you are using a new technology. I would instead benignly point out that wherever you have your thoughts will change your thoughts. The things you consume and the mediums you consume them through tone your stream of consciousness (your “Self”).
If you spend a lot of time playing video games, you will think more about video games. You will relate other things to video games more often. After a few hours engrossed in a game, you’re likely to see the game world when you close your eyes to sleep that night.
People who habitually use Twitter will often make comments about Twitter as if its synonymous with lived experience.“Everyone is saying *this* about *that*.” Everyone? Like who? Someone you know? This line of questioning consistently produces the admission that “Everyone” meant “The thread I scrolled through while on the toilet.”
There is no reason for your conscious experience to differentiate between Twitter and Reality.
When your attention (your “Self”) is engrossed with Twitter for multiple 5-15 minute intervals throughout your day, those are not moments of “lost time.” That is time spent, shaping you, shaping your thoughts, bleeding into other areas of your life.
Early in our relationship to screens we noted the danger of zoning out; society was concerned about mass zombie-like mesmerization with television, losing time we could be spending on more productive things. And sure, yes, if this is an issue for you then you should waste less time and put your energy into things that are more fulfilling and meaningful. But social media is not purely passive entertainment.
Twitter scrolling isn’t a junk food indulgence that we awaken from in a daze, as from a dream that quickly dissipates. The melding of your thoughts with Twitter scrolling causes you to imagine a flow of Tweets overlayed over physical reality.
You will read an opinion in 280 characters or less written by someone you do not know and you will compute this as something that someone out there believes. As you later walk through your grocery store buying bread, you’ll imagine the strangers you see are directly reflective of the Twitter threads you’ve been reading. Although one of these worlds is human, and one of them is a fragmented for-profit manipulation, we melt them together as equally reflective of reality, and in doing so we adapt to both equally.
If you watch your thoughts throughout the day, you can actually notice how many of them are informed by the Tweets of people you have never met and will never know. And then you can notice the way your own thoughts sometimes instinctively morph themselves into Tweets, before you even move to tweet them.
You will make a sandwich, you will drop it on the floor, and this will be sad but also funny, so you will quickly subjugate this experience to the 280 character or less format in order to perform it for Twitter.
You’ll feel frustrated at Twitter threads criticizing your favourite movie, develop some opinion about why these people have this frustrating critique, and you’ll post your critique of the critique of this thing that you could have just enjoyed without any agitation if you had just stayed off of Twitter.
A lot of your thoughts could be Tweets. How do you decide which ones to give away and which to keep?
When you instinctively commit your spare time to Twitter, you leave less space for dynamic, uncurated, unoptimized thought. Twitter is a harvester of your attention. It is a carefully constructed thought modifier, and it is hell bent on consuming your conscious experience for its own purposes, even when you log off. It’s proactively designed to blur the boundaries between online and offline experience, hacking your most basic need for human connection to suck up as many hours of your day as it can.
It will always do this, no matter who the CEO is, so long as it runs on an advertiser model for profit. That is the point of it. That is the only point of it.
But that is not the point of You. You are not a Twitter User. You are a person.
Your thoughts are not meant to be performed. Your selfhood isn’t meant to be sucked into this narrow tube of Twitter. Your new limb seeks to embalm your constantly shifting self for its own purposes, feeding you a steady stream of uppers and downers to hook you into habitual use. It entices you into turning those dynamic human thoughts into static profitable Tweets. It eats away at your consciousness and that is its business model.
It’s trying to convince you that Twitter is mandatory, the evolutionary expansion upon the social experience of human beings. But it isn’t. It’s a parasite that needs you to live. It takes your thoughts and makes them Tweets, and instead of paying you, or thanking you for your work, it works full time to addict you into giving more, and more. Post more, like more, retweet more, but most of all, just Look. Scroll. Look. Stay. Stare.
They want your eyes. They want You.
Infamous atheist rationalist Sam Harris was a regular Twitter user for 12 years.
In those dozen years he tweeted about 9000 times (averaging two tweets a day). He communicated with fans, responded to criticism and commented on current events.
Then he abruptly left Twitter in January 2023.
He explains his reasoning in episode #304 of his podcast Waking Up, titled simply “Why I Left Twitter”.
I just came to believe my engagement with Twitter was making me a worse person.
It was showing me the worst of other people, in a way that I started to feel was actually distorting my perception of humanity.
Twitter for me became like a malignant form of telepathy where I got to hear the most irrational contemptuous sneering thoughts all day.
But the problem wasn’t all the hate being directed at me. The problem was the hate I was beginning to feel. Hate probably isn’t the right word, its more like disgust or despair.
Twitter was giving me a very dark view of other people and the fact that I believed and still believe that it’s a distorted view wasn’t enough to inoculate me against this change in my attitude.
It is not enough to simply Be Aware that Twitter incentivizes outrage. We’re all perfectly cognizant of the inherent foolishness of doing complex political debate in 280 characters or less, measured by Likes and Retweets. But the habitual use of Twitter still wreaks havoc on our perception of reality. Factual knowledge about cocaine’s addictive properties doesn’t change the biological outcome of doing cocaine daily. It will still change your neurochemistry.
It’s not the content on Twitter, or the misuse of Twitter, or mistaken beliefs about what Twitter is that deteriorates your mind, but the process of being a Twitter user over time.
It is not designed to be used in moderation and it is not designed to be separate from the rest of your life. It is designed to hack your brain chemistry so you instinctively reach for it in your pocket whenever you have a spare 3 seconds. It’s designed to invade your mind and rewire it so you think in a manner advantageous to Twitter.
How much of what you believe about the world comes from within the attention obsessed optimized parameters of social media? If you weren’t looking on Twitter for the latest controversies (in between jokes and important information, of course) would you feel differently about the state of the world? How much brain space is occupied by consuming outrage about things you can’t control, that you could otherwise use to pay attention to your immediate experience of many things you can control?
And what if the boredom and emptiness itself enables you to have more thoughts that might actually improve the world? How much of your own creativity are you suffocating with instinctual consumption of half baked Tweets?
When a private opinion, joke, or idea floats through your mind, and your hands unconsciously reach for your phone to immediately mutate it into a tweet, that thought is no longer your thought. Your very experience of Thinking is being co-authored by Twitter’s incentive structure. Offhand opinions on random topics are suddenly worthy of performance on a stage. An absurd experience that brought whimsy to your day needs to be crammed into a character limit. And for creative people (all people), ideas are aborted before they’re fully formed.
There is a false feeling of completion to your thoughts once they are embalmed as tweets. There is a sense you have done something. The dynamic fluidity of thought is mummified, reduced to a dead static statement to be evaluated numerically.
But your thoughts need not be this way. Your opinions don’t have to be announced at all times, for they change constantly. Oftentimes it’s common to not have an opinion at all, much less codify it into stone for others to judge you by. When life makes you laugh, it is important to first laugh before trying to envision the Tweet that would cause you to accurately imagine what you just experienced. And your ideas are the source of your creative power as an individual. They don’t have to be free labour for Twitter, more fuel for its fire. They can be yours. Sometimes thoughts grow into action. Sometimes they grow into conviction. Sometimes they cause you to create things much less fleeting than a Tweet.
Your thoughts are more sacred than Tweets. And if you are aware that your Twitter habit is a lowly manifestation of your selfhood, then what do you think you’re experiencing when you scroll endlessly through the Tweets of others?
The newsfeed toys with your desire for connection by utilizing slivers of real people to activate human curiosity. It offers you glass after glass of sea water, which feels like the real thing but never satisfies, leaving you thirsty no matter how much you consume, killing the complete dynamism that makes you human, strangling the complexity in your appraisal of others.
The loss that Twitter causes in the life of the habitual user comes sharply into focus when considering what a Tweet might otherwise be.
Oftentimes an opinion is something that ought to simply flow through you, unused, unexamined, unimportant. Things that make you laugh don’t need to be captured and converted into content, they can simply be enjoyed, convincing you that daily life is worth experiencing. Insofar as your thoughts are valuable to share, they’re often better shared with someone you care about, rather than performed for no one/everyone in hopes of scoring points that can’t be cashed out.
The smallest simplest piece of practical advice that could change your life is this: instead of tweeting, text it to a friend.
When you turn your thoughts into Tweets, you’re doing free labour for a corporation that is working overtime to gamify your attention and social life. But when you turn your thoughts into texts to friends and family, you are building relationships.
Calcify consciousness not by generating capital, but by generating memories.
I don’t want to read any more tweets about how toxic Twitter is. No more announcing social media breaks on social media. These are self defeating lip service towards self awareness that nonetheless competes for attention on the very platform you claim to be criticizing.
I have heard friends proudly proclaim they are fighting against their Twitter addiction by shutting off the app as soon as they see something that makes them upset. That’s like going to the casino every day and playing blackjack until you lose. Why are you playing in the first place?
The real way to fight back is by looking away. Deleting apps. Deleting accounts. Depriving these companies of your conscious experience. Move conversations off of the apps that you will mindlessly use to scroll as long as they are available to you, onto apps that only allow the chat function.
See what you have room for in your mind when you’re no longer dwelling on irritating Tweets made by people you don’t know.
You deserve your consciousness.
Do not confuse yourself into thinking Twitter use does not affect you. Do not confuse yourself into thinking it’s an important place to be. It is not more important than your life. And if Twitter is more interesting than your life, perhaps it is important you experience the boredom and emptiness in your actual surroundings. That boredom is exactly what drives you to creativity and action, and Twitter is an opiate preventing you from experiencing those necessary emotions.
Twitter is constructed like a casino, where the chips are your attention and engagement. Everyone knows if you stay in a casino, no matter how well it goes for you, eventually, the house always wins. So the moment you feel that sick twinge on your psyche, it’s time. Either accept your losses and rebuild from what you’ve got left, or if you’re lucky, quit while you’re ahead.
You’re not a Twitter user, you’re a person.
Take your eyes back from these parasites