On Returning to Twitter, Abusing It, Hating It
It may be that we one day regret turning our public discourse into a narcotic. Until then, unleash the dopamine.
One week ago, I did something I thought I’d never do: I got back on Twitter.
I’d been off mostly uninterrupted for a decade, since 2011 when I’d been on vacation with my family in California. It was the first time I’d ever seen the West Coast, and there was a moment when we were driving down I-5, unfamiliar desert vistas and signs with exotic town names whizzing by, and I was sitting in the backseat, staring at my iPhone 3GS, trying to think up boring bon mots while frantically pressing refresh to check for notifications.
It hit me, then, the cosmic absurdity of all this. I logged off and that was that. I returned briefly in 2016 after a prominent commentator tweeted something kind about an essay I’d written. But after a month or so, I thought better of it and went Twitter-free once again. The endless griping of journalists around D.C. bar tables about how much they secretly hate Twitter steeled me in my decision. I would be the Scarlet Pimpernel of conservative punditry, mysterious, with an effeminate color as my calling card.
The reasons I’m back on now are purely self-interested: I want to share my work, find a wider audience, participate in the (*shudder*) national conversation. Yet I’ve also been awestruck over the past seven days as to just what an unbelievably addictive medium Twitter is. I can be making faces at my four-month-old son, I can be sprawled on my couch reading a good book, and there’s still a small part of my brain that’s adrift in Sector T, wondering whether I’ve racked up likes or retweets from any one of my whopping 75 followers.
It really is all about that positive reinforcement too. I scroll through my feed like everyone else, enjoying the (occasional—don’t flatter yourself, tweeps) funny jokes and sharp analysis. But that isn’t what drives the compulsion; it’s the notifications, the rush of knowing that @TradNeutronBomb455 cares—really cares!—about me! This may in part be my fault. I have one of those post-thumbsucker addictive personalities. I used to blow through half a pack of cigarettes during a night out in the city; at our old TAC offices, I would sit at my desk and half-consciously pop mints in my mouth all day long.
But I also don’t think I’m all that special in this sense. Humans are a compulsive species. We like to have something to do to fill the dry stretches. And it’s hard not to notice that, whereas once you would go into a bar and find people smoking cigarettes and laughing, today you find them sitting alone and staring at their phones. The impulse is the same. Twitter’s innovation has been to take our national discourse and refashion it as a narcotic. And if the subliminal purpose is to keep rewarding yourself with highs, then the incentive is going to be towards ever edgier opinions, more extreme putdowns, more immersive LARPing. How else can you outdo the other junkies and keep the rush going?
Lest you think I’m being melodramatic, one study found that Twitter creates more powerful cravings than cigarettes and alcohol do. Suppress one outlet for that compulsive energy and it will quickly siphon itself into something else. And while Twitter might not give you lung cancer a la smokes, there’s plenty of evidence that social media is making us lonelier, a condition that’s exacting a lethal toll of its own.
It may be that we one day regret turning our public square into a dopamine-sloshed glorified comments section overseen by an evil corporation that seeks to carve up and profit off of our attention spans like so many securitized subprime mortgages. But until then, here we are. And so it is that I just spent a day caring that a conservative organization I do not give a damn about uninvited from their conference a porn star I did not know existed. “What’s happening?” the Twitter prompt cloyingly asks, and you can be damn sure they’ll manufacture something for you if you come up blank.
Then again, who am I to talk? I’m back on the street corner now. You can follow me @mattpurple5. May God have mercy on all of us.