Leaving Twitter

I decided to leave Twitter. It was a cumulative thing. Since I joined, I've had an ambivalent relationship with the platform. I was never quite sure. So I've been considering ‘deactivation’ for a while. Twitter works for lots of people, I can see the benefits and the appeal. But I reached the conclusion that it just wasn't quite right for me.

Inevitably, the longer you are attached to any particular social media the harder it is to leave. The networks are sticky. My seven years on Twitter could have made it tricky to unhook. That's part of how these platforms work. The networks that build around you make it difficult to turn your back. They are designed to discourage extrication.

Individuals are mobile but networks are much harder to relocate (you can't take a network with you). As an individual node, dropping-out means that you are no longer a point through which information flows. Nor can you participate in making the connections that then add to the density of the network. So the activity and network connections are erased once an account is deactivated.

And then there is the lost labour. Something that has taken such a large amount of time and work is not easy to delete. Abandoning the labour invested in building a network leaves a nagging feeling that something is being wasted.

Our social media profiles hold this type of gravitational pull: we are networked-in and we also have labour invested in them that will be otherwise lost (I'd suggest reading this piece by Mark Carrigan, which was written when he deleted the Twitter profile he'd had for a decade). And then there are the interesting social connections we make and the things we discover from being part of social media. I've got to know people and their work on Twitter - the social aspects of social media are undeniable - and have found great books and articles on there too. This is perhaps the greatest loss of leaving.

I'm sure there will be moments when I'll miss it and the people I connected with on there. I can't be sure that I won't return. I've already had the phantom app feeling - when I've habitually hit the screen space where the Twitter square used to be. There are many obvious failings with Twitter and the kind of negativity and vitriol it often contains have been widely discussed. I didn't want to write about it in blunt or dismissive terms in this short piece - social media are always quite complex things that are adapted differently by people. I'm always reluctant to simply dismiss social media and I don't want to preach about leaving Twitter. It's more to do with how we adapt to its possibilities and to the demands that these media inevitably make of us (I discussed the demands of on-demand culture in the closing chapter of The Quirks of Digital Culture). It's hard not to get trapped in the logic of social media.

I suppose I'd become a little alienated by the reductive form of the media and its incessant deluge of rapid and overwhelming content. Plus, I never really felt like I had very much to say on there, I mostly used it to share links. And, of course, everything is subject to the amplification and silencing effect of algorithmic filtering and prioritisation.

Looking back, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable about using social media. I've been researching it since around 2006 - mostly as a critical observer rather than an enthusiastic practitioner. Back 14 years ago, just after completing my PhD, I was working on a national research programme exploring how networked technologies were changing society. What was then referred to as Web 2.0 came along. It was clear that it would change things. User generated content was soon to be a big deal and would reach out across most social connections. We knew we had to get to grips with the change. We started researching and writing about Web 2.0. The terminology was yet to solidify and the hierarchy of platforms was yet to establish itself. MySpace was still the biggest. It was clear that change was still unfolding and that other Web 2.0 technologies were moving quickly. YouTube was already important and Facebook was emerging at pace. I created a Facebook profile so that I could test how it worked. I didn't like it, and deleted my profile as soon as I'd grasped its basic functionality. Although I've researched and written about it, I've never been back as a participant. I didn't like the way it pushed at privacy and I felt unable and unwilling to adapt. Instead of the everyday experience of its use, other more structural issues of power, infrastructure, circulation and data became my focus.

Now that I've also left Twitter, the question will be whether it is possible to research, teach and write about social media from the outside. I might save that question for the future.



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