On Twitter Addiction and its Discontents

Earlier this week, Caitlin Flanagan published a provocative essay in the Atlantic titled: “You Really Need to Quit Twitter.” In this instance, the label of “provocative” seems obligatory, even though an objective read of the piece reveals mainly common sense. Which serves to underline the whole point Flanagan is attempting to make.

The article reports on the author’s 28-day break from Twitter after her relationship with the service had become increasingly fraught.

“My family’s attitude toward my habit has been…concerned, grossed out, or disappointed,” Flanagan writes. “My employer had given up and adopted a sort of ‘It’s your funeral’ approach.” She could no longer escape what had become obvious:

“I know I’m an addict because Twitter hacked itself so deep into my circuitry that it interrupted the very formation of my thoughts.”

So Flanagan asked her son to change her password. She signed a contract saying no matter how much she begged, he shouldn’t let her back into her account before the month had passed. She called it “Twitter rehab.”

Predictably, the experience was hard at points. Flanagan felt isolated and antsy. It was not the distraction or the breaking news information she missed, nor was it the ability to encounter interesting new people or ideas (in my experience, one of the most common themes of Twitter apologia), but instead the addict’s thrill of being part of something risky:  inserting her take into the digital slipstream; sweating that loaded beat before learning if she’d be lauded or attacked.

She decided to try to convince her son to give her password back early. “I gave him a very rational description of Twitter’s important role in a journalistic career, and how it keeps one’s perspective fresh in readers’ minds,” she wrote. He handed her a William James essay on habit formation.

On the positive side, Flanagan was surprised by how quickly she regained her once cherished ability to get lost in books. She had not previously accepted the degree to which the platform had inserted an uneasy restlessness into her attempts to read. The realization angered her:

“And that’s when I realized what those bastards in Silicon Valley had done to me. They’d wormed their way into my brain, found the thing that was more important to me than Twitter, and cut the connection.”

Life without Twitter felt different: “There was nothing to do except keep writing (freed from the story budget of Twitter, I actually had some interesting ideas) and keep reading.” It felt better.

As Flanagan notes, the simplest definition of an addiction “is a habit that you can’t quite quit, even though it poses obvious danger.” For many, Twitter has long since passed this threshold, but like Flanagan begging her son for her password back, we keep bargaining and explaining why it really is important.

Last I checked, Flanagan was still largely absent from Twitter, even though her 28-day rehab period has long since expired. Perhaps the real provocation is that committed displays of digital minimalism of this type remain so rare.