Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Back on Twitter

Maybe for good this time

Towards the end of last year, I created a new Twitter profile after more than two years away. When I left, in September 2018, I deleted my account outright, so I had to start again from scratch. I had no followers, no tweets, no lists, no bookmarks and no likes. When I had been on Twitter before, from 2009 to 2018, I had ended up following a lot of people (well, about 350, which is more than twice Dunbar’s number), most of whom were tweeting things that didn’t interest me and that I rarely engaged with. I’ll explain below how that came about. But this time, I decided that I was going to be a lot more careful about whom I followed. And so far, that’s worked. Most of the items that show up in my timeline are things I find at least mildly interesting.

I had decided to rejoin Twitter as a kind of experiment, without expecting much from it. Last November, I started a Substack newsletter, and I thought Twitter might be useful as a source of potential readers. I was ready to delete my account quickly if it didn’t work out. Now, seven months in, it looks as if I’m planning to stay indefinitely. I recognized that fact when I read a post from Noah Smith’s newsletter (which I recommend), “The terrific triviality of Twitter”. Smith’s analysis has convinced me that Twitter is a much less malign entity than it often seems.

Twitter outrage is like a summer squall — it strikes hard, but then moves on fast. That also means that there are many, many targets of outrage — far too many for any kind of organized or sustained boycott, except perhaps in one or two extreme cases.
… it seems like only a matter of time before both people and corporations realize that Twitter mobs are largely paper tigers. Humans have never before lived in a society where everyone is getting yelled at all the time by strangers. But we’re in that society now, and we will eventually adapt to it.

I first joined Twitter late in 2009, when I noticed that various jazz musicians, critics, journalists and listeners were tweeting #JazzLives whenever they attended a live performance, and I thought it might be fun to join them. At that point, I wasn’t totally committed to Twitter — I thought it likely that I’d delete or maybe just abandon my account eventually. There was a point in 2013 or 2014 where I didn’t tweet at all for a whole year. During that time, I was trying to write a “novel-length fiction”. I eventually completed a draft of that and then spent the next year tweaking it and rewriting one chapter in full. By October 2015, I thought I’d done enough tweaking and that the time had come to try to find some readers. At that time, I was tweeting only very sporadically.

So, I Googled for some advice as to how to publicize a self-published work of fiction, and most of the advice I found put a lot of emphasis on social media, including Twitter. I was unconvinced, but I didn’t have any better ideas, so I followed the advice, and started to tweet regularly again, now using hashtags like #selfpub and #amwriting. Each such tweet got me at least a handful of new followers who were themselves tweeting the same hashtags. They too were self-published authors looking for readers. So, I ended up following and being followed by a few hundred people who were tweeting out links to ebooks and other writing that I wasn’t interested in, and who weren’t interested in reading mine. All it achieved was to fill up my timeline with irrelevant publicity. I suspected that many of these writers were actually muting most of the accounts that they appeared to be following, a kind of stealth-unfollowing.

But I stayed on Twitter, though I no longer saw it as an effective way of promoting my writing. During 2017 and 2018, I obsessively pored over Seth Abramson’s epic tweetstorms, desperate to believe that Trump would somehow be stymied before he could determine the composition of the US Supreme Court for the next four decades.

Finally, though, in September 2018, I deleted my Twitter account. I didn’t even back it up first — something, incidentally, that I still have no regrets about: I’m never going to want to remind myself what, if anything, I was tweeting about in February 2013 or July 2011. I didn’t quit because I was fed up of all the pile-ons and trolling, the misogyny and racism. At least not consciously, though I had been horrified (and indeed shocked) by the hate campaign against Leslie Jones, following the Ghostbusters remake.

Really, I left because I didn’t think I was getting anything of value out of it. I wanted to try Manton Reece’s — where 280-character micro posts from people you are following are displayed in reverse-chronological order in a timeline — and I didn’t want to divide my attention between two very similar services.

I like a lot and have every intention of staying there. By design, it doesn’t have Likes or Retweets and it doesn’t display follower counts. So, it’s a lot less … tense. More relaxed, friendly. But now, I’m happy to be on both and Twitter, notwithstanding their similarity. They’re about the only “social media” I still use: I’ve deleted Pinterest and deactivated Mix. We’ll see how it goes.