An Elegy for Twitter, as It Goes the Way of All Flesh
I think about quitting social media sometimes, like many of you probably do. I was a late adopter (and still, to this day, have never had a Facebook account), but after jumping in, the tropes of wasted time and distraction resemble my habits a bit much for comfort. This idea, though, keeps me around: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” ~ Simone Weil.
Now, amid the slow-motion bulldozing of Twitter‚ the platform that finally drew me out and sucked me into this world, I’m realizing just what a gift that attention is. Many others have written persuasively on why they’re staying (for now), in the midst of the takeover and dismantling of much of what made it the quirky and crazy place it has been. I want to add a few notes to the chorus.
The People You Meet
Lots of hay gets made about how too much of our lives are lived in self-created echo chambers. Tired of hearing things that call our identitarian beliefs and habits into question, we sort into ever-splintering groups that close us off from encountering opposing views (and the humanity of those who hold them). Twitter has always had tools that facilitate that habit but just as many features that break it down. In short, it has been a place that helps me attend to those I might otherwise not encounter.
It has put me in touch with so many folks I can’t easily connect to in other ways, and spawned or deepened more than a few friendships that spill over into offline life. It introduced me to subcultures that focus less on pushing out opposing views and more on discussing the world as it is through a particular set of interests. History, Publishing, Poetry, Literature, Psychology, or Theology Twitter are some key spaces, but there’s also Theater, Ornithology, and Satire Twitter, and of course Weird Christian Twitter.
Each of these subgroups invests time and attention and, dare we say, love, into the discourse around their discipline. Sure, there are bad apples in each, and they are not ordinarily filled with sanctified conversation, but I’ve learned so much and been stretched by the people who have given me and countless others the generosity of attention when we want to know more about what they are most passionate and wise about.
This is not even to mention the lifeline Twitter has been for activists, resistance groups, abuse victims, and so many others to gain a hearing. Some have to clamor for attention denied. As Kyle J. Howard put it, “Marginalized folks…have built community [on Twitter]. It’s provided them a voice to cry out against abuse/abusers as well as challenge systems. Including people and systems now in power over it.” But, he adds, “If you aren’t invested and you have power…[goodbye],” lamenting the quickness with which many celebrities, politicians, and academics have bailed since the platform’s takeover.
Twitter as Window and Mirror
Perhaps the thing I’ve come to value Twitter for most is its ability to predict character.
Whatever else someone may say in books or articles or on a stage or from a pulpit, their behavior here is most telling. It’s not even necessarily the words (though sometimes those, too), but the ways they handle responses (whether they are trolls or “dunkers”), what they share offhandedly about their non-professional interests, etc., are all very revealing. These behaviors are often disqualifying, especially for people in positions of influence or leadership in churches or other (putatively) Christian spaces.
This flies in the face of much of the conventional advice on managing a social media presence. We’re regularly warned of the temptation to “stage-manage” our lives, cultivating the image we want others to see (and then letting that image govern our in-person interactions, too). This can be a real risk, but on Twitter it’s most often worked in reverse. It’s a place where we are tempted to vent our spleens, rhetorically pound adversaries, and trash-talk for the adulation of our friends. We feel these urges in other places, too, but because “Twitter is not real life”—an excuse more than a truism, even if the majority of people in the world and the majority of our neighbors and colleagues aren’t on the app—we feel free to act.
To be sure, many things that animate conversation on Twitter have little bearing on daily concerns at home, work, and church. Except that the people we allow to disciple us through books, pulpits, TV appearances, podcasts, etc. are there, and often behave in awful ways. I first started noticing this during the last presidential administration, where the people in my life most likely to downplay or be unaware of the former president’s most excessive outbursts were not on Twitter—where these flagrant displays were most visible (even unavoidable). I see it now in the furor over CRT, theological debates, Christian nationalism, church politics, pandemic responses, and more. The people who don’t participate on the platform only see the public, crafted messages of those driving controversy, and don’t take into account their motives, connections, and grand strategies which they often brag about to their followers.
In this way, Twitter has been an indispensable aid to my discernment, patience, and wisdom. It’s a little bit of a window into someone’s soul—not exhaustive, and not sufficient on its own to “know” a person, to be sure, but an indicator of what fills and moves them. Whenever someone recommends a book, a podcast, etc. to me, my instinct is to go visit the author or speaker’s Twitter profile. Usually it’s a fairly strong indicator of whether they are trustworthy, whether they are humble, whether they are curious, whether they are kind.
As one of the best (or at least most invigorating) Twitter users I know, David Dark, said: “Twitter is a level playing field. In this sense, Twitter can be gospel. Good news is relative to context. Twitter’s also a helpful form of public documentation. If your perceived power depends upon controlling people through private intimidation, Twitter is an existential crisis.” We become what we amplify.
Twitter as Catch-22 of the Writing Life
When I think about why I’ve sometimes felt like leaving Twitter long before its current troubles, it usually has to do with the rock-and-hard place bind it presents to writers. It’s both a time suck of repartee and a tool for gaining readers. It’s both a place to connect with other authors and a place to send some of your best work off into the ether of unread thoughts. Twitter has been for me a constant tension between “keeping the oven door closed” on the big ideas I’m working out and having a quick outlet for the smaller ones that opens space in my mind for the bigger ones to breathe.
It is also a place of quick, sometimes harsh, feedback on your words. When writing, it’s easy to get lost in the search for le mot juste, working hard to craft phrases tailored to resonate and be re-shared by an audience. But honing quotable messages, intentionally or not, often leaves thorny situations and hurting people out of the picture. Something may make all the sense in the world to you—send Tweet—but you’ll find out fast if it hasn’t been properly field-tested in the hard work of sanctification or showing mercy. I come back often to this reminder from Sharon Hodde Miller on testing the truthfulness of an idea: “1. Is it true for the poor? 2. Is it still true when my ‘enemy’ says it? If the answer is ‘no'”‘ to either one, then the statement is either false, or incomplete.”
This feedback has undeniably shaped my writing style, expanded my horizons of interest, decompartmentalized my thinking, and given me courage to keep adding to the big conversation in the cloud. I know Twitter has provided this experience for many. The number of people who might otherwise never have realized they had something to say and the capacity to say it well that the platform has “launched” (for good or ill) is astonishing. I think Hannah Anderson sums this up well in reflecting on her own experience.
“I would never have become a writer, been exposed to new ideas, or made the connections that sustain my work without [Twitter]…whenever I hear folks talk about wanting to shut it down, I think, ‘You must already have access to a social and communal networks that let you accomplish what you want to accomplish in life….’ I will *never* get over how social media and digital age changed my life and let a [stay-at-home mom], pastor’s wife in a conservative, rural context develop her gifts and mind and find a calling to write. Never. I honestly don’t know how to convey this sufficiently (so much for being a writer!) but considering the shape of modern life, the isolation of the nuclear family, and the challenges of rural ministry, being able to connect w/ others online was a godsend.”
So here, at what may (or may not) be the end of Twitter as we’ve known it, I’m grateful. I also hope it doesn’t fully die as a platform and community, even as I take steps (working on blogging more, opening a Substack account, starting a public Instagram profile, making sure I have people’s contact info, etc.) to hang on to some of its benefits in other ways. Though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that Twitter has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
Image: My Neighborhood Cemetery at Sunrise, November 2022.