In her book “Alone Together,” professor Sherry Turkle writes of the world we’ve all created for ourselves on social media. “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind,” she says. “But they are the ties that preoccupy.”
Indeed, “preoccupying” might be the most perfectly understated way to describe the effect social media has had on many of us. For those in the public eye, Twitter has become a calling card, a way to measure how connected they are with their audiences. It’s also the medium that gets the most people in trouble (see: Anthony Weiner, Alec Baldwin, Kanye West, etc., etc.).
Comedy and Twitter are especially intertwined, making stars out of freelance writers and IT guys from Peoria, Ill. — Bryan Donaldson, a writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” was essentially plucked from an insurance company’s IT department on the strength of his Twitter feed. It also has expanded the followings of successful entertainers, including Patton Oswalt, the stand-up comedian, writer and actor.
Oswalt established himself as one of the country’s most prolific and controversial Twitter comedians, consistently rankling online publications and sparring with such varied opponents as DC Comics, Donald Trump and a campus minister in South Carolina. Oswalt also used his nearly 2 million followers to start dialogues with people he admired and to live-tweet shows he loved (sample “Downton Abbey” tweet: “I can’t tell if the Dowager Countess’ cane is filled with scotch, brandy or powdered servant’s bones”).
Oswalt seemed to enjoy ruffling feathers, becoming the enfant terrible of the Internet, but the pressure and the time he dedicated to the medium were taking a toll. So in June he undertook a very public “Twitter break,” writing to his followers that he’d be taking the summer off and would return to social media in September.
The Washington Post spoke to Oswalt on the eve of his Twitter reemergence about what the break accomplished and the lessons he took from his time off. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.
What initially inspired the Twitter break?
This thing, Twitter, which was supposed to be fun, was suddenly taking up a lot of the time that I would normally take to create new things. To write comedy, write scripts, work on books. I was suddenly writing these essays, trying to explain myself to the humorless, explain comedy, what context means. This thing that’s just supposed to be fun almost became a third career. It would be the equivalent of saying, “Oh, a couple hours of my day have to be dedicated to my Instagram account.” These things are supposed to flavor a life, not become a life.
So it didn’t come from an addiction, per se?
It wasn’t so much that I was addicted to Twitter, I was addicted to: What’s the reaction going to be? What are the comments?
Did summer factor in or did that just happen to be the most convenient time to unplug?
When I was growing up, June to September meant you were out doing random, wandering things, and that enriched what I did the other nine months of the year. So I picked those months, June, July, August — and I’m going to do this every June, July, August — and said I’m going to quit social media. I had no plan to do anything except to go outside and do real-life things and interact with the world that way.
What was that first week like? Did it feel like turning off a side of your brain?
It was more like turning off a way of thinking. Like, “How do I have the very first take on something? How do I keep it super short and in a way no one will misinterpret me?” On [Twitter], I was in a rush to not speak my mind. It was making me hurry up to triple-think everything that came out of my brain, which, for a comedian, and also a human, is just deadly. . . . I was starting to think, “Oh what’s the safe thing to do here? What will appeal to the most amount of people?” And everything I’ve ever done in my career is the opposite of that. That’s what made what I did distinct, and social media seemed to be robbing me of that. Now that I’ve been away from it, I see how little it affects your real world, your real life, your real career.
You talk about reaching “the most amount of people” — on one hand, Twitter is the chance to follow someone’s specific voice, but it has become that dichotomy of how do I reach the most amount of people vs. how do I express my own personal thoughts?
Right. “If you don’t feel exactly the way I feel about every single subject in every single way, I am going to try and destroy you.” And for a while I was thinking about that, wondering if it would affect my actual career. But then this summer I’d do stand-up gigs and I’d realize, oh wow, the people who get outraged online, they don’t go do things. They’re inside on the computer, so they don’t affect what you do as a comedian or entertainer. They can raise a ruckus, but they don’t have an effect on anything real in your life.
And you used to be aware of these potential criticisms before you’d post.
Yeah, I played the card. I thought I’d lose fans. And it took me a while to realize: This affects nothing. If I start thinking about everyone before anything comes out of my mouth, then it’s going to make anything that comes out of my mouth mediocre. The worst thing for comedy is for a comedian to think twice, three, four times about everything they say. Just say what’s on your f---ing mind. And if you say something wrong, just apologize and move on. We’re constantly imagining this world of online commenters in our heads, already imagining the comments before they say anything. That’s no way to create.
During the break, were there a few occasions you really wished you could engage?
I broke my Twitter fast twice, aside from re-tweeting and helping with certain friends’ projects. It wasn’t fair for me to take the break and not help with things I said I was going to do. The two times I broke it were once at the height of my disgust with what happened in Ferguson and also the day after Robin Williams died, because I was so heartbroken.
When you return to Twitter, how will you change the way you interact? Are you going to alter your persona or how you approach detractors?
I’m going to be even freer in what I say, and I’m going to be less responsive to outrage. Those are the two things I’ve learned. I can actually go further than I thought I could, and I can respond less. I now have objective proof that those things are totally valid, that this is something I can do.
Kavner is a freelance writer.