The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will leaving Twitter make life better for these outspoken liberals?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lindy West and Sherman Alexie are among the liberal writers who have abruptly left Twitter recently. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP; Seth Wenig/AP)

On Jan. 1, Sherman Alexie logged on to Twitter to announce he was logging off. The site's "negatives," the award-winning Native American novelist wrote, "increasingly outweigh its positives."

The following day, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the acclaimed politics and culture writer, declared that he, too, was outta there: He plans to spend his mental energy in 2017 working on a book, he wrote, so "see y'all in '18."

A day after that, it was essayist and feminist activist Lindy West's turn to say farewell — "at least for a while," she wrote. She, like Alexie, was "finding the costs are starting to outweigh the benefits." Then she deactivated her account.

Unspoken but perhaps understood: For outspoken liberals, the presidential election and transition as experienced on Twitter has been brutally exhausting.

Granted, users have been proclaiming their frustrations with Twitter ever since the ultra-terse social-media site caught fire nearly a decade ago. And it’s long since become routine for celebrities (Kanye, Miley, Alec) to dramatically exit the site, only to skulk back online after a hiatus of a few months, or a few hours.

But the rapid exit of three high-profile voices —whose reputations as liberal intellectuals had been bolstered by their Twitter presence — is drawing attention to a growing chorus of complaints about a site that has, for some, become a central part of daily life and communication.

Last year, "Saturday Night Live" comic Leslie Jones briefly quit Twitter after she was barraged with particularly vile racist and misogynist messages. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti took a break from the platform after she received a rape and death threat directed at her 5-year-old daughter. Model Chrissy Teigen temporarily made her account private after she said she was besieged by trolls: "My mind and body cannot handle it anymore," she said in a parting tweet.

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Others, meanwhile, have raised concerns about the addictive, time-suck qualities of the site. Comedian Patton Oswalt and former broadcast journalist Luke Russert have extolled the benefits of detoxing from Twitter to focus on the real life around them. Pioneering political blogger Andrew Sullivan cited Twitter as a prime cause of a "distraction sickness" that ultimately drove him to (temporarily) quit the Internet cold turkey.

The manic intensity of Twitter was exacerbated for many media-political types by a nail-biter of an election — one in which the president-elect himself hurled tweets like thunderbolts and rallied an army of supporters eager to clash online with any commentator who opposed him.

West and Coates were frequently swarmed by racist and misogynist harassers ("neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit," West wrote in a column for the Guardian, "and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren't so fat.") Alexie seemed to avoid heated back-and-forths, yet his angst about the election pulsated through his Twitter feed like a throbbing forehead vein. ("Who wins Gold Medal for Most Awful? Never Trumpers who now support Trump or Jill Stein voters who still think they're angels?")

In an interview last month with Vox, Coates urged young journalists to steer clear of Twitter, among other pesky habits: "You don't want to cultivate things that rob you of time."

Yet for lesser-known creatives, the high-minded exodus of Twitter’s left-wing cool kids (most of the above boast followings that number in at least the six figures) underscored a certain frustration: Not everyone who shares the same complaints about Twitter feels they can afford to walk away.

“I’m still building my platform. I’m still green. I *need* @Twitter for my career,” tweeted Hanna Brooks Olsen, co-founder of the blog Seattlish, last week. “So I unfortunately can’t quit.”

Even some established writers share that feeling.

“I think most people who use Twitter have a love-hate relationship with it,” said author and former child star Mara Wilson, who has more than 320,000 followers. “There are times I want to take a break, but then I remember that I have to promote something I’m doing or someone else is doing. Even if I wanted to quit, I don’t know if I would be able to anytime soon.”

Feminist author Roxane Gay says she hasn't ever thought about leaving Twitter permanently — but she feels like she could if she needed to. "I'm one of the lucky people who can take it or leave it," she said. "That allows me the privilege of not stressing that much over Twitter."

She says she enjoys the platform because it gives her a sense of proximity to her readers and other artists she admires. It’s fun, she says, except for when it’s not. As someone who writes about race, gender, sexuality and pop culture, she gets more than her share of harassment.

And, like West and other prominent women on Twitter, Gay says she has watched the site become increasingly taken over by trolls.

“It’s a cesspool of homophobia and racism and cruelty,” she said. Twitter’s executives “think that’s okay. And the reason I say that is because they’ve done nothing to fix it.”

That's what finally spurred West to leave the platform, she wrote in the Guardian. It wasn't the trolls themselves but "the global repercussions of Twitter's refusal to stop them," she wrote. The company's inaction, she argued, allowed the site to be used as a propaganda tool and effectively set the stage for the political ascent of Donald Trump and the rise of a new white supremacist movement.

Twitter trolls are actually hurting democracy.

Twitter has created tools meant to help combat online abuse; in November, the platform introduced a "mute" button for users to shut out comments from persistent hasslers, and it began cracking down on accounts that engaged in "hateful conduct."

Amid renewed complaints that those steps weren’t enough, Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, agreed, and he assured critics that fixes were in the works.

“We hear you and are working on it,” Dorsey tweeted last week. “It will take time . . . And we will be more transparent.”

Twitter declined to elaborate on Dorsey’s tweets.

West wasn’t particularly impressed with Dorsey’s assurances.

“Obviously we’ve heard this from Twitter before, over and over,” West told The Washington Post in an email. “And there have been a few improvements . . . but while they were laboring over these small fixes, trolling has become more sophisticated, more incentivized, more coordinated, and more aggressive.”

Still, she hasn’t closed the door on a possible return.

“I might go back eventually — we’ll see what they do from here,” she said. “As I’ve said, I really genuinely like Twitter.”