Last month, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts departed these shores for a brief sojourn and avoided Twitter for a few weeks. I tweeted out the posts I wrote here, but I did that through that Twitter logo you see in the upper-left part of the page. While I as overseas, I consumed news the old-fashioned way: hunting around on the web for it.
I’m back on Twitter now, and so I read Ross Douthat’s column Sunday about the Internet with some interest. He suggests a “temperance” approach:
Temperance doesn’t have to mean teetotaling; it can simply mean a culture of restraint that tries to keep a specific product in its place. And the internet, like alcohol, may be an example of a technology that should be sensibly restricted in custom and in law.
Of course it’s too soon to fully know (and indeed we can never fully know) what online life is doing to us. It certainly delivers some social benefits, some intellectual advantages, and contributes an important share to recent economic growth.
But there are also excellent reasons to think that online life breeds narcissism, alienation and depression, that it’s an opiate for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged, and that it takes more than it gives from creativity and deep thought. Meanwhile the age of the internet has been, thus far, an era of bubbles, stagnation and democratic decay — hardly a golden age whose customs must be left inviolate.
Read the whole thing to see Douthat’s suggestions for how to promote temperance. I will say as a professor that I am completely behind keeping “computers out of college lecture halls,” and as the parent of two adolescents, I found his ideas about smartphone restrictions on teenagers to be laughably unworkable.
In the spirit of constructive criticism, however, let me offer an additional and somewhat more feasible suggestion: everyone should partake in the occasional short-term fast from key Internet portals. Go off Facebook for two weeks and see what it’s like. Abstain from Instagram for a month and see what happens.
My own experience of leaving Twitter turned out to be pretty great. Now that might have been because this was the view from my room when I was not on a computer:
But I believe something else was going on. Being away from Twitter for a spell helped me regain my equilibrium in approaching the medium. I remembered that it is not necessary to react to everything that animates the rest of my Twitter feed. I appreciated the waning of my compulsion to check Twitter on a constant basis.
That said, however, I also missed Twitter — and what I missed about it surprised me. It wasn’t just the snark or the speed with which information was disseminated — though there was that. No, what was tough about going off Twitter was losing a heterogeneity of viewpoints.
I’ve been on Twitter long enough to learn who holds ideological worldviews distinct from mine but nonetheless write or link to interesting things to read. And I need those guides, because they’re great time savers. I tried going on Salon and the Federalist and the Intercept and the Washington Examiner. Each of those sites produced articles worth reading, but my goodness the wheat-to-chaff ratio was low. A properly-cultivated Twitter feed makes it possible to stumble across essays like this one that I would have otherwise missed. I also missed links to smaller newspapers and academic journals outside my specialty and other subcultures to which my Twitter feed has often pointed the way. What I missed the most about Twitter was that it exposed me to more views in less time than if I were searching on my own. And that’s worth the minor cost in trolls.
I suspect that I will need to take short Twitter breaks a couple of times a year to make sure I stay relatively sane. I would encourage all of those who use social media to take similar sabbaticals. It is through being away from these sites that we remember their value — and how best to minimize their costs.