Getty / The Atlantic
I’m almost 60, and in these many decades I’ve seen people—some of them good friends—taken down by all kinds of things. Alcohol and drugs, mostly. A few years ago, I lost someone to heroin, and hundreds of us sat at his funeral in wordless communion. I know a couple of people who couldn’t shake gambling, and many plagued by food and sex and all the other great distractions. But in all these years—almost 60! —I haven’t had trouble with any of those things. Until now. You know what finally took me down? Fucking Twitter.
The indignity of it! Couldn’t I have gone out on a champagne bender or bet the house on a poker game, or even clogged my heart with so much gelato and fried chicken that the life force was squeezed out of me midway through a slice of cheesecake? Why did it have to be this common, embarrassing habit that just about everyone on Earth knows is a scourge?
I know I’m an addict because Twitter hacked itself so deep into my circuitry that it interrupted the very formation of my thoughts. Twenty years of journalism taught me to hit a word count almost without checking the numbers at the bottom of the screen. But now a corporation that operates against my best interests has me thinking in 280 characters. Every thought, every experience, seems to be reducible to this haiku, and my mind is instantly engaged by the challenge of concision. Once the line is formed, why not put it out there? Twitter is a red light, blinking, blinking, blinking, destroying my ability for private thought, sucking up all my talent and wit. Put it out there, post it, see how it does. What pours out is an ungodly sluice of high-minded opinions, sharp rebukes, jokes, transactional compliments, and mundane bulletins from my private life (to the extent that I have one anymore).
The simplest definition of an addiction is a habit that you can’t quit, even though it poses obvious danger. How many people have lost their jobs over ill-considered tweets? How can a wry observation, unexamined and fired off during an adrenaline high, possibly be worth the risk? It’s madness.
God knows my heroes wouldn’t have gone down this road. George Orwell on Twitter? I doubt it.
6 a.m.: An Elephant is rampaging through the bazaar. I’m asked to help. What the Hell can I do about it? I will go take a look. Noon: Lunch was a tin of kippers sent by @Mimsy207. Thanks, Mimsy! Felt like we were at the same table. Come to Burma? Please? 10 p.m.: Can’t get that damn elephant out of my mind.
Surely Joan Didion has confronted her share of aggravations (cucumber slices not adhering to tea sandwiches; Lynn Nesbit calling during NewsHour; latest Celine sunnies too big for tiny, exquisite face). But would she ever take to Twitter to inscribe these frustrations onto the ticker tape of the infinite? Of course not. She would either shape them into imperishable personal essays or allow them to float past her and return to the place from which they came.
For a few years now, my family’s attitude toward my habit has been—depending on whom you asked—concerned, grossed out, or disappointed. My employer had given up and adopted a sort of “It’s your funeral” approach. There were days when I stared at the screen thinking, It’s only a matter of time. Could I kick the addiction without having to reach what alcoholics refer to as rock bottom? Could I save myself before the inevitable catastrophe?
It was time for Twitter rehab.
It was to be a battle of wills between one aging, chemo-addled brain and the daisy-fresh minds of the world’s most talented coders, ultimate-frisbee players, and ruthless businessmen. You can’t fight an addiction alone, so I engaged the assistance of one of my sons, Patrick. He is not on any social media, admires the work of the technology ethicist Tristan Harris, and is an all-around helpful and generous person. He was more than willing to change my password and not tell me what it was for 28 days.
If you don’t have Twitter, or if you’re a casual user, this saga must seem absurd. Just close your account, you’re thinking. What I’m trying to tell you is: I couldn’t.
Patrick made me sign a contract asserting that no matter what I said, he was not to give me the password. I scrawled my signature and posted a Tweet saying I’d be back in 28 days. And then I passed him the laptop. He tapped for a few seconds, and Twitter went dark.
The grid was down, but I didn’t feel anxious; that came later. I felt elated, free. I thought of a maxim I’d once read in a book about business: A 99 percent commitment is hard; 100 percent is easy. I was 100 percent off Twitter. Which would have made an excellent tweet.
I floated downstairs and out to the garden to do some reading. I was excited about this particular book: the last volume of Kevin Starr’s magisterial history of California. I sat down and almost immediately I was returned to myself. For the past few years, I’ve felt a strange restlessness as I read, and the desk in my bedroom is piled with wonderful books I gave up on long before the halfway mark. I had started to wonder if we were in a post-reading age, or if reading loses its pleasure as we age—but I knew that wasn’t really true. Reading that book took me out of my own time and place, and I found myself once again wandering in a created world. I felt the old sensation of trying to slow down, so that the book would last a long time. I had suspected for a while that my reading problems had something to do with Twitter, and several times I’d tried leaving the phone in another room—but it was no good. Twitter didn’t live in the phone. It lived in me.
And that’s when I realized what those bastards in Silicon Valley had done to me. They’d wormed their way into my brain, found the thing that was more important to me than Twitter, and cut the connection.
We know on an intellectual level that social-media platforms are addictive. Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, admitted as much in 2017 when he confessed that the site had been designed to exploit human “vulnerability” and to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” We know this; we talk about it; we worry about children, or Cambridge Analytica, or Q, or any other damn thing except for ourselves. We don’t want to admit that each one of us has given a huge corporation untrammeled access to the delicate psychology that makes us who we are.
On the other hand … after about a week I wanted back in. I knew the place was still hopping, because friends would email me updates that drove me wild with the need to comment. The writer Naomi Wolf was permanently banned from Twitter for her imperious anti-vaxxing during my absence. It was as though Twitter had thrown a cloth over her parrot cage—the chattering suddenly stopped, and she was silent. But I had thrown a cloth over my own parrot cage, so I couldn't crow about it. Someone sent me news that the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had written about “leprechaun economics” and the Irish ambassador to America had taken the bait and complained. It was a cultural moment that (in my opinion) screamed out for Caitlin Flanagan, but where was she? I texted the editor of this magazine: “Paul Krugman's after me lucky charms!” The editor texted back, “I wish I knew what this meant.” I tried patching through to Old Media, sending the Times a letter to the editor in which I directed Krugman to W. B. Yeats’s Fairy and Folktales on the Irish Peasantry and its menacing description of leprechauns as “sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms,” suggesting that he should watch his back. Crickets from the Times. Did I even exist anymore?
I tracked down Patrick. He was in his room, logging meal counts into a spreadsheet (he works for a food bank and majored in philosophy, the full catastrophe). I gave him a very rational description of Twitter’s important role in a journalistic career, and how it keeps one’s perspective fresh in readers’ minds. He listened in an apparently nonjudgmental way, and then turned his swivel chair in the direction of his bookcase and pulled out a thick volume. “I think you should read William James’s essay on habits,” he said, handing me a copy of The Principles of Psychology.
I couldn’t very well throw the book through his open window, in the manner of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (a book I actually finished, having encountered it during the infancy of Mark Zuckerberg). I had to respond as one reader to another, uplifted by the suggestion.
James believed that when it comes to the forming or breaking of habits, there is no such thing as a neutral action. Each time you don’t look at Twitter, you are taking the trickle of this new behavior and helping it become a mighty river. But this framework does not take into consideration newer thinking about addiction, and how willpower is useless against it. I brought this point up to Patrick over dinner, but suddenly I was on the downhill slope of a conversation about Aristotelian virtue ethics, and how virtue must be trained, etc. etc.
I started dreaming about Twitter. One night I found a secret entrance, a gate that was grown over with trailing vines, and I slipped inside. The dream Twitter was magnificent. Each post was two or three stories tall, and they were arranged in some majestic pattern that I couldn’t figure out. I was so happy to be there, walking among the giant links, looking at what was trending, what my friends and enemies were tweeting about, what pileup I could throw my pixelated self upon. But my pleasure was tinged with anxiety: What if someone found out I was there; what if someone discovered me lurking? And then I did it. I impulsively reached out and pressed one of the giant “Like” buttons, and that was it. I knew I would be caught. The Twitter dream melted into the next one, but in the morning the tone of the dream—the anxiety and the pleasure—stayed with me.
There was nothing to do except keep writing (freed from the story budget of Twitter, I actually had some interesting ideas) and keep reading. My other son, Conor, gave me a copy of Pnin and again the world fell away. He gave me Tolstoy’s Family Happiness, which I realized I’d read when I was young and which was so interesting to revisit from the perspective of age. Janet Malcolm died, and I was inspired to mark the occasion by rereading her greatest book, The Journalist and the Murderer, which offered the double consolation of its excellent tale and the renewed company of Janet Malcolm. But I was not able to tweet out this virtuous and highbrow response to her passing, so it was (until now) a private act, which I pondered in my heart as Mary did the Annunciation.
And then—at last!—the 28 days were up. I did it! I even added a few more—29 days, then 30, 31—just to prove to myself that I wasn’t a rabid dog. I found Patrick in the family room. I handed him my laptop and told him to get me back in the game. He looked at me skeptically. Why would I want to go back? I told him that I had a plan all worked out, and that I would go on the site for only half an hour a day, as a means of furthering my career. “The bargaining phase,” Conor said, without looking up from his book.
Patrick disappeared and came back with a collection of Simone Weil essays. He said I should read “On the Abolition of All Political Parties,” but every time I saw the word parties, I should replace it with Twitter. He demonstrated, reading a paragraph aloud:
“The mere fact that Twitter exists today is not in itself sufficient a reason for us to preserve it. The only legitimate reason for preserving anything is its goodness. The evils of Twitter are all too evident; therefore, the problem that should be examined is this: Does it contain enough good to compensate for its evils and make its preservation desirable?”
Jesus Christ! I just wanted to shit-talk Naomi Wolf and make leprechaun jokes. How did we get into these deep waters?
Because that’s where Twitter lives.
Twitter is a parasite that burrows deep into your brain, training you to respond to the constant social feedback of likes and retweets. That takes only a week or two. Human psychology is pathetically simple to manipulate. Once you’re hooked, the parasite becomes your master, and it changes the way you think. Even now, I’m dopesick, dying to go back.
Twitter did something that I would not have thought possible: It stole reading from me. What is it stealing from you?