Quitting Twitter helped me learn to be an adult again

Social media addiction is real.
Social media addiction is real.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch/Illustration/File Photo
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I’ve never considered myself addicted to anything. But for the past few years of my life, I have been addicted to Twitter.

If I had to summarize my feed, I’d say it was a mix of articles and opinions concerning atrocities, war crimes, and disasters, mostly in the Muslim world—interrupted every so often by someone with a Confederate flag avatar telling me “Islam is a backwards religion.”

Several of those words would likely be misspelled. Bigotry and illiteracy tend to go hand in hand.

Even when I was using Twitter to share something important, more often than not I ended up dragged into an argument with someone who, on account of his neo-Nazi profile and 12.5 followers, probably wasn’t worth it. And yet, there I was, spending an hour of my day feuding with a fanatic. And I thought this a good thing.

Twitter was beginning to make me feel terrible, and yet I kept going back, needing more and more of it to reach the same high. I could sense the damaging compulsion for months; friends, loved ones, and random strangers engaged in various degrees of intervention. But like any addict, I rationalized. Because I needed it.

I told myself it was not okay to let go of something I’d invested so much time, energy and anxiety into. But it was more than that. As a freelance writer, a vagabond public speaker, and largely self-employed professional, Twitter provided a critical way to amplify my work, to make others know about me, to let me know about my peers and potential collaborators.

I tweet, therefore I am

When I spend an hour of my day working on an essay, or better yet, my novel, I feel good. Sometimes great. Dedicating myself to pursuits that pay is nice. But pouring myself into a project that expresses who I am, an enterprise that requires immense investment of my time and energy, is much more fulfilling. Either way I am making something. And dedication to a craft, instead of submission to a demand, feels immensely satisfying.

Conversely, for every hour I spent on Twitter, I felt cheapened. I’d reduced myself to 140 characters, and for what? Who sits on their deathbed wishing they’d tweeted more? A lot of social media makes me feel this way. If it doesn’t re-ignite my depression, it certainly doesn’t suppress it. I walk away feeling worn out, wearied, cranky, and frankly miserable.

This was true even as I still felt like I needed it. To work. To be informed. To know what others are investigating, concluding, following. Not just to share what I’m up to, but see what others are up to.

A partial detox

Well over a year ago I decided to delete my personal Facebook page; I found the platform sucked up too much time and left me feeling burned out. Instead I created a professional page to do the work our postmodern, post-equality economy demands we do. Here I could share media appearances, articles, and upcoming gigs. But there is no such thing as professional Twitter, is there? One day, scanning my iPhone settings, I found that well over a third of battery life, in any given twenty-four hour period, was used up by the social media platform.

And so, I decided to delete the app from my mobile device. I didn’t get rid of my account, mind you, but since my primary access to Twitter was telephonic, the result was an immediate decrease in my usage.  After a few days, I didn’t even want to check Twitter when I was home at my computer. Frankly, I was surprised at how easily the habit had been broken.

When Trump won five primary states last month, I found out a day later. The previous Haroon would have been frantically checking Twitter all day. And yet, what difference would that have made? Would my obsessive indulgence have prevented a racist, xenophobic candidate from winning any votes? Would arguing with trolls have changed the electoral tide? Let’s assume no.

Several weeks later, I still feel remarkably unburdened. I don’t use Twitter often anymore—I’ve realized I don’t need to—but most important of all, I don’t even want to. I spend more time reading, more time writing.

Ironically, it was writing that pushed me onto the platform in the first place. Right after college, my mother provoked me to write a book, believing it’d be a better use of my time than a planned trip to Russia. Having no idea how publishing worked, I decided to self-publish. What resulted was a nostalgic, wistful rant, My First Police State, about my first trip to Saudi Arabia. Seeing my name on the cover of that book might have been the greatest feeling in the world. Almost nobody read it.

In contrast, Twitter offered an engaged audience. People were reading what I was writing, and they were interested in it. I soon began to follow the medium, instead of pursuing my message. Instant feedback isn’t always a good thing. It probably rarely is. When writers get responses without delay—and an un-retweeted tweet is the worst of all responses—then the response might well come to dominate me.

In the real world, a deadline is the author’s worst enemy. It’s supposed to be a finish line, but it can feel much more like the a flat-line. As in death. Twitter never allows you to die. No sooner have you finished than you must see what happens when you finish. It’s like getting an avalanche of reviews that pick apart every sentence in your book, individually.

Today, I am re-learning how to be a responsible adult again, structuring social media around my day rather than my day around social media. The one thing social media punishes worst of all? Silence. Forget never ending, on the internet you’re perpetually beginning. It’s exhausting. You are constantly worrying about whether people are tweeting, or posting, more regularly than you are—what if your audience gets bored and leaves you for more prolific tweeters? All I can say now is: good for them, really. If it’s actually good for them.