Some thoughts on my recent Twitter break

Various people have suggested that taking a break from social networks – Twitter in particular – can be A Good Thing™.

So I tried it, for a couple of weeks. Here’s what I learned.

1. Why a break?

The reasons that everyone else cites, I guess. A sense that my stream has swung away from essential information towards noise and distraction, despite attempts to curate it carefully by following “good people”. A realisation that I was habitually reaching for it without thinking, or knowing why. The empty serotonin hit of checking for likes. For me, a growing sense of people existing in bubbles, shouting into echo chambers, making themselves feel better but making no meaningful difference.

Like the cartoon says (see right, click for the link).

So I took a break simply by logging out of it on all devices. I wagered (mostly correctly) that the inconvenience of simply having to look up and enter a password would be enough to keep me away.

2. Fear of missing out

Indeed, there was FOMO for a couple of days. So much so that I logged in briefly a couple of times, early on in the break.

Whereupon I scanned the stream, realised that I was not really missing anything important and logged out again. It’s OK to do that. It will pass.

3. Oh, FriendFeed

At the risk of sounding like a relic from 2008: we had this network, called FriendFeed. It worked because first and foremost, it centred on items with information. The people who coalesced around those items were diverse and “lightly declared” their expertise. What they had in common was an interest in the information at hand. This was before the era of “fake everything for ever”.

The FriendFeed team went to Facebook which oddly, despite its reputation as the root of all online evil, is the network that engages me most these days.

4. Realisation as to what’s not working

The best thing about a Twitter break is that you spend time – often subconsciously – reflecting on what it is that troubles you. This is what came to me during my break:

Everything feels like a demand for attention, rather than useful information

Particularly when it comes to phone notifications. I’ve turned a bunch of them off recently and recommend you do the same. It’s really made a positive difference to my life.

My community has changed, so I’m seeing things that I no longer need to see

I imagined when I stopped working in bioinformatics that I’d maintain a non-professional interest and a desire to stay up-to-date. Put simply, I was wrong. There is simply no need any longer for me to know that the Ensembl database is down for maintenance, or that someone has written a new library to translate SMILES strings.

I joked recently that I’d forgotten about my feed reader for 6 weeks (I had!) but honestly, RSS makes me feel the same way these days. I just don’t have the need to keep updated that I once had, now that journal TOCs are not in my life.

No longer an academic/researcher

I find Twitter far less useful in a non-academic or non-research setting. Perhaps, a cynic might say, because I’m no longer able to monitor it in real time all day behind a closed office door.

No need to sell myself (right now anyway)

Twitter is great for marketing – again, something that I don’t need to do right now since I’m not promoting publications, software tools or looking for jobs.

Twitter does have one function that I still find useful – messaging me, directly or by replies.

5. Solutions

Maybe, I thought, I’m just tired, burned out and over it. I’ve been engaging online in various ways for over 20 years now. It isn’t what it was when I was younger and an enthusiastic early adopter of everything. Now it feels like I bounce, senses dulled, between about 6 sites. When I write, I wonder if anyone even cares. Perhaps I’ve just had enough?

However, I think the main issue – and it pains me to say this – is that my community has changed. My professional interests these days are basically data science, statistics and R programming. Side interests stemming from that are more likely to involve amateur analysts of Australian Football than genomics. And outside of that I’m interested in ecology and the environment (my initial career choice which didn’t eventuate), and photography.

In short – what I probably need is a cull of people I follow, and/or some fresh people who better reflect where I am in life right now. So that was a long-winded way of saying: please don’t be offended if you find you’re no longer on the list. It really is me, not you.

My last tip: don’t take Twitter too seriously. I’m amazed that it’s lasted this long – and I don’t think it has many more years left in it.

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