On Twitter Anxiety

I recently saw this retweet in my feed: “How to EARN the respect of your #socialmedia followers.” I paused. It’s hard enough to get followers, much less earn their respect. Do mine — all 935 of them — respect me? My ego wants them to like me. And my writing. My Id doesn’t care what other people think and yearns to overshare, blather on, and lash out. My superego, however, is a type-A whistleblower and won’t cut my narcissist or loose cannon selves any slack. So yes, I do want some kind of respect. Maybe that’s too much to ask.

On Twitter, I practice restraint and decorum. I delete my biting #ohsnap tweets before they make it to real time. My use of exclamation points (read: I’m a nice, positive person) is excessive. I’m professional. Occasionally I tweet about food to prove I’m human. My goal is social media flawlessness, and I think this is bullshit, and I think I’m doing myself great disservice by aiming toward bland, pollyannish perfection. But I can’t stop. I don’t want to disrespect, or be disrespected.

Twitter anxiety. It’s real, I have it, and I want to talk about it.

Apparently Louis C.K. had some form of Twitter anxiety, too. His reason? “It’s too instant, I don’t think the speed helps dialogue,” C.K. said in an interview. “I think it’s why everything is kind of fucked up and polarizing, because people are going too fast, they’re trying to react too quickly.” Since C.K.’s on-point has become our facto social conscience, it’s worth picking apart why he decided to quit Twitter, and what it has to do with respect.

I can’t speak for all 288 million monthly active users, but Twitter’s pace definitely doesn’t make me feel good. Anxious, engaged, insecure, amused, angry, connected, jealous, validated, ignored, and exposed are a few emotions that come to mind. But not happy or good. The reason, I think, is that “trying to react too quickly” is both a Twitter mandate and a cautionary phrase. The whole point is to respond in real time, but my urge for boldness isn’t as strong as the shrill inner voice that says, “Don’t fuck up because if you do, the backlash will be fast and fierce.” This — the tension between wanting to be authentic and spontaneous, and my self-protective instinct — is paralyzing.

I’m suddenly down to 933 followers. Maybe bots, but more likely people who hate me, or find me a bland cypher.

Yeah, I just can’t win, but I keep on playing. I know that Twitter is invaluable to a literary career. It’s a way of building community and connecting with like-minded thinkers and writers who do, at times, offer glimpses into their own struggles. This makes me feel less crazy, and less alone. But Twitter is also a bit like Plinko, that game on The Price is Right where contestants drop a disc down a pegged board in hopes it snakes its way toward the highest dollar amount listed below. In Plinko, as in Twitter, you can aim for a specific goal, but you can’t control or predict where your missive will land. That’s why I’m so careful with how I lay my chips. I know I could say the wrong thing, but I could also say the absolute perfect thing — zing! — and hit the jackpot: a major retweet, which leads to more followers, Twitter fame, maybe a verified account, which then leads to an agent taking notice because I have a “strong brand” and “a solid online platform” which leads to a book deal, which leads to literary acclaim, which leads to money for unlimited scented candles and yoga retreats in tropical locations and plush throw pillows, which everyone knows leads to inner peace. It’s like one minute you’re in the audience, and the next you’re winning the showcase showdown.

Just kidding. Sort of. It depends on the day, but there are times when Twitter’s massive social media circle jerk outweighs its benefits. It’s ephemeral fluff. The literary snake eating its own tail. I shouldn’t be wasting my time and brain power tracking my follower count or obsessing over a Tweet because what counts at the end of the day is my work. Right?

The work. My work. Your work. You know, reporting, criticism, and fiction? All of that. You might not be familiar with my work — even though I’m on Twitter! There was that 2000-word well-researched and reported article I spent months on? The review where I managed to work in references to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and The Constant Gardener? The first chapter of my novel-in-perpetual-progress that I published as a short story? That critical review of rape culture one person retweeted even though I posted it (twice!) on Twitter? It doesn’t matter if the plebeian masses don’t give my work any Twitter action if I felt it was important, right? My mom and boyfriend and editor told me so. Right?

This, dear reader, is the true root of my anxiety. If you are reading this, you likely know that conflating good work with ones’ online persona is a folly. Social media is just a tool, not an end in itself, and one must have the writing/reporting chops to back it up. But I’m not trying to point out a matter of fact. I’m asking a question about focus: If a well-curated online presence can make you into A Thing and lead to Other Things (an agent, book deal, etc), then what exactly am I gaining from my “good work” alone? Should I let down my guard more? Perhaps this sounds shallow and obsessive. But writers want to be heard, and when you’re shouting into the abyss and the echo chamber responds with radio silence, it can be painfully deafening.

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A few months ago I had had lunch with a very successful (white, male) journalist. His work is read widely; his book is a bestseller. He’s not on Twitter. I asked him why. Because he didn’t want to be, he said. (You don’t need to be, I thought. You’ve “made it.”) Then he said there are so many distractions out there already, and he didn’t want anything else to chip away at his focus. Later in the conversation, he told me that one of the things things he appreciates about reporting in places that lack basic infrastructure is that time moves differently when we’re attached to our gadgets. I left our lunch feeling like a mere mortal who needs social media to be successful, but also aware that perhaps my core fear wasn’t about negative exposure or vulnerability. It was losing that part of me that knows how to turn inward and listen to myself, the quiet and still part that made me believe I could maybe do this writing thing, maybe. That feels like a long time ago. I don’t know how to balance both parts — the engaged and chatty part, and the part that churns and stews and lets thoughts and ideas percolate until they are fully formed. I get that the former is necessary, but it’s eroding the latter.

Twitter has been compared to many things: a bullhorn, a soapbox, and echo chamber. But I like to think of it old-school style, just two tin cans attached to a string. Its kind of amazing that we hear anything at all.

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In Jacob Silverman’s Terms of Service, he writes about how measurements like Klout scores and follower counts create a new metric by which to gauge influence: “It takes what has become a small, if emerging need — one’s digital footprint — and inflates its importance, telling people that it is essential and should be cultivated.” The thing is, weeds grow faster than carefully planted crops.

When Twitter was first gaining popularity, I often heard criticisms like, “What’s the point? I don’t care what you ate for lunch” or “Why should I care about someone else’s take on X,Y,Z?” The irony is, the mundane details are what makes Twitter most compelling. I live for interior, self-doubt Twitter. It’s the everyday stuff, the identifiable scenarios, that elevate “online personas” to real people. The reason why certain people seem accessible and real on Twitter is the same reason why characters come alive on the page: We see their contours and complexities; they become three-dimensional. As a result, there’s an intimacy and sense of connection — even if it’s contrived. To be real online, whether consciously or not, is to transform oneself into a protagonist driving an online story. I fear being an unlikable narrator, and understand that unlikable female narrators risk scorn at best, public shaming at worst. And yet this is when the social network is most compelling: I hear a person’s voice and get a sense of their rhythms. Interior twitter.

That’s why I’m at once suspect of those who let it all hang out, and insanely envious. Are they free and unfettered, or unhinged? And why can’t I be more like them? This makes me feel selfish and cowardly, keeping my neuroses to myself and presenting an airbrushed image. I’m drawn to the authenticity of others, and yet I’m wedded to my own constructed image. It’s incredibly romantic to think that I alone am so complex that I can’t be my “authentic” self online, that being vulnerable is harder for me than for others. It’s easier to think “I’m far more interesting than I let on” than to show it. The truth, I think, is that no matter how seemingly authentic someone is online, it’s ultimately a performance. No matter how much is revealed, there’s far more than they allow us to see. Of course there is. And perhaps this is the real mandate – to straddle the tension between authenticity and self-protection and make that fear known. In other words, maybe the only person’s respect I should be concerned about is my own.

Alizah Salario: Now that cupcakes and Juicy Couture are over, so is my life

Featured image: See-ming Lee

 



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