A friend in her early twenties announces she’s joining twitter to debate feminist issues.
A leader in my field contacts me by e-mail to ask about my tactic of staged withdrawal from my twitter account, @onekind.
I tell my therapist about my battles on twitter and she laughs and calls it ‘Angry Birds’.*
We need to talk about the emotional sustainability of social media.
I’m writing this post for people who use twitter how I use it — to participate in discussion of public issues, mostly with friends and sometimes with others.
Other authors have written about the challenge of maintaining a professional persona on social media, including this great piece by Dionne Kasian-Lew (@dionnelew) on what can happen when ‘real life’ intervenes in social media commitments.
I’m thinking here about what happens when discussing difficult topics is your whole reason for engaging with twitter, and how to avoid a situation where your social media commitments intervene in your embodied life ‘offline’ — causing stress, distress, anxiety, insomnia and potentially depression.
The key question is: am I in control of my usage?
I don’t mean this in the sense of “addiction” (a massively overused frame of analysis). I’m thinking in terms of resilience: the ability to achieve positive outcomes despite significant adversity.
Twitter in particular could be described as an adverse environment: there’s potential for a pretty innocuous remark to rub someone up the wrong way, and depending what their network is like, that can pretty quickly turn into a ‘pile-on’, sustained over several days with some seriously nasty stuff being said.
One time I engaged with Melinda Tankard-Reist over a pile-on she was coordinating against Westfield, calling for them not to lease space to an adult store. Egged on by MTR, I became the target myself, experiencing a week of being called a paedophile by people reacting to reactions.
As a white male, I don’t even experience the worst of it.
Women, especially if they are culturally, sexually or gender diverse, have it much worse online.
And, even when it’s not targeted at you, constant vicarious exposure to prejudice on twitter can take its toll.
You can come to feel the world is a pretty ugly place.
Losing the comforting fiction that the world is not that bad can be enlightening, particularly if you’re using twitter to participate in a social change movement.
But you can also experience vicarious trauma through having to stand by, helplessly witnessing people who are in a world of pain tweeting about experiences of sexual assault, relationship violence, mental illness, and natural disaster. The twitter feed is an endless stream and this increases the risk of being overwhelmed.
You can lose perspective — and that’s never a good thing, even though you might want to bear witness. If twitter is causing you stress and distress but you don’t feel like you can keep away from it, now’s the time to take action to re-establish control — over your social media usage and its impact on your life.
Here are some of my strategies…
1) Deactivate your account to stage a temporary withdrawal.
You can do this to take the heat out of a pile-on, or to get some mental peace and quiet when you’re losing perspective to the ‘Angry Birds’. Blocking works pretty well against a single person bugging you but not well at all in a pile-on, where they can tweet about you and their friends can pick up the attack
Under settings in twitter you can find a link ‘Deactivate my account’. If you do this, twitter will keep all your tweets, contacts, direct messages for 30 days. Your account will spring back to life the next time you log into your account. It takes up to 48 hours to fully reactivate, though, so don’t panic when it says you have zero followers! It’s good to signpost what you’re doing, e.g. I might say ‘I’m going to suspend my account tomorrow to get some writing done’. Even then, I still get e-mail or text messages from friends checking in on me. Signposting lets your friends know it’s a planned retreat.
2) Use back-channels for moral support and to check your perspective.
The friends you make on twitter are real. In the midst of a pile-on, back-channel check-ins with and by friends help me keep perspective. It acknowledges that our experiences in virtual environments nonetheless take a toll on our embodied selves: I’m sitting here and my heart is racing, my endocrine system is loaded for bear and yet I’m holding myself perfectly still; a check-in by a friend can bring me back to my surroundings.
Likewise, if you spot a friend who’s making heavy weather in a debate or tweeting signs of distress, check in with them already. The risk factor for vicarious trauma is being too overwhelmed to process what’s happening, so you go into recorder mode and start reliving the experience in your head. Good advice in this scenario is ‘hey, have you eaten? maybe take some time off twitter, have toast and a cup of tea, maybe a walk in the sunshine?’
Use direct messages (DM), e-mail, text message, phone call, IRL (in real life) coffee meetups. I like the phrase ‘hugs if wanted’.
3) Be mindful of your choices to engage.
If it’s no longer a choice, you need to stop tweeting and walk away. That’s the ultimate sign you’ve lost perspective — when you can’t not respond. At that point, you’re giving a complete stranger control over your adrenal glands. PRESS HERE FOR RAGE.
Well, first, never argue with someone who puts words in your mouth. They’re rewriting your tweets in their head to sustain ragewanking. That’s not a person who is reasonable or able to be persuaded. Second, get practiced at having the last word and walking away. ‘Listen, I don’t think we agree on this one, thanks for chatting, I’ll leave you to it.’ Then either block or mute if they keep going. The more you do this, the more you’ll feel like you have a choice whether to engage in a discussion or not. Remember xkcd/386!
The goal of these strategies is resilience — to obtain the good outcomes available from twitter despite its significant adversity.
Please don’t take these as gospel — I still struggle enormously with the personal cost of my twitter usage, and of these three strategies, only the first works for me every time. I’d love to hear the strategies you use — if you feel like it, pop them in the comments and I’ll include them in a follow-up post.
* I asked my counsellor how I could attribute this remark and she said, with a gleam, ‘to a wise old bird.’
- For another take on the ‘Internet pile-on’, check out this post by Greg Knauss, programmer of the Romantimatic app that’s apparently killing romance.
In a textbook instance of Murphy’s Law, although I reactivated within the 30 day limit, twitter is having some trouble finding my 900+ followers and the 1400+ people I was following. They have a support procedure to handle this, though.
- Oh whew, my following and follower lists are back up. I missed my diverse, irascible, generous twitter feed!