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Shawn Vestal: My Twitter problem went well beyond who owns it


My first experience with Twitter came in the midst of a court proceeding in the Joseph Duncan case in 2008.

The newspaper was experimenting with posting breaking news on this new social-media site – 140 characters at a time! – and the S-R reporter covering the hearing was doling out bits of information about Duncan’s abuse of a child, bit by horrifying bit.

Before that, I hadn’t even looked at Twitter, which was just a couple of years old. When I did, it struck me as an offensive, unprofessional horror: the cute little bird, the stream of quippery, and right there in the midst of it were these out-of-context, gut-wrenching details of a child-abduction and murder case.

I was appalled.

In retrospect, this was silly. For all that is lousy and trending even lousier about Twitter, the real-time sharing of news and information is actually one of its strengths, though it is now in even greater tension with the platform’s ugliest downsides.

So, yes, I’m thinking that Elon Musk might be ushering in the end of Twitter or at least a disastrous re-Trumping of it. Yes, I’m concerned how his moderation-free notions might further uncork the cesspooliest elements of the platform – how it might engender the growth of vile, false information, such as the ugly conspiracies about the Paul Pelosi attack that Musk himself peddled. Yes, I wonder what happens when dedicated liars – scooping up retweets with falsehoods about vaccines, elections, whatever – are given an even freer reign, and whether I should stay.

But if I’m going to file for Twitter divorce, as so many seem to be considering these days, the reasons will be as much about me, and the way I am on Twitter, as they are about all that.

Because, if I was often appalled at Twitter, I was also too often appalled by myself on Twitter. Which doesn’t have anything to do with who owns it.

Fourteen years after my initial negative impression, I have cycled through a stormy relationship with the website. I tiptoed in at first, discovering what was interesting and addicting about it. I then began to tweet, posting articles and items that I thought were interesting or funny or important, and enjoying the posts of others I followed – journalists, authors, comedians, pop-culture observers, social critics.

Sometimes I’d post things that I thought were amusing or appealing or cool – and sometimes I’d shoot out political posts, or engage with others in political arguments, in an entirely different spirit.

The former were fun.

The latter were also kind of fun – a pernicious kind.

I tweeted more and more. I thought about what I was tweeting less and less. I checked Twitter with an absurd frequency. I engaged in “debates” in which I behaved in petty and mean-spirited ways toward people I should have ignored – people I would easily ignore IRL. I delighted in the well-crafted insult and let fly.

That was my fault, not Twitter’s, and yet the platform encouraged habits I should have tamped down, not inflamed. I’m embarrassed when I think back to the day when, during my son’s third or fourth birthday party – cake and candles, house full of kids – I jumped with both feet into some dumb Twitter squabble, descending into the mud in an effort to claim the last word and entirely refocused, away from my own happy life.

Eventually, I began to notice more clearly that the things I found insufferable about others on Twitter were things I should have been finding insufferable about myself. I blabbered out my thoughts about every little thing. I made similar points repeatedly, issued pronouncements and declarations. Instead of blocking or ignoring trolls, I would sometimes troll back harder.

For a while, I thought that was just the way it is on Twitter.

When in Rome, you know.

That was always an absurd self-justification. But it’s also common among heavy Twitter users. A Pew Research Center study a year ago found that the most active 25% of Twitter users produced 97% of the tweets. A fifth of those surveyed said they tweeted too many times to count on a given day.

High-volume tweeters were twice as likely as others to say they’d been personally harassed or abused on the platform – but they were also less likely to say they considered the tone or civility of Twitter discussions as a major problem.

All of which is just to point out that, while Twitter has plenty of problems – and while Musk’s approach to the moderation of lies, conspiracy theories and racism should be of great interest and concern – that a lot of what’s problematic about Twitter is a Pogo problem: We have met the enemy and it is us.

I’m still on Twitter, for the moment. I follow a lot of people – local and national journalists, writers, academics, people who know a lot about things – and I think I learn about the world from those good folks. I still value the ability to communicate with others, or elevate information or events that I believe are important. I respect those who continue to fight the battle for a factual public square, against the rising tide of cynical lies.

I am occasionally delighted by a joke, or a beautiful photograph, or a poem, and I think: Yes. More of that. Less of the other.

I’ve cut way back on tweeting, though, and am happier for it. When someone swings by to lob an insult or cheap shot, or when I see something that seems unbearably wrong-headed, I craft a would-be withering response in my head – and don’t post it.

Like any addict, I can’t say for sure I won’t relapse. It’s one day at a time, you know. But when I make a final decision about a Twitter divorce, it won’t be all about Elon Musk.

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