National News

Why I (Mostly) Quit Twitter

Posted July 21, 2018 6:42 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — I woke up last Sunday morning feeling anxiety in my chest as I checked the Twitter app on my phone, scrolling down to refresh, refresh, refresh. There was a comment I started to engage with — I opened a new post, tapped out some words, then thought better of it and deleted the tweet. The same thing happened repeatedly for the next two hours.

The evening before, I had complained to a close friend that I hated being on Twitter. It was distorting discourse, I said. I couldn’t turn off the noise. She asked what was the worst that could happen if I stepped away from it.

There was nothing I could think of. And so just after 6 p.m. last Sunday, I did.

After nearly nine years and 187,000 tweets, I have used Twitter enough to know that it no longer works well for me. I will re-engage eventually, but in a different way.

Twitter has stopped being a place where I could learn things I didn’t know, glean information that was free from errors about a breaking news story or engage in a discussion and be reasonably confident that people’s criticisms were in good faith.

The viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning and sexism are at all-time highs, with no end in sight. It is a place where people who are understandably upset about any number of things go to feed their anger, where the underbelly of free speech is at its most bilious.

Twitter is now an anger video game for many users. It is the only platform on which people feel free to say things they’d never say to someone’s face. For me, it had become an enormous and pointless drain on my time and mental energy.

I wasn’t always a Twitter devotee. During the 2012 campaign, the first during which Twitter was widely used by journalists and campaign aides, I became something of a scold to younger reporters who I thought misused the medium.

Pictures of themselves at events, inside jokes and conversation fragments were all there for the world to see. They should treat their feeds like news platforms, I huffed, repeating the line from the wonderful movie “Broadcast News” in which a TV reporter says sarcastically, “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story.”

But Twitter has a staccato allure for those of us who need frequent inputs and have grown accustomed to them in the Trump era, with news cycles that last roughly three hours.

And so I tried it. And kept trying it. I got to promote my own stories. I got to provide context. Eventually I started adding more of my voice, dipping my toes in the water to see if I could stand the temperature. I got to defend my reporting and defend my colleagues. I received instant feedback. I met people through Twitter whom I wouldn’t have otherwise. Readers sent me story tips over direct message. Many pointed out errors, but most did it respectfully, and I was appreciative. There was an art to this medium, and I thought I’d figured it out.

But the medium has changed. Everyone I follow on the site seems to be tweeting more frequently, so I had to check in more frequently. No matter the time of day or night, I felt like I had to plug back into the Matrix, only to be overwhelmed by the amount of content.

More recently, instead of engaging in thoughtful debates, I found myself spending an increasing amount of time explaining an errant word or a poorly phrased tweet, and coming off defensive as I did it. At other times, I watched as an offhand comment became tinder for a divisive national conversation.

On Twitter, everything is shrunk down to the same size, making it harder to discern what is a big deal and what is not. Tone often overshadows the actual news. All outrages appear equal. And that makes it harder for significant events — like President Donald Trump’s extraordinarily pliant performance with President Vladimir Putin of Russia — to break through.

More significant is the way Trump has tried to turn everyone around him, including the journalists who cover him, into part of his story. And people on Twitter have started to react to me in that same way, treating me as if I am a protagonist in the president’s narrative. I found myself in the middle of swarms of vicious Twitter attacks, something that has happened to many other journalists in the Trump era. He creates the impression that the media is almost as powerful as he is in his incessant, personalized attacks on reporters on Twitter.

But here’s the thing: Most of us don’t want to be part of the story.

To be clear, Twitter is a useful and important platform. It’s a good aggregator for breaking news. I still check my feed to see breaking news developments, and I will continue to. And it is democratic — everyone gets to have a voice, whether they work for a local paper, a small TV station or one of the biggest newspapers in the world, or are not in the media business at all. The downside is that everyone is treated as equally expert on various topics.

Across Twitter, there’s a raging debate about the role journalists should be playing in the current moment. It is mostly waged by partisans who want to accuse journalists of malpractice or who want us to be the “opposition party,” as Trump has claimed. There is an important discussion about journalism that must take place, including about how all of us performed during the 2016 campaign, but Twitter is not where a nuanced or thoughtful discussion can happen.

In the more than 20 months since Trump was elected, I have gained close to 700,000 Twitter followers. I consider myself fortunate to have had such a broad audience. I mostly enjoyed being able to interact with readers and suspect I will again someday.

It just won’t be soon.