What the Twitter-shaped hole in my brain taught me about tech

Twitter-brain is real, and it's only a preview of our augmented-reality future

Twitter brain.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Jackie Niam/iStock)

It's when I do the math that things seem truly worrying. In the approximately 4,500 days since I joined Twitter in March 2007 — that's more than 12 years — I have been on the platform for, oh, almost all of them. Let's say at least 4,450 days. Uh, whoops.

So recently, feeling burnt out and listless, I decided to step away. I was just tired of the endless, bitter acrimony that defines Twitter. Off the app went from my phone and tablet, and I logged out on both my laptop and desktop.

Tales of quitting social media are so commonplace now that the eyerolls they often elicit are fair. And in the three or four weeks I've been mostly Twitter free, the changes have been just about what you'd expect. I'm less stressed. I find it easier to read; I tore through the Jeanette Winterson classic Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit in a day. I've even returned to actively seeking out new information: After binge-watching the German thriller Dark on Netflix, I downloaded the app Duolingo and started learning basic Deutsche. The results of my experiment would be almost funny — if they didn't make me wonder if I could've written a novel if I'd never joined Twitter.

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But for all the cliché in my little vacation from the platform, what has stuck out has been less predictable: that I almost feel limbless, or as if a part of my brain has been carved out of me. I think Twitter reshaped me, and left a well-worn groove in my brain. I find myself still composing tweets in my head, or thinking what my timeline would think of some joke or silly thing I see about town. And strange as it is to say, I also feel a bit lonely. Twitter was a locus for an ongoing conversation, a place to connect with people, and over the years, it became the place I turned to work out ideas, feelings — in short, myself.

As it turns out, I didn't just take a break from Twitter; I took a break from who I understand myself to be. I am a Twitter Cyborg, part person, part machine. And as tech becomes more integrated in our lives, it makes me wonder how else we will change in reaction to the digital. After all, tech is going to become more integrated. The next great step is augmented reality, most likely glasses that will overlay information over one's field of vision. Apple is hiring for AR glasses, and Snapchat and Google have both already released their own takes on the idea. It's an immersion in tech taken to the next level.

But perhaps you don't need glasses to have technology augment or change how you relate to reality. It now occurs to me that I approached the world the way my Twitter timeline did. Like all technology, Twitter has what scholars call affordances: a set of conditions and characteristics that shape how we use it. Twitter's affordances are clear, but complicated: obviously brevity, and antagonism, too, but also the way the flow of information as a whole overshadows any one tweet.

For me, that meant that Twitter tended to be a bit binary, a world divided into good and bad. Sometimes that was actually quite beneficial, because it meant a kind of grey murk got clarified — say when mealy mouthed defenses of free speech are in fact a license to prop up hatred. But other times it meant complex topics such as the relationship between identity, art, and criticism get flattened into oversimplified talking points. It would be absurd to say that Twitter is neatly "good" or "bad", but it has its limits, and when you let it infect your brain too much, it can be a bit like voluntarily putting on a straitjacket.

As much as I could go on forever about the intellectual effects of Twitter on the mind, however, I'm almost more concerned about emotion. Writer and scholar L.M. Sacasas has written that emotional overload on social media is a bigger problem than information overload: that the constant stream of anger, outrage, and disagreement strain the psyche.

Despite Twitter's centrality to my life and career, I'm happier being off it. Yes, it has brought much to me — work, friends, entertainment, information. But it seems as if there is something in the structure of Twitter that is so good at appealing to our desires for novelty, data, and connection, that it is at odds with what might leave one feeling better. To be human is to be caught between competing desires — for new and pleasurable experiences on the one hand, and some stillness and a reprieve from them on the other — and it often feels like tech is only good at serving one half of those wants.

Trying to make broad pronouncements about technology's effect on our brains is a tricky thing: our relationship with social media or various gadgets is often so idiosyncratic and contextual that it can be a fool's errand. What is harmful to someone might be beneficial to another, and what feels bad at one point in your life can feel good at some other time.

Nonetheless, as I paged through Jeanette Winterson's novel — a standout piece of queer literature that was also praised for its formal inventiveness — I felt like the experimental, coming-of-age story of a young lesbian was the kind of thing better suited to a novel than anything else. It felt like I had forgotten what other types of reading can do, as spending so much time on Twitter in particular had restructured how and where I sought out new things and new feelings.

I'd be loath to say I had found the pure, uncorrupted thing next to Twitter's miasma of noise. Twitter has done far too much for me to casually dismiss it. Rather, what is starting to seem clear is that I have lost balance because of how all-consuming it can, and is often designed to be. It's as if it lowers a lens over what you can see, and distorts it, the mix of novelty, pace, and cultural capital forming a heady vision to which it is all too easy to become addicted. And as tech becomes more and more deeply woven not just into our lives, but in the way we apprehend the world, there is more than simple relief in taking those glasses off, and remembering that there is more than one way to see.

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