Why I’m Taking A Break From Twitter
Three books that made me reconsider my relationship with social media
As I wrote earlier this week, I’m leaving Twitter for Lent.
Here’s thing thing: I don’t really have any of the normal gripes about Twitter. I’ve curated my follows to a set of experts who largely avoid the toxic partisan and ideological battles. I mostly don’t get into dumb arguments.I haven’t experienced any of the harassment so many people have had to endure. And I feel like I genuinely learn something every time I log on. I can honestly say that my experience on Twitter is about as positive as one might expect. I interact with a ton of really smart people, sharing ideas and getting top-notch analysis of current events in real time. I’ve made actual friends. And I find all of it pretty darn fun.
But I’m increasingly convinced that Twitter is altering my habits of reading, writing, thinking, and acting—about politics and also more generally—in important ways. And not for the better.
The book I can’t stop thinking about
In my view, the most important political science book written in the last few years is Eitan Hersh’s Politics Is For Power.The central argument of the book is this: a lot of college-educated upper-middle class people forgot how to do politics. Instead, they became what Hersh calls “political hobbyists,” who can tell you all about the soap opera going on in the Senate or the landscape for the 2022 election, but essential don’t participate in actual politics. Or even know how to participate.
Politics has become a sport they observe but don’t play. They follow political news obsessively, but their own political activity amounts to voting, clicking likes on Facebook, and maybe donating small amounts of money. The actual work of politics—organizing people, pressuring officials, acquiring and using public authority to wield power over public policy—is something they almost, well, look down upon.
Hersh has lots of interesting insights on the origins and consequences of this—seriously, read the book—but a strand running through it that also resonated with me was the particular lack of engagement many of these hobbyists bring to local politics. I’ve always been keen to the idea that most people pay too much attention to national politics; it’s more or less absurd if you know and care more about some Senate race on the other side of the country than about who is running your kids’ school. I’ve written plenty of long threads about this on Twitter.
As Hersh documents in his book, one of the drivers of political hobbyism is social media, which creates a massive facade in which bullshit complaining online masquerades as actual political action. People like posts, sign online petitions, signal their hatred of Donald Trump or Joe Biden, and generally accomplish nothing of substance beyond enhanced hobbyism. And it’s twice as bad for local politics. The faux community created online is inevitably national community. The core structure of the internet and social media aggregation funnels everyone into discussion about Joe Manchin and reconciliation, not their town council and zoning ordinances.
And this happened to me. I looked up in January 2020, and realized I wasn’t engaged in actual politics at all anymore. I had left the Hill and was teaching at Georgetown, writing a lot on Twitter about Washington politics and congressional procedure, and obsessing over the federal soap opera while knowing nothing about local politics.
And I’m quite certain Twitter was at least partially to blame. I grew up in a family moderately involved in politics in upstate New York. I had worked on campaigns most of my life. I had worked in politics most of my adult life. But then I had kids, got busy with my family, and it all sort of stopped. I had really become a hobbyist. And the core enabler my hobby was writing on Twitter, which has an incredible ability to delude you into thinking you really are an influencer—look at this goddam tweetstorm that got 1,500 retweets and 12k likes, it must be driving national policy. I knew so much more about national politics because of Twitter. But somehow I was participating so much less. And not at all locally.
It was easy enough to reengage locally. I joined the board of our neighborhood pool. I started working with the school PTA and wrote a grant for state DOT funding for them.I got myself appointed to a town committee. Like my dad always said, “rule 1 of local politics is show up and shut up and pretty soon you’ll be making decisions.” And it worked. I’m more engaged in local politics than I have been in years. But it didn’t cure my concerns about Twitter.
A personal doom loop of motivated reasoning
The second book that has really stuck with me from the pandemic era is last year’s The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef. The book is about the general dangers of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. These are well-known information problems in politics. People do not gather information to make smart choices about parties, candidates, elected officials, policies, or governance strategies. Instead, they have well-formed ends (based on existing identity, ideological, cultural, or pride commitments) and seek out information that supports the pre-made decisions. Galef calls this the “soldier mindset.”
Much like Achen and Bartel’s show in Democracy for Realists,Galef argues that the mechanisms of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are largely subconscious. Most of the time, it feels like you are thinking rationally, gathering information, and making well-informed judgements about complicated decisions. But you aren’t. The motivated reasoning that is so easy to see in your debate interlocutor is almost invisible in your own cognitive processes. And that’s what makes it so difficult to escape.
The opposite mindset—what Galef calls the “scout mindset,” is the practice of objectively looking for the truth, whatever the cognitive or social consequences, and updating your beliefs to reflect those truths. It’s really hard, but it’s vital if you want to think clearly about anything. The stock market. Public policy. Parenting. Poker strategy. One good trick is to approach information and ideas as an opportunity to learn rather than argue; come into any opportunity for getting new information as a chance to change your mind, and actively prepare to do so.
No one does this better than Tyler Cowen, who seemingly hosts a podcast for the sole purpose of getting to ask really smart people questions so he can personally gather good information. It’s absolutely shocking and refreshing the first time you hear his podcast—even when he disagrees, it’s quite obvious he’s happily updating his probabilistic priors about what he believes. Disagreement isn’t seen as threat, it’s seen as the a key mechanism for improving one’s own views.
It’s almost impossible to not read The Scout Mindset as a critique of social media and internet discourse. Everything about Twitter is structured to expose you to the soldier mindset and reinforce rigid priors developed from motivated reasons. The dunks, the memes, the tight character limit, the self-curated feed, the mute and block button. They all serve to help you become more of a a soldier and less of a scout, even as Twitter, in theory, opens the door to really good scouting.
It quite embarrasses me to realize how far I’ve fallen into this trap. And I work really hard on Twitter to not get into any partisan or ideological bickering. But I still find myself wanting to dunk on people and write snarky replies and mute people who I disagree with. Even as I consciously make meta-jokes about this very phenonmenon:
Adding value on Twitter, IMO, is largely about providing relevant good information, and then letting people do what they want with it. Once you start trying to purposefully shape how people think, you’ve probably lost your way. It’s very easy to get lost.
I thought I was just getting old
During the pandemic, I didn’t do a ton of actual writing. I barely blogged. I don’t think I did more than 1 or 2 publication, popular or academic. Even worse, I didn’t do a ton of actual reading. At first, I thought it was the pandemic itself. This is stressful stuff, my work life had been thrown into complete chaos, and my daily living routine was in tatters.
Over the past year or so, however, I slowly realized it was something bigger: I was having trouble concentrating, especially for the 3 or 4 hour blocks of time it took to write well. Or to blow through a book. Or to really study bridge defense. At first I thought I was just getting old. Doesn’t this happen to everyone when they hit their mid-40s? But the more I examined it, the more I started to believe it was a function of how I was consuming information. I was massively multi-tasking, almost full-time. And the two biggest culprits were my email inbox and my twitter feed.
Enter Cal Newport’s A World Without Email. Honestly, I think the best avenue into the ideas in this book is Ezra Klein’s podcast interview with Newport from last month, which is how I first discovered it. The argument is crisp: email and office tools like Slack are destroying worker productivity and happiness by creating what Newport calls the “hyper-active hive mind.” Email was a solution for firms to allow instant, asynchronous communication between workers (better than the synchronous telephone, faster than the office memo delivery systems), but it has morphed into the fundamental basis of work. Workers now inherently multitask, because they build their work world around their inbox, which is constantly delivering them different streams of work.
The result is a disaster for both workers and firms. The network switching required to multitask has been proven dozens of times over to cost workers tremendous amounts of productivity. Employers, of course, hate that. At the same time, workers feel more chained to their firms than ever, with their inboxes following them around 24/7, blurring their work/life balance. The introduction of Slack into firms has accelerated this trend, putting employees into essentially a never-ending pseudo-meeting. This gets at an older concept of Newport’s—the idea of Deep Work.
The idea here is that there’s some work that’s shallow—answering emails, setting up meetings, to-do list type stuff—and other work that’s deep, like research, analysis, coding, or writing. That stuff’s tough. You need blocks of uninterrupted time in order to do it. But in the modern work environment, many people never get uninterrupted blocks of time, because of the endless ding of the inbox or slack.Even worse, the email/slack paradigm trains workers to adapt to the hyper-active multitasking model, robbing them not only the opportunity for deep work, but also the capacity to engage in it. Anyone who has obsessively checked their email or texts can probably relate.
It’s probably obvious that the Newport theory of the workforce can easily be applied to Twitter—it’s just Slack in a more universal form—and he explicitly makes that argument. But anyone who has engaged political Twitter seriously as a medium probably can instantly relate. The obsession with immediate news updates, the personal satisfaction of likes and retweets on your tweets, and, most worryingly, the massive amount of attention you can get almost immediately if you just write one really good tweet. Especially if you have a moderately large number of followers.
It’s this last feature that makes me shudder. I can remember around 2016 or so, when Twitter had really started to cannibalize the old-school blogs as a medium of political discourse. I wrote a blog post about something, and then I tweeted it out with a picture snipping of the key paragraph. The blog post got like 110 hits. The tweet got something like 400,000 impressions, 10,000 likes, and 2,000 retweets. I literally said to myself why the fuck am I still blogging. I could just do tweetstorms and way more people would read my content. And so I did.
And I got good at it, in some vague market sense. I haven’t mastered Twitter, not even close. But I definitely learned how to build a following and I like to think I got decent at transferring some of the knowledge I have to a lot of people. And my suspicion is a lot of people like to read my content. That’s good, I guess. But I’m very much alarmed at this point about how much it cost me in my capacity to do deep work. Even writing this blog post is a bit of a struggle, and I’m sure when 53 people like it and 4 people leave a comment I’ll (at least subconsciously) question everything I’m doing.
Thinking Through Thinking Through
Every time I write an op-ed, I want to throw a chair through the wall. That’s always been the case.And I’ve never much had the patience to write journal articles or law review pieces or books, even though I’d love to do a project of that length. I can’t even bear having a deadline and not having a rough draft done. My usual strategy is to lock myself in a room and not let myself out until I have that first draft, even if it takes 15 hours to get to it.
So part of me was always going to be susceptible to the Twitter mode of public expert interaction. It’s custom built for people who are perfectionists about writing but don’t love the process of getting to that final (or first) draft. It feels like intellectual recognition in much the same way as writing, but the response is so much more immediate, so much more obvious, and good god do a ton of people see it.
But what I’m slowly realizing is that I do a lot of my best thinking when I’m in that arduous process of writing. Everyone wants to believe they have some important insight and then they sit down and write it up for public consumption, but I don’t really think that’s true, at least not for me. I usually have some vague idea, and it doesn’t become fully formed until I start writing it down and I’m forced to1` examine it logically.Twitter short-circuits almost all of this. You just let it rip and the details (and deep thinking) simply become “well, obviously you can’t fit everything in a tweetstorm.”
So that’s the long answer as to why I’m taking this Twitter break. If my hunches here are correct, I’m hoping that 40 days plus Sundays off from Twitter, with a healthy does of blogging thrown in the mix, will improve my ability to read, write, and think. And to break myself of the ridiculous dopamine-hit cycle of retweets and likes.
Of course, even if I do come back that way, there won’t be any real proof I was correct in my hypothesis:
My blogging plan out of the gate is to return to writing about the thing that hits the coveted sweet spot of “things I love” and “nobody cares about”: congressional procedure. Looking forward to it.
My policy in this regard has always been “zero engagement with any post from someone who might be arguing in bad faith, regardless of who they are or how well you know them.” It works surprisingly well.
White guy alert, of course. The toxic bullshit women and minorities endure on Twitter is both alarming and profoundly sad.
I highly recommend reading the full book, but his article in The Atlantic based on the book is a worthy substitute.
As an aside, the number of people who don’t consider these things “politics” is just unbelievable to me. Of course the PTA and the pool board and your HOA are politics.
My dad was an absolute wellspring of hardcore realist political thought and advice. I’ve documented this many times—on Twitter of course—but I can’t shake the feeling that he would have immediately cut through Twitter and gotten to its core political problem in one devastating quip.
The is an absolute must-read, IMO.
All of this vaguely reminds me of Paul Graham’s famous argument about maker’s schedules vs. manager’s schedules in Silicon Valley.
There’s something a little bit odd about me saying this as a criticism. Because in some respects the urge to do tweets instead of blogs is a good one. I have an old friend from graduate school who likes to say “Every book should be a journal article, every journal article should be a blog post, and every blog post should be a tweet. Succinct is usually the right instinct.” There’s definitely something to that.
Just ask anyone I live with or work with. I walk around drumming my hands on walls yelling “I hate doing this so much” over and over.
And, you know, go get the actual U.S. code or House Practice or some CRS report or whatever and find out if the bullshit in my head actually comports to reality.
Not always. If the tweetstorm is long enough and the issue is technical enough, I sometimes achieve the same thinking benefits. But not as deeply and definitely not as often.
You are way beyond me - you complain it's hard for you to write blog posts - it took me 10 days to read something that was more than 280 characters!
I admire the sentiments of the author. Agree with a lot of this. However, am I to believe that I must be more interested in "local" politics...and not choosing this is incorrect? And by Local, I assume he means Local and not State politics at a higher level than Local. I do agree that obsessing over national politics to the exclusion of all else is bad. I should follow Local and State level politics more. Actually engaging in Local politics is easier for sure to make a difference. I have done this when my interests were involved. State and National politics DOES mean being more of a spectator and not a participator. Sure, you can canvas and do things. But, who wants to knock on the door of a Trumper with a Biden message?
As for Twitter...hasn't it been obvious that 99% of Twitter posts are pure garbage? And this has been easily seen for years. I've worked in IT and not journalism for 25 years. So, for a Journalist perhaps Twitter's toxicity was not as seen as easily? Even so, I'm skeptical of that. Journalists are very responsible for making Twitter far more important than it truly is for years. You bear some responsibility in enabling Twitter. Most Journalists do.