In a last-ditch effort to enjoy my social media experience again, I unfollowed 90% of my Twitter feed—and I think it worked.
When I check in now, in just a few minutes I catch up on everything said by the ninety or so people I follow. I have time to consider what they say. I don’t leave upset.
It’s similar to how Twitter felt when I joined. In 2009, it really seemed to connect you to the pulse of the online world. That sounds like satire now but it really felt like that. The original concept was very modest—a tweet was only supposed to be the answer to the question “What are you doing?”
The banality of it was part of the fun. Ah, you’re working on a fantasy novel at Starbucks. Neat. I just read a blog post about stain removal methods, which you might enjoy. Here it is.
It was a novel way for often-online people (which was not yet most people) to check in on each other throughout the day. You could get little glimpses of many lives happening alongside yours. You could choose which lives to keep open windows on, and each person could choose what to display in their window.
It was mostly a pleasant and interesting—if not exactly focused—experience. Different people, living different but relatable lives, updating each other on their little corner of time and space. I imagined these tiny messages being delivered by little blue birds landing on windowsills.
The whole thing felt harmless and cute. Nobody was trying to get people fired, or break the internet, or explain campus political correctness in a thirty-tweet diatribe.
People in important positions, such as CEOs and presidents, did not tweet. The idea of a president tweeting, no matter who it was, would embarrass everyone. When they tried, it felt something like your grandpa showing up to a house party with sunglasses and a skateboard, assuming he would blend in.
Today, the signup page at Twitter doesn’t say “What are you doing right now?” as it did in 2009. It says, “See what’s happening in the world right now,” implying that your Twitter stream, in all its chaos and reactivity, somehow represents the world’s current state.
In reality, what we see in our Twitter streams can’t be “what’s happening in the world,” because each of us is seeing something different.
If you only follow news organizations, the world is violent and on the verge of collapse. If you only follow activists, the world is hateful and unjust. If you only follow The Onion, the world is a joke. If you only follow your grandmother, the world is kind and sweet.
Of course, if like most people you follow hundreds or thousands of accounts, no matter which accounts those are, the world is insane.
Luckily we can still dispel the illusion. If you’re a user of Twitter, and you find yourself perturbed by what seems to be an increasingly insane world, a drastic purge can restore a sense of sanity and connection.
How to make Twitter (and seemingly the world) sane again
Here’s what I did anyway. I unfollowed everybody except accounts who produce tweets I almost always want to see.
This is not the same as following people and businesses you like. That was a big discovery for me: simply liking someone or something isn’t a good reason to follow them on Twitter.
I like the author and psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I don’t want to think about moral psychology or campus political correctness every time I do my social media rounds.
I like a local food truck called Red Ember. I do not need to think “Should I go get a pizza?” several times a day.
I know and love many personal finance bloggers. I’m not interested in thinking about my finances every time I go online.
When you start going by whose tweets you like reading, as opposed to who you like for other reasons, you will probably end up following way fewer people.
Mostly, I stuck with:
People I know in real life (who aren’t in the habit of tweeting about horrible news events they don’t plan to do anything about)
Local events in my city
Local shops and businesses I would like to visit more
Certain kinds of humor
Certain kinds of discussion about certain topics
This kind of curation is definitely not what Twitter wants you to do, so you’ll have to turn to a third party app to efficiently cull your feed. I used Tokimeiki Unfollow, which cleverly allows you to Marie-Kondo-ize your feed, asking yourself if each account still “sparks joy.”
You’ll know what you feel about a given account when you see its name and avatar. You’ll feel a lot of aversion and indifference, and small moments of joy. When in doubt, un-follow. I was ruthless and regret nothing. It took ten minutes.
Of course, in 2019, un-following is a political act, and some people will assume that because you un-followed them you no longer like them. We can probably just let those little misunderstandings happen, see which relationships survive, and assume they are the important ones.
In fact, if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance I have un-followed you. If you feel offended, it may be an appropriate moment to re-evaluate your online life. And I don’t mean that flippantly. I am doing this re-evaluation now, and this is part of that.
Following a person, after all, isn’t exactly a major expression of interest in what they have to say. In fact it’s the smallest gesture of interest possible, essentially bookmarking a person for later, in case we want to engage with their real work or real self someday.
No matter what we think of each other, maybe it isn’t at all important that I follow you, or that you follow me. We are both elsewhere, in more complete forms. Let’s find each other there.
All Rights Reserved for John Duncan