Are there good reasons to stay on Twitter?

Earlier this week Nolan Lawson wrote a brief post extolling people to get off Twitter. He opens it by saying, "Stop complaining about Twitter on Twitter. Deny them your attention, your time, and your data. Get off of Twitter. The more time you spend on Twitter, the more money you make for Twitter. Get off of Twitter."

Alan Jacobs picked up on this post and wrote in support: "The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that. Which is why I’m so obnoxiously repetitive on this point."

I've written extensively about my own habits of technology and internet discipline. I deleted my Facebook account. I don't have any social media apps on my iPhone; nor do I even have access to email on there. I use it for calls, texts, podcasts, pictures of my kids (no iCloud!), directions, the weather, and Instapaper. I use Freedom to eliminate my access to the internet, on either my phone or my laptop, for 3-4 hours at a time, two to three times a day. I don't read articles or reply to emails until lunch time, then hold off until end of (work) day or end of (actual) day—i.e., after the kids go to bed. I'm not on Instagram or Snapchat or any of the new social media start-ups.

So why am I still on Twitter? I'm primed to agree with Lawson and Jacobs, after all. And I certainly do agree, to a large extent: Twitter is a fetid swamp of nightmarish human interaction; a digital slot machine with little upside and all downside. I have no doubt that 90% of people on Twitter need to get off entirely, and 100% of people on Twitter should use it 90% less than they do. Twitter warps the mind (journalism's degradation owes a great deal to @Jack); it is unhealthy for the brain and damaging for the soul. No one who deleted their Twitter account would become a less well-rounded, mentally and emotionally and spiritually fulfilled person.

So, again: Why am I still on Twitter? Are there any good reasons to stay?

For me, the answer is yes. The truth is that for the last 3 years (the main years of my really using it) my time on Twitter has been almost uniformly positive, and there have been numerous concrete benefits. At least for now, it's still worth it to me.

How has that happened? Partly I'm sure by dumb luck. Partly by already having instituted fairly rigorous habits of discipline (it's hard to fall into the infinite scroll if the scroll is inaccessible from your handheld device! And the same goes for instant posting, or posting pictures directly from my phone, which I can't do, or for getting into flame wars, or for getting notifications on my home screen, which I don't—since, again, it's not on my phone, and my phone is always (always!) on Do Not Disturb and Silent and, if I'm in the office, on Airplane Mode; you get it now: the goal is to be uninterrupted and generally unreachable).

Partly it's my intended mode of presence on Twitter: Be myself; don't argue about serious things with strangers; only argue at all if the other person is game, the topic is interesting, and the conversation is pleasant or edifying or fun; always think, "Would my wife or dad or best friend or pastor or dean or the Lord Jesus himself approve of this tweet?" (that does away with a lot of stupidity, meanness, and self-aggrandizement fast). As a rule, I would like for people who "meet" me on Twitter to meet me in person and find the two wholly consonant. Further, I try hard never to "dunk" on anyone. Twitter wants us to be cruel to one another: why give in?

I limit my follows fairly severely: only people I know personally, or read often, or admire, or learn something from, or take joy in following. For as long as I'm on Twitter I would like to keep my follows between 400 and 500 (kept low through annual culling). The moment someone who follows me acts cruelly or becomes a distraction, to myself or others, I immediately mute them (blocks are reserved, for now, for obvious bots). I don't feel compelled to respond to every reply. And I tend to "interface" with Twitter not through THE SCROLL but through about a dozen bookmarked profiles of people, usually writers or fellow academics, who always have interesting things to say or post links worth saving for later. All in all, I try to limit my daily time on Twitter to 10-30 minutes, less on Saturdays and (ordinarily, or aspirationally) zero on Sundays—at least so long as the kids are awake.

So much for my rules. What benefits have resulted from being on Twitter?

First, it appears that I have what can only be called a readership. Even if said readership comprises "only" a few hundred folks (I have just over a thousand followers), that number is greater than zero, which until very recently was the number of my readers not related to me by blood. And until such time (which will be no time) that I have thousands upon tens of thousands of readers—nay, in the millions!—it is rewarding and meaningful to interact with people who take the time to read, support, share, and comment on my work.

(That raises the question: Should the time actually come, and I'm sure that it will, when I am bombarded by trolls and the rank wickedness that erupts from the bowels of Twitter Hell for so many people? I will take one of two courses of action. I will adopt the policy of not reading my replies, as wise Public People do. But if that's not good enough, that will be the day, the very day, that I quit Twitter for good. And perhaps Lawson and Jacobs both arrived at that point long ago, which launched them off the platform. If so, good for them.)

Additionally, I have made contacts with a host of people across the country (and the world) with whom I share some common interest, not least within the theological academy. Some of these have become, or are fast becoming, genuine friendships. And because we theologians find reasons to gather together each year (AAR/SBL, SCE, CSC, etc.), budding online friendships actually generate in-person meetings and hangouts. Real life facilitated by the internet! Who would've thought?

I have also received multiple writing opportunities simply in virtue of being on Twitter. Those opportunities came directly or indirectly from embedding myself, even if (to my mind) invisibly, in networks of writers, editors, publishers, and the like. (I literally signed a book contract last week based on an email from an editor who found me on Twitter based on some writing and tweeting I'd done.) As I've always said, academic epistemology is grounded in gossip, and gossip (of the non-pejorative kind) depends entirely on who you know. The same goes for the world of publishing. And since writers and editors love Twitter—doubtless to their detriment—Twitter's the place to be to "hang around" and "hear" stuff, and eventually be noticed by one or two fine folks, and be welcomed into the conversation. That's happened to me already, in mostly small ways; but they add up.

So that's it, give or take. On a given week, I average 60-90 minutes on Twitter spread across 5-6 days, mostly during lunch or early evening hours, on my laptop, never on my phone, typically checking just a handful of folks' profiles, sending off a tweet or two myself, never battling, never feeding the trolls, saving my time and energy for real life (home, kids, church, friends) and for periods of sustained, undistracted attention at work, whether reading or writing.

Having said that, if I were a betting man, I would hazard a guess that I'll be off Twitter within five years, or that the site will no longer exist in anything like its current form. My time on Twitter is unrepresentative, and probably can't last. But so long as it does, and the benefits remain, I'll "be" there, and I think the reasons I've offered are sufficient to justify the decision.


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