Nick Cohen

Detox. You will not miss Twitter and it will not miss you

I have seen good journalists degenerate into Twitter tub-thumpers during lockdown, picking feuds and screaming out policy positions


LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 23: Andy Warhol's first self-portrait (estimated £5-7 million) goes on view at Sotheby's on June 23, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby's)

July 08, 2021 11:26

The prophecy falsely attributed to Andy Warhol that in the future “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” hasn’t aged well. The forecast certainly captured the media world of the 1990s and early 2000s, when an explosion in the number of TV channels required hosts of micro-celebs. But it missed social media culture. These days, too many people for the good of society, or indeed themselves, want fame every day, and are pushed into neurotic agony by their failure to find it.

You can measure the pain by the words that are being minted to describe it. “Vaguebooking” (from a merger of vague and Facebooking) describes incoherent and emotional calls for support and affection from apparently desperate people. They may be fishing for sympathy in the same pool where people fish for compliments, or they may be on the edge of a mental collapse and in need of encouragement from strangers. You can never tell.

“SMV” (sexual market value) is used mostly by frustrated men, complaining that women on dating apps overestimate themselves and will overlook men who are not particularly-attractive and not particularly successful.

You can also measure the pain by anecdote. I have seen good journalists degenerate into Twitter tub-thumpers during lockdown, picking feuds and screaming out policy positions. Becoming an online loudmouth may garner attention and followers, and editors may be impressed enough by your reach to offer you work. At least that is the rational explanation. The truer reason is they are victims of the desire to attract attention.

Like so many others, they have become dependent on the dopamine hit in reward centres of the brain, stimulated by likes and retweets. So intense is it that as early as 2012, researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that Twitter and Facebook were more addictive than alcohol. Meanwhile, rejection can feel like a psychological assault, which is why the witch-hunters of left and right spend so much time shaming their enemies and encouraging their followers to stay in line, for fear that the same punishments will be visited upon them.

Or you can measure the pain by academic rigour. Early in the lockdown, a study by psychologists at Fudan university in Shanghai measured symptoms of mental distress and concluded that the huge increase in exposure to social media had pushed up the prevalence of depression and anxiety.

A similar study of adolescents in the UK, India, Malaysia and Mexico came to the same conclusion and added loneliness, escapism, and poor sleep quality into the mix.

The most novel inequality of our time is the inequality of attention.

Inequalities of wealth and power may be no more acceptable when they run out of control than they have ever been, but at least we are used to them. Inequalities of attention or of affirmation are modern.

Even in the late C20th, only a tiny proportion of the population could find fame. Most people were known only to their friends and family, neighbours and colleagues. The desire to escape to a wider world drove much C19th and C20th fiction. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary dreams of living in Paris with the nobility. Instead, she is stuck in a loveless marriage in a cramped home in a dull provincial town. It was “at mealtimes that she could bear it no longer, in that little room on the ground floor, with the smoking stove, the creaking door, the oozing walls, the damp floor-tiles; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served to her on her plate”.

A modern Madame Bovary could hope to escape the bitterness of life by becoming an influencer on Instagram or a commentator on Twitter.

The possibility of breaking out of her narrow circle would be in front of her. She would have seen others achieve it and yet in all likelihood she would fail.

The marketplace on social media echoes the winner-takes-all markets of what I suppose I can still call “the real world”. Followers follow the already famous. Influence goes to the already influential.

And yet it feels as if everyone has an equal chance. The apparent egalitarianism means that on social media, as in any other apparent meritocracy, failure becomes a personal fault.

You had the same chance as everyone else and no one but you can be blamed if you blew it. You put yourself out in the marketplace and no one would buy.

At the start of this year, I made a decision to step back from Twitter while I wrote a book. I reasoned that social media and hard work did not naturally go together.

I was astonished by the calm that descended on me. It was like escaping from a madhouse.

Now the lockdown is ending — assuming that this is indeed the end — I urge my fellow addicts to take the opportunity to try detoxification themselves. Your social media “friends” aren’t real friends and won’t miss you.

More to the point, you won’t miss them.

July 08, 2021 11:26

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