Dumb Twitter

Some years ago, it felt like Tim Ferriss was building his entire brand around himself as a human guinea pig. The term for what he did changed (biohacking, quantified self, etc.) but it was basically self expermentation around different types of diets, workout routines, and lifestyle choices. There was even a tv show around this premise. I’ve come to realize I have a similar much much smaller but equally unfortunate obsession with my digital self, where I’ve found myself constantly evaluating, interrogating, and defending my own digital identity and the space(s) it inhabits. In fact, I’d argue this blog has been largely a collection of writings concentrated on me working through the thoughts of my own digital identity and the tools that help shape it. The whole bit is highly meta.

Sometime last November, I decided that I would deactivate my Twitter account for the holidays. The holidays turned quickly turned into six months and here I am. I still have access to the Twitter profiles I wish to follow as most profiles are public, and thus I make a conscience effort to check the streams of particular folks (mostly journalists and news publications) that I’m still interested in following. Unsurprisingly, removing myself from punching the Twitter icon and swimming in the often negative environment that the community perpetuates has been a net positive for my health. In a similar fashion, I don’t have Instagram installed on my phone anymore (my workaround here is I’ll occasionally install it and bulk upload a handful of files and then delete it). For Facebook, I actually inactivated that account in November as well, but surprisingly felt myself come back to it quicker for important information I would miss otherwise (my gym uses a private group for all communication). But, for the most part, my day is spent sans social media.

On the other hand, I believe that the work I do, in conjunction with the mission of higher education, is meant to be a public good that is shared, and Twitter has been the primary tool for disseminating my thoughts and ideas. Twitter is also a major hub for the academic communities in which my work intersects (despite the fact that they seem to hate it more than anybody else I know). I should also note that it’s not like I’m *not* creating public work, despite spending less time on these platforms. I still blog a couple times a month. More noteably, I podcast on a nearly weekly basis and there are now nearly 50 publicly consumable episodes all at lengths of around 45 minutes each. But over time, whether it was due to changes to the audience or the algorithm, Twitter became a less effective tool for driving deeper engagement in ideas.

In my experience, Twitter has been most valuable during conferences that I’m physically attending. The hashtags are great for back channeling. Currently, I’m attending the OLC Innovate conference, which is one of my favorite conferences to catch up and learn from colleagues at other institutions. So I decided to make an exception and re-activate my Twitter account for the duration of the conference.

My experience back in Twitter has been great, and I attribute it mostly to the fact that I’m using the tool for exactly how I feel it’s best used without the daily pain and suffering. So far coming back to Twitter has felt like visiting your hometown: it’s great to visit but it’s also a reminder of how much you enjoy not living there anymore.

After reactivating the account, I downloaded the Tweetbot app on my phone and set some ground rules for myself. For example, I am consciously making an effort to limit using Twitter to create or amplify negativity. I have certainly leveraged my right to utilize Twitter as a mechanism for critiquing ed tech conferences and by no means find that a problematic use of a platform. But I also have to remind myself that the reason I left in the first place was that I felt rage tweeting become equally normalized and exhausting.

One unexpected change was that Twitter has changed the API significantly enough that it fundamentally altered the experience on third-party clients. For example, I can see that a tweet has “likes,” but I can’t click to see who liked my tweet. It’s forced me to no longer get my small dopamine hits from seeing *who* likes my tweet. Those small nudges go completely unnoticed. In fact, I can’t see any new activity to my profile: likes, followers, etc. though I can still see @ replies and even those and DMs feel incomplete.

Which got me thinking: what would Dumb Twitter look like and how drastically would it alter the Twitter experience? I’m drawing the term from the idea of the “dumb phone” or the opposite of the “smart phone” meaning something that is intentionally designed to lack modern features in order to streamline the use case of the device. Occasionally you’ll see a Kickstarter project based around designing a super basic candy bar or flip phone.

Here’s my pitch for a Dumb Twitter app: The app forces you to tweet at the original 140 character tweet length. You can reply. You can’t like or retweet. You most certainly can’t quote tweet. There is no private DMing. Linear tweet stream only.

I want to say that I don’t think this would fix Twitter (it’s a people problem, not a tool problem), but it would be fun to experiment with a super basic application that only uses a small fraction of the Twitter API, simply to see how it would alter the experience.

Last, I’m also not telling you to delete Twitter. My reasons and this post are not all encompassing and there may be many reasons out there for why you will neither ever join nor never leave. My reasons are deeply individual and I’ve tried to be thoughtful about the choice you made.

But whatever your choice may be, I encourage you to subscribe to this space and don’t expect to see these posts tweeted out. 🙂