There is already an established genre of internet writing you can call Twitter Quitter—admitting your addiction to the platform and making the case for why you (and everyone) should quit. Even though this disquisition is not being done on Twitter, I think of these professions as “Queets,” since they serve to strengthen the writer’s brand by articulately describing the feelings of people who loathe but can’t quit Twitter.
Probably the most entertaining Queet I have read is Caitlin Flanagan’s in the Atlantic. The tone is vintage Jennifer Weiner novel addressing fellow Weight Watchers alums: We joke about how we always cave, but we are so funny and witty that it doesn’t even matter in the end. Flanagan tells us the tweets she wished she could have posted during her self-imposed 28-day detox, thereby managing to deliver them in an alternate format. The saga of her temporary separation from Twitter reads like one Gilmore Girl sequestered from the other.
Making a milestone of your decision to do something involves some degree of arrogance, but there’s also the absurdity of decrying the evil of machinery that your participation is helping to run. Whenever there’s a Times column about the media’s role in political divisiveness, a lot of commenters will angrily declare that they want more news and less opinion writing—and yet they have (conceivably) read and are commenting on opinion writing. This is an age-old paradox: people complain about crowds ruining something when they themselves are part of those crowds. Think of all the people who have ruined an “undiscovered gem” (like an uncrowded park) because they couldn’t restrain themselves from Instagramming it. Digital capital is deemed more valuable than one’s future access to the beloved thing itself.
Twitter is so much like the high school cafeteria that even acts of leaving it mimic the worst adolescent behavior—the girl who threatens to kick another girl out of her circle for not being cool enough but never goes through with it because she doesn’t want to lose a pawn. Like the cafeteria, there’s a low bar to entry: just carry a tray and you’re in. But in addition to all varieties of celebrities, it’s essentially journalists, politicos, academics, and currently reviled “experts”—those who need to be on Twitter professionally—providing the content. The throng is there to react, embellish, and curate the already embellished.
Many who’d have a public voice with or without Twitter use the platform responsibly, as do everyday users who predominately communicate in a specialized sphere. But the centrality of ranking encourages even the famous to compete for recognition. Your every move has a motive, and that is to enhance (or at least maintain) your reputation. Describing “the reputation economy,” Michel Feher writes that
there is a generalized moral injunction at work under neoliberal capitalism to communicate one’s value as human capital to potential investors—literal creditors, but also those investing their time, attention or emotional energy for some future “return.” The logic of human-capital appreciation sees moral and financial judgement converge: every individual must aim to be rated as engaging, positive, responsible and innovative.
By that reasoning, certain professionals cannot afford to quit Twitter—whereas for everyday users, the platform provides a means to potentially get a seat at the grownups’ table. They say Twitter allows them to be “recognized” and “heard,” but most users are reacting to conversations (more likely brawls) already in progress. This stratification is what makes Twitter like the cafeteria: you can tweet original thoughts to your 38 followers till you’re blue in the face, but your real chances of being “heard” at scale lie with a clever reply to a celebrity that gets retweeted. Like the cafeteria, you know where you are in the food chain.
Here’s the thing: many people use Twitter and stop using it, have dormant accounts. This is the tree that falls in the forest. Some go as far as deleting their accounts—with fanfare or without. I find it fascinating that so many on Twitter try to separate themselves from the crowd to gain attention, but if you really want to separate yourself from the crowd, you have to be willing to do things that the crowd won’t—like quit Twitter.
Queeters are usually people who have profited from Twitter in some way. But I don’t think it’s this discernible profit that compels them to sit on the fence. I think it’s closer to what Pascal described in Pensée 147: “We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being; we desire to live an imaginary life in the mind of others, and for this purpose we endeavor to shine. We labor unceasingly to adorn and preserve this imaginary existence, and neglect the real.”
I think the Queeters can’t bear parting with this identity that they have implanted and so carefully cultivated in the minds of others—this identity that they know does not truly depict themselves but that they themselves may be in love with. The staging of a quitting that doesn’t happen is part and parcel of their Twitter identity. As Pascal put it: “we would willingly be cowards in order to acquire the reputation of being brave.” §