Burnout and Twitter fatigue

I suppose it should come as no surprise that the author of “What it feels like to be an open-source maintainer” is suffering from burnout, but to be honest it caught me off-guard. Even after writing it, I thought I was just going through a rough patch, but in retrospect it’s impossible to call what I’ve been feeling by any other name.

In the six months since I wrote that post, I’ve largely abandoned my involvement in PouchDB as well as dozens of other open-source projects. I’ve stepped away from the social telephone that only brings bad news and let the GitHub notifications pile up on my doorstep. (Over a thousand now, but who’s counting?) I’ve stopped going to conferences and only written one new blog post, which had actually been in draft for several months and so barely qualifies. In short, I display all the symptoms of burnout.

I could rehash the same material from that blog post, but really it’s only part of the story. Dealing with a constant flood of negative attention on your open-source projects is enough to wear anybody down, but that’s only a proximate cause. This story is best told against a backdrop of general malaise and world-weariness, which perhaps other folks in the tech industry can identify with.

In this post, I’m going to talk about one major stage of my burnout, which was the end of my love affair with Twitter. There’s more to cover on the subject of burnout, but hopefully this will serve as a good starting point.

2016: the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year

It’s become an internet cliché to say that 2016 was a terrible year, but last year’s US election truly shocked me. It also shook me out of a lot of my complacency over the direction of the tech industry and of the world in general. I consider myself a centrist (or perhaps center-left), but the election of a man as obviously vile and odious as Donald Trump left me, like many others, grasping for explanations.

2016 marked a worldwide rise in authoritarianism and illiberalism, and it’s hard to pin down to a single cause. (For a full review, The Retreat of Western Liberalism comes closest.) A lot of ink has already been spilled on the subject, but what I feel most qualified to talk about is the role technology played in the election. It wasn’t a starring role, but if 2016 were a theater play, technology might have fit as the mischievous trickster, sowing confusion and distrust and ultimately helping the baddies on their way.

Of course, what I’m talking about is social media. Twitter is well-known as Donald Trump’s favorite megaphone, and Facebook, for its part, also helped to spread rumors, lies, and propaganda that not only boosted extremists and conspiracy theorists, but also led to a general erosion of public trust in our media and institutions. We no longer have a common set of facts we can all agree upon; we only have bombast and hearsay, shouted across the political divide. Integrity and truth no longer matter; only who can get the sharpest zingers and the juiciest headlines that deliver clicks and eyeballs.

None of this should be surprising given what both Twitter and Facebook are. Fundamentally, they are marketing tools designed to promote the most virulent memes (in Dawkins’ sense of the word, as a catchy idea that travels well) and thus maximize “engagement” and “sharing.” Their algorithms act as a force of natural selection on a candidate population of quips, one-liners, clickbait, and repartees to select only those best-suited to tap into our basest human emotions, so that they get shared and reposted and thus infect the maximum number of brains possible.

Facebook and Twitter are platforms where subtlety and nuance get lost in a sea of paranoid accusations, wild hyperbole, vicious put-downs, and smug preaching-to-the-choir. They are platforms where the sensationalist headline gets thousands of retweets, and the sheepish retraction (if it exists) gets less than a hundred. (Guess which one people remember.) In short, they are platforms that are tailor-made for marketing, and thus for its public-sector twin, propaganda.

With social media, it’s as if the Axis powers no longer had to distribute leaflets via airplane, but could instead just whip up some catchy headlines like “You won’t believe why the Allies can’t win the war” and “11 reasons the resistance movement is a flop.” Toss enough of those into social media – it doesn’t even matter which ones are true or false, and you can tweak the headlines as you go – and you’ve got a recipe for a public discourse that sounds less like that of an informed democracy and more like the swirling cacophony of everybody’s id talking at the same time.

Screenshot from "Dunkirk" showing soldier holding leaflet saying "we surround you"

Credit: Dunkirk

I work for a browser vendor, and I’ve even contributed code to a JavaScript library that appears on Twitter’s frontend (LocalForage, used on Twitter’s mobile site). So in 2016 I came to feel implicitly responsible for the building of a technical infrastructure that, at this moment, looks to me like the grotesque monster at the end of Akira slouching its way towards Bethlehem to devour what’s left of the civilized world. It’s not exactly a vision that makes me feel chipper when I’m getting ready for work in the morning.

Twitter fatigue

More than anything, 2016 was the year when I started to question my Twitter addiction, and to resolve to use it less and less. Today I don’t even have the Twitter app installed, and I barely visit the mobile site either. Most of my idle thoughts go to Mastodon instead (which is a subject for another post).

In 2016, the tenor of Twitter seemed to me to change dramatically for the worse. Suddenly, everything became politicized. Somehow the newfound eagerness to howl bloody murder at one’s political opponents translated into an eagerness to howl at everyone about everything. Increasingly I felt I was watching people break off into rival factions and hurl insults at each other.

Perhaps I felt this most directly when I was attacked for a slide in a presentation I gave at Fronteers Conf saying “In 2016, it’s okay to build a website that doesn’t work without JavaScript.” I already covered that surreal experience in this post, but essentially a photo of me made the rounds on social media, and without even knowing who was pictured or what the context of the talk was, people decided I needed to be taken down a peg. And so I watched my Twitter feed devolve into a nasty pile-on of insults, snark, and condemnation, all because I had expressed a controversial opinion on (wait for it) a programming language.

I have nothing against Fronteers Conf, and I appreciate that many of the conference organizers and attendees defended me on Twitter when the discussion started to take a turn for the ugly. But honestly, this incident is one of the main reasons I stopped speaking at conferences.

At tech conferences, you’re encouraged to “interact” via Twitter, which is a platform not known for valuing nuance or context. So instead of my 40-minute talk being about, you know, the talk, its defining moment was a bite-sized nugget blasted out on social media, as well as the ensuing uproar. (I noticed that most of the audience had their eyes glued to their phones for the last 20 minutes after that slide, so certainly what I said in those moments didn’t matter.)

Essentially, everyone on Twitter decided that it was time for the Two Minutes Hate, and mine was the face that needed to be snarled at. I got a small taste of the Justine Sacco experience, and frankly it felt awful. Moreover, it didn’t feel like a good trade-off for the hours poured into preparing a talk, practicing it, and flying out to the conference venue.

This experience has also made me ambivalent about all the other moral crusades that seem to be carried out regularly on Twitter these days. Did the target really deserve it? Or was it just a clumsy gaffe brought about by jetlag, a half-hearted joke that landed badly, or a poorly-worded slide (mea culpa), and so maybe we should cut them some slack?

Or, even if they deserved it, is all the wailing and pearl-clutching really good for the rest of us? It certainly earns us likes and retweets, which can feel like virtue in the heat of the moment. But the more I see these dog-piles, the more I get the sense that what we’re feeling isn’t the noble élan of the virtuous, but instead the childish glee of having the unpopular kid on the playground laying crumpled at your feet and the crowd at your back. (Or the relief of being in the crowd, and not on the ground getting dirt kicked into your face.)

Breaking up with Twitter is hard to do

In the tech industry, though, quitting Twitter is no easy feat. Especially if you work in developer relations or evangelism, Twitter might be a fundamental part of your job description: promoting your company’s content, answering questions, “engaging the community,” etc. Your follower count, especially if it numbers in the thousands or tens of thousands, may also be seen as a job asset that’s hard to give up.

Twitter itself also serves as a personal identifier in an industry where schmoozing and networking can be critical career boosters. At developer conferences, speakers often introduce themselves using their Twitter handle (which might be discreetly emblazoned on every slide) and then end the talk by imploring their audience to follow them on Twitter. It’s not even necessary to say “Twitter” or use the Twitter logo; if you put an @-sign in front of it, there’s no confusion about which social network you’re referring to.

In blog posts, it’s also common to link to someone’s Twitter handle when you mention them by name. Forget your personal blog or myname.comtwitter.com/myname acts as your unique identifier, and the preferred way of discovering your work, contacting you, and judging your “influencer” status by your number of followers. Think of it as your personal baseball card, complete with your photo, team (company) affiliation, and key career stats.

Twitter is so inescapably embedded in the tech industry, especially in my corner of it (JavaScript/web/whatever you want to call it) that it can be maddening if you’ve resolved to quit it. For better or worse, it’s where news hits first, it’s where software releases and blog posts are announced, and it’s how you keep up with friends and colleagues in the industry.

The irony is not lost on me that, if I even want people to read this blog post, I’m going to need to post it to Twitter. Such is the degree of Twitter’s dominance, at least in the crowd I run with. To some extent, if you’re not on Twitter, you’re just not part of the conversation.

Alternatives do exist. For a hot moment last April, I was hoping that Mastodon (ad-free, open-source, no algorithmic timeline) might build up enough momentum to overtake Twitter, but unfortunately that wave seems to have crested. That said, I’m still betting on it in the form of running my own Mastodon server, despite having few illusions that it can eclipse Twitter anytime soon. But again, that’s a subject for another post.

One thing my personal exodus toward Mastodon did teach me, though, is that I can live without social media. Not only am I spending more time on Mastodon than on Twitter these days, but I’m spending less time on social media in general, to which I credit both sleeping better and feeling less anxious and distracted all the time. No more staying up late to read about the scandal du jour or hearing hot takes on the latest political calamity that, this time, will surely bring about the end of the world. No more watching people tear each other down over petty grievances, or hearing the sanctimonious echo-chamber sermons of those utterly convinced of their own righteousness.

With less time devoted to social media, I’m also enjoying more non-tech activities to help heal my burnout: spending time with my wife, visiting friends and family, getting back into cycling, reading books, playing guitar. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll feel well enough to hop back onto the GitHub treadmill, although it’s tough because it’s only when I stepped off that I realized how fast the dang thing was going.

Advice for Twitter expats

What are the good alternatives to Twitter? Besides Mastodon (which is really more of a friendly chat room these days), I’ve found you can get decent tech news from:

  • Hacker News (Yeah yeah, just don’t read the comments. Or read n-gate for a satirical take.)
  • Lobsters (Like HN, but more technical.)
  • EchoJS (A bit spammy, but occasionally there are gems.)
  • The webdev and javascript subreddits (Again, the comments don’t come recommended.)

I don’t find these sites to be a full supplement for Twitter, but maybe that’s a good thing. The less time I spend on Twitter, the less I expose my mind to toxic brain-viruses, the less I feel goaded by some titillating comment to respond with my own mental detritus (thereby stimulating others to do the same), and the less I contribute to the propaganda machine that is mayyybe bringing about the fall of civilization. All of which is pure goodness to a burned-out techie like me.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by michelparpaillon on August 23, 2017 at 8:10 AM

    Hi Nolan. Sad news… Hope you’re getting some rest and enjoying life as you should be. Cheers

    Reply

  2. If it helps, I found this post because I’m subscribed to your RSS feed. :)

    Reply

    • Me too! I still have a hard time seeing Twitter as a replacement for RSS. Maybe I’m just using it wrong, but there’s so much garbage getting in the way of stuff I actually want to read…

      Reply

  3. This is a post (which I found via RSS) after my own heart.

    I always mostly despised Twitter for this exact reason. I have joined it a few times, but never lasted more than a couple months before getting disgusted and exhausted. I always held on to Facebook because it’s where my actual friends and family were. I got to see pictures of their kids and share pictures of my own. Before the election, I deleted my Facebook as well. I was much, much happier without that inundation.

    Of course, I ended up rejoining Facebook for groups/events. For a while, I remained friendless (in Facebook’s eyes) and only recently reopened that door. I already consider it a mistake. Once again, I’m inundated by the various scandals du jour.

    Sometimes the old technologies are best: RSS, message boards/forums, etc.

    I think you’re on the right path here. Good luck.

    Reply

  4. This was a great read. I enjoyed it.
    While I am not an “influencer” I do create content that goes out via multiple social media avenues. Of all of them I find Twitter to be the least helpful.
    I avoided Twitter for many, many years, until an event I volunteered for use it as their primary source of communication (it was a horrible experiance.) How do you expect me to help people if I am on my phone? I am not going to look at my phone every second of the day just to see what nonsense you “need” me to know.
    The ONLY reason I even have a Twitter now is to push content out through that avenue.

    Social media also takes time away from creating things. I can’t paint if I am looking at meme’s or rants or other inconsequential things all day. My creativity tanks because I am frustrated and distracted.

    I would rather have meaningful interactions in person, via FaceBook (more meaningful then Twitter,) or in a letter or email.

    Thanks for the read. Enjoy your new outlook :)

    Reply

  5. As in Seveneves, no good comes from social media.

    Best of luck to you in the future :)

    Reply

  6. Posted by eveworthy on August 23, 2017 at 9:34 PM

    Saw this tweet and thought of you!
    All my prayers,
    Grandma Eve

    Reply

  7. Posted by FrankG on August 24, 2017 at 3:59 AM

    Darn that’s a shame.

    I have to disagree with your view on Trump, however. He was voted in partly because of the illiberality of the democrats/progressives.

    For instance, the constant emotional blackmail aimed at anyone who doesn’t agree with the latest new equality dogma. Or, more concretely, the removal of the right to refuse to cooperate in private business that many States are making law. Ie, in respect of gays.

    A true liberal democracy is where the laws created don’t remove the liberties of minorities in the private domain. But in many States and in the UK, many religious folk are now defacto 2nd class citizens, even without a direct decree to that effect. This is justified as giving ‘more freedom’ against prejudice, but the reality is that it is a special privilege right of some over others.

    Trump hasn’t threatened such measures, rather he has implicitly promised to role them back as far as he can. He may be a fool, even a cunning fool, but the progressive/democrats were the cause of his rise.

    The cradles of modern Western Liberal Democracy are shattered and are no longer the beacon of liberty that they were.

    Reply

  8. I’ve thought about quitting twitter myself for some of the same reasons. I follow pretty much all tech related accounts. I plan on going through and finding anyone that has a blog and adding it to an RSS feed to still keep up with tech news.

    Reply

  9. if I even want people to read this blog post, I’m going to need to post it to Twitter

    That’s the last place I want my news from. I read this from the RSS feed, I just wish there was a better alternative to Feedly.

    But yeah, I get you. I’m burnt out on Twitter / Facebook and constant GitHub notifications. In fact, I got pretty sick of all my data (not just social) being out there, and (with help from https://www.privacytools.io/) started taking control of my data.

    Reply

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