Why I’m deleting my Twitter account

When I first got on the Internet back in the 90’s, it felt like a cool underground rock concert. Later on, it seemed like a vast public library, maybe with a nice skate park nearby. Today it feels more like a shopping mall. The transition happened so gradually that I barely noticed it.

Hanging out with your friends at the mall can be fun. But it can also be tiring. You’re constantly surrounded by ads, cheery salespeople are trying to get you to buy stuff, and whatever you eat in the food court is probably not great for your health.

For the past few years, I’ve subsisted on a media diet that mostly came from Twitter, consisting of “snackable” news articles with catchy headlines, shareable content with wide appeal (baby koala cuddles baby cat, how cute!), and righteous outrage at whatever horrible political thing was happening that day.

Twitter was often the first thing I looked at when I picked up my phone in the morning, and the last thing I browsed late into the night, endlessly flicking my thumb over the feed in the hope that something good would pop up. The light of the smartphone was often the only thing illuminating my bedroom before I finally turned in (always much too late).

All of this content – cat pictures, articles, memes, political hysteria – came streaming into my eyeballs in a rapid and seemingly random order, forcing my brain to make sense of the noise, to find patterns in the data. It’s addictive.

But the passivity of it, and the endless searching for something good to watch, meant that for me Twitter had essentially become television. Browsing Twitter was no more edifying than flipping through channels. At the end of a long, multi-hour session of Twitter-surfing, I could barely recall a single thing I had read.

Social media as public performance

Twitter is unlike television in a few crucial aspects, though. First off, the content is algorithmically selected, so whatever I’m seeing is whatever Twitter has determined to be most likely to keep my eyes on the screen. It’s less like I’m surfing through channels and more like the TV is automatically flipping from channel to channel, reading my eye movement and facial expressions to decide what to show next.

Second, Twitter has become an inescapable part of my professional life. My eight thousand-odd Twitter followers are a badge of honor, the social proof that I am an important person in my field and worthy of admiration and attention. It also serves as a measure of my noteworthiness in comparison to others. If someone has more followers than me, then they’re clearly more important than I am, and if they have less, well then maybe they’re an up-and-comer, but they’re certainly not there yet.

(This last statement may sound crass. But any avid Twitter user who hasn’t sized someone up by their follower count is either lying to themselves, or is somehow immune to the deep social instincts that mark us as primates.)

For the kinds of professionals who go to conferences, give public talks, and write blog posts, Twitter serves as a sort of “Who’s Who,” except that everyone is ranked by a single number that gives you a broad notion of their influence and prominence.

I’m sure many of my friends from the conference and meetup scene will look at my announcement of deleting my Twitter account as a kind of career suicide. Clearly Nolan’s lost his mind. He’ll never get invited to a conference again, or at the very least he won’t be given top billing. (Conference websites usually list their speakers in descending order of Twitter followers. How else can you tell if a speaker is worth listening to, if you don’t know their follower count?)

Much of that is probably true. I used to get a lot of conference invites via Twitter DMs, and those definitely won’t be rolling in anymore. Also, anyone who wants to judge my influence by a single number is going to have a hard time: they’ll have to piece it together from blog posts and search results instead. Furthermore, my actual influence will be substantially reduced, as most of the hits to my blog currently come from Twitter.

Why I’m done with Twitter

Thing is, I just don’t care anymore. I’ve spent years pouring my intellectual and emotional labor into Twitter, and for countless reasons ranging from harassment to Nazis to user-hostile UI, platform, and algorithm choices, they’ve demonstrated that they don’t deserve it. I don’t want to add value to their platform anymore.

To me, the fact that Twitter is so deeply embedded into so many people’s professional lives is less a reason to resign myself to keep using it, and more a reason to question and resist its dominance. No single company should have the power to make or break someone’s career.

Twitter has turned a wide variety of public and quasi-public figures – from Taylor Swift to a dude who speaks at tech conferences – into brand ambassadors for Twitter, and that ought to worry us. Despite what it claims, Twitter is not a neutral platform. It’s an advertising company with a very specific set of values, which it expresses both in how it optimizes for its core constituents (advertisers) and how it implements its moderation policies (poorly).

Well, it may indeed be a bad career move for Taylor Swift to abandon her Twitter account, but for a (very) minor public figure like myself, it’s a small sacrifice to make to knock Twitter down a peg. My career will survive, and my mental health can only improve by spending less time flicking a smartphone screen into the late hours of the night.

That’s why I’m deleting my account rather than just signing out. I want my old tweets to disappear from threaded conversations, from embeds in blog posts – anything that’s served from twitter.com. I want to punch a hole in Twitter’s edifice, even if it’s a small one.

I’ve backed up my tweets so that anyone who wants to see them still can. I’m also still fairly active on Mastodon, and as always, folks can follow me via my blog’s RSS feed or contact me via email.

This isn’t me saying goodbye to the Internet – this is me saying goodbye to the shopping mall. But you can still find me at the rock concert, in the public library, and in the park.

14 responses to this post.

  1. I have never been on twitter… but this was a great read. I think I need to do the same about facebook though…


  2. Posted by Michel Parpaillon on November 15, 2017 at 2:07 PM

    Great article Nolan. I wish you the best (RSS feed team !)


  3. You’ll be fine!

    Your rationale is much better articulated than mine. TV is an accurate metaphor.


  4. Even though I understand your decision, it feels a lot like you had an unhealthy relationship with Twitter, much like an alcoholic needs to stop drinking rather than taking it easy. Even though Twitter’s only way of sustaining itself is ads, you could find a middle ground where most (if not all) of the content you see, regardless of viewing algorithms, is always relevant. I see what you mean with the TV comparison, but the big difference is that you choose who to follow and unfollow, whereas all TV channels are set. If you can’t stand someone you just remove them from your feed., done.
    I speak from personal experience too: I’ve joined the industry only a few years ago, and have been following your blog for almost all that time. I had never actually used Twitter up until a few months ago, when it was clear it was the easiest place to find great pieces about software engineering. That’s probably why it’s easy for me, not having witnessed its rise and big change, but for now I have literally never seen something I didn’t like or find interesting.


  5. Looking forward to more excellent Premium Content from you on Masto… ;)


  6. Never been into Twitter much. But I guess now I will need to cut off from Facebook. Thanks for the article Nolan. You blogs are always interesting and useful.


  7. […] « Why I’m deleting my Twitter account […]


  8. Posted by kevinflo on November 27, 2017 at 9:38 PM

    DUDE YES. I am in the middle of doing pretty much the same thing. I did it at almost exactly the same time too. THIS IS SO FUN I AM SO HYPED ON INTERNETTING A BETTER WAY. I feel like this is going to be a movement of some kind in the next few years.


  9. Totally agree with you – your first few paragraphs were a mirror of my life and I came to the same decision a few days ago – I’m looking at Mastodon, first as a technical plaything, but also to see if its possible to fix all those things I hate about today’s social media – we can do this! :)


  10. […] read this book well after my own breakup with Twitter, but a lot of what I wrote in those three blog posts is echoed in this book. It’s a sobering […]


  11. Posted by Kevin Brown on January 7, 2018 at 3:08 PM

    I was reading your article on “problems with promises”, and poked around your site a bit. There’s a lot of writers in the tech field that I respect and enjoy reading, but you’re the first in a long time that has really deeply impressed me. Best of luck in all you do.


  12. […] I deleted my Twitter account a little over a year ago, and I have no regrets about that. […]


  13. […] read a lot of books last year. I chalk this up to many things, but quitting Twitter was probably a big one. Without Twitter, I actually run out of things to read on the internet. At […]


  14. […] been almost five years since I deleted my Twitter account. I didn’t just delete the app or deactivate – I deleted my whole account and my entire […]


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