The Mixed Bag That Is My Twitter Bat Mitzvah

Not that my actual bat mitzvah was so great, either.

Last week, Twitter notified me it had been 13 years since I’d joined—so basically, it’s my Twitter bat mizvah. My first thought was My God, I want those years back. Then I remembered how much I’ve benefitted from being on the site.

As the Find/Replace function in Microsoft Word has recently shown me, I tend to use the term “mixed bag” a lot to neatly sum up things that cut both ways. Twitter is one of those things.

I wish I knew how to quickly locate my first tweet from April, 2008. Altough, come to think of it, maybe I don’t. It was probably something dumb like, “Is this thing on?” or “Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.” Just as likely, I probably referred to myself in the third person, as we were all doing on Facebook back then. Oy. Let’s just hope Twitter doesn’t launch an On This Day function like Facebook has (well, beyond notifiying you of your anniversary), because I don’t think I could surive the embarrassment.

I don’t remember a lot about my early days on the site, but I know that in a short amount of time, I began organically making professional and personal connections there, many of which have lasted and led to others. I remember explaining the difference between Facebook and Twitter this way, to people who didn’t understand the newer platform: Facebook is for connecting with people you already know; Twitter is for connecting with people you might have never met, but have things in common with.

I don’t mean to make this post an advertisement for Twitter. There’s so much wrong with it, and my relationship to it. Like just about everyone who’s extremely online, I’m clearly addicted to it. It’s responsible for the spread of so much dangerous misinformation, about the 2020 Presidential Election, Covid, and everything else that’s politically polarized. It invites and amplifies hate speech—one kind of violence which can sometimes lead to physical violence, offline.

But at least for me, it is a necessary evil, and it’s not even 100% evil. Part of what makes it difficult for me to dispense with Twitter is that, all those legitimate concerns aside, it has been great for me in a variety of ways. As I wrote in a recent essay for The Guardian, for a New York City expat like me, who’s felt disconnected from the lit and digital media worlds I onced inhabited in the city, Twitter has been a way to not only feel as if I’m still connected, but to remain so. Again and again, it has literally hooked me up with gigs and jobs in publishing, academia, and digital media, and I have used it to connect others with gigs and jobs.

Each time I lead my essay-writing and anthology-editing courses, at least one student asks whether it’s important to be on social media, more specifically Twitter, in order to advance as a writer and/or editor. I always say that it’s not required, but recommended. I explain that I wouldn’t have had most of the opportunities that came my way in the past 13 or so years without it, and it’s the truth. As a career tool, it’s been better than LinkedIn by orders of magnitude.

Twitter has also helped me stay current and relevant. Recently I went through edits on something I wrote. The editor I worked with is not on social media at all, and never has been. She didn’t get half my references, and I thought, This is a profesesional liability. I was reminded of tests I had to take when I applied for jobs at newspapers when I was coming up, where I had to demonstrate that I knew who politicians and business leaders and entertainers were, before they’d hire me. If I were in the position to hire editors today, I don’t think I’d pick someone who had no social media presence or awareness. People who don’t engage with social media seem out of touch.

As a dorky “old,” I’ve found Twitter handy as a way to easily catch up on pop culture and “the lingo” as they say. Early on I emailed a younger friend to ask what the word “troll” meant, because I noticed that she and others used the term so frequently in their tweets. This is a person I met initially through online interaction (not on Twitter) who became a friend IRL.

I’ve also developed several actual friendships with people I first met on Twitter. In pretty much every case it’s been a fellow writer or editor or teacher (or all of the above, as is the case for me). Twitter did its job, connecting me with people I hadn’t yet met but had things in common with, and now we hang out, in person (especially now that we’re vaxxed).

That said, more than once I’ve misread other Twitter users’ cues and mistaken those people for true friends when they’ve later shown themselves to be largely uninterested in me, or interested in me for unkind reasons—making fun of me behind my back in ways that have come back to me, through the grapevine. Sometimes I obsess about whether something I’ve posted—usually something earnest—has become fodder for one or more of them. I think about getting off Twitter because everything about that whole chain of events is just toxic. Then I realize I can’t, for good reasons and bad.

I literally considered deleting my account recently but thought, “Well, I should wait until after my book deadline because I don’t think I can handle going through withdrawal right now.” Also, once my book is done I’m going to need Twitter to help me find new work. I can’t risk deactivating and losing my contacts.

In the past year, Twitter’s doubled-edged-sword has been especially pronounced. Before Troll-in-Chief Donald Trump was banned following the January 6th insurrection—actually, through his entire presidency—I stayed anxiously glued to the site as much to make sure I wasn’t in imminent danger as to stay in the loop professionally.

It was exhausting. But I also don’t know how I would have gotten through the loneliness of this pandemic without Twitter. In the space of a few months last year I lost my co-working space and my job came to an end. On both fronts, my daily interactions with colleagues came to an abrupt end. As a response, I found myself engaging with Twitter even more deeply than before. It numbed me and informed me, and helped me to feel less alone.

When I had thoughts about anything, the first place it occured to me to express them was Twitter. Sometimes I’ve regretted my rapidfire posts, and wondered whether I’ve lost my filter entirley. Did I expose myself too much, sharing too vulnerably? Was I too earnest again? How did those posts play to the cool kids of Internet High? I wonder why I even pay attention to the cool kids. I think, Should I mute this person…and that person…and that person? Then I wonder, Should I just close this tab? Maybe get off this thing? But I never do.

Working in isolation now, I tend to keep a tab open to Twitter all day, every day, the way I once kept Nick and Nite on as “company” when I lived alone in Manhattan. When I have insomnia at 3am, I check Twitter on my iPad. When I wake at 7am, I check it again. At night, when whatever show I’m watching isn’t gripping enough, I check it then, too. It’s not good.

The feeling of Twitter dependency is more acute than ever, and I don’t like that. This allure, the grip, of this thing is dangerously powerful. But I see people make a big show of leaving, only to return a week later. I keep telling myself that instead I can change my relationship to the site.

I just hope it’s not like all those other addictive substances that are nearly impossible to be moderate with—things you can only overcome your addiction to by quitting. Because I’m not going to kid myself; I know I’m not going anywhere.