Last weekend, I sent my last Twitter message: "Dear Twitter - Adios. Free at last. Free at last, Great God almighty I'm free at last." Since then I've had a number of politicians come up to me and say they can't believe I actually did it. Politicians are slaves to Twitter. We're junkies for immediate news and instantaneous feedback. But as one MP confessed to me, "I feel like I'm watching graffiti in a bathroom all day." He told me his dream was to one day retire and ditch Twitter forever.
Why wait, I asked?
I have to admit I wasn't planning to sever the Twitter feed, but like any dysfunctional relationship, sometimes it just hits you that the only thing you can do is cut your losses and get the hell out. Maybe it was the inanity of the last Tweet I'd received: "I hate you asshole - and you sing terribly." Or the second last tweet from some anonymous source holding me personally accountable for the fact that NDP leader Thomas Mulcair missed an interview. Or it could have been the racist troll who wanted to pick a fight with me over the Trayvon Martin killing.
Don't get me wrong; I am a huge fan of social media. And I do have a very thick skin. But are these really the kind of "conversations" I want to participate in? Being on Twitter is like being badgered by a drunk on a 24-hour bus ride.
As politicos, we're taught to embrace all things Twitter. We're supposed to champion the Twitterverse as inherently progressive, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. One friend went so far as to predict that, thanks to the unprecedented outpouring of BlackBerry clickety-clacks, Twitter will inevitably build ideas as complex as a Dickens novel or create responses as heroic as the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. Sorry, but three monkeys typing through all eternity won't pump out Hamlet, regardless of the fact that my Grade 10 teacher said it was statistically probable (athough I'm sure the monkeys would do fine on Twitter).
Technology is not neutral. Every new information technology has the power to both giveth and taketh away from the public conversation. It is vital for people to deconstruct how technologies affect and change our interactions. The upside to Twitter is that it serves as an amazing ticker tape of information. If you follow the right folk, you can sometimes get breaking news before it hits the mainstream. That's a pretty cool thing. If you're trying to bring attention to an issue, Twitter will certainly give you the jump.
But the ease of up-to-the-second commentary has meant that Twitter has begun to undermine fact checking and verification. For example, in response to the robo-fraud scandal I posted a humorous tweet calling for "international observers" to monitor Canada's next election. The next morning I woke up to find it had been used as a serious quote in a newspaper article.
If this were the only problem with Twitter, I'd tell myself to get with the times. But more and more Twitter seems to be morphing into a bully pulpit for trolls. It is a technology that favours the flash mob. In England, the racist takeover of some Twitter feeds has resulted in people going to jail. The digital mob is no different from a street mob. It can be excitable, good-natured or vicious, but don't ever mistake the mob for a democracy.
My insight into the dark side of the Twitter mob came during the Attawapiskat housing crisis of 2011. Thanks to an article in The Huffington Post Canada, the horrific conditions in Attawapiskat First Nation went viral around the world. Twitter played a role in raising awareness about the crisis. But it also gave a platform to a whole swath of angry white people. I will always remember the woman who tweeted that she hoped the people of Attawapiskat would "freeze to death" or the guy who sent me a tweet on Christmas Eve telling me to "eat shit."
Sure, other technologies have been used to transmit hate. But if these anonymous tweeters had called my house to deliver the same message, I'd consider it a crank call, maybe even worthy of a call to the cops. If they sent me a hate letter, I'd give them credit for taking the time to put ugly thoughts to pen and lick the stamp. These traditional forms of communication at least took effort. But Twitter is about instant gratification. There's no self-reflection and no way to apply the breaks. Tossing a hate bomb is the easiest thing in the world when you have a Twitter account with a fake name. It's a technology tailor made for the knee jerk reaction.
To be fair, during the Attawapiskat crisis, the positive messages greatly outpaced the hate mail. But one tweet really stood out. At the height of the crisis multinational giant General Electric tweeted their concerns about the horrific conditions in Attawapiskat. At the time, we hadn't been able to get a single aid agency or government official willing to help the people in crisis. And here was GE, the oil and gas giant that owns Universal, Comcast, NBC, taking a stand on Twitter.
Foolish me, I thought this would be a game changer. When my staff finally tracked down the thumbs behind the tweet, they were polite but very confused. Yes, they did tweet about Attawapiskat, but they were really at a loss as to why I expected them to get involved. I never heard from them again.
GE, a multinational powerhouse, had tweeted their concern; wasn't that enough? No it's not. Corporate responsibility can't be done in 140 characters. I had tracked down the sixth largest corporation in America and found that they were engaged in the same level of slacktivism as somebody sitting on a couch with a smart phone and a couple of bottles of beer. Talk about dumbing down. At the very least, it was a helpful reminder that real change still comes down to people being willing to step up to the plate and get involved.
So for those who love Twitter -- great, keep it up. Fight the good fight to reclaim the digital space from the morons and the haters.
As for me, I'm going back to the world of real people with real names who speak in sentences longer than 140 characters. Does this mean that I'm cutting myself off from the public? Hardly. I can barely keep up to those who contact me by phone, email, Facebook and old-fashioned mail.
Being free of the Twitter feed feels like I have gotten a small part of my life back.
If that means I'm no longer trending on Twitter, c'est la vie.
Follow Charlie Angus on Twitter: www.twitter.com/charlieangusNDP