Local Peace Economy

I Gave Up Twitter for Lent: You Won't Believe What Happened Next

Life without social media can change your perspective.

Photo Credit: PiXXart / Shutterstock

I gave up Twitter for Lent. For the last two Lents, actually: 2017 and 2018.

I spoke with some journalist friends before Ash Wednesday, and their response was overwhelmingly: “You can’t give up Twitter.”

Well, it turns out I can give up Twitter, because I did. Just like I dumped Facebook years ago.

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People often ask how I hear about things, since I’m not on Facebook. My sense is they think Facebook is the only way to learn about parties or events, or organize protests, or stay connected to friends and family.

But here’s what I know to be true: If it’s important, I learn about it in the real world. I get personal phone calls and text messages from people I know, to let me know about parties, protests, concerts, family events, etc. People text me pictures. They share with me—directly—what is happening in their lives.

Being off Facebook creates the ultimate filter, and if you think you can’t organize without it, you’re wrong. The most effective organizing is happening in the real world. Just look at Oklahoma. Those teachers might be on Facebook, but they’re organizing and acting in the real world.

At first, giving up Facebook and Twitter was hard. The first week was almost excruciating. When it came to Twitter, I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to enjoy the constant stream of news, the random interactions, the little hits of dopamine with every retweet. All of a sudden, I had a lot more time on my hands. What to do on public transit? Waiting in a long line? When I needed a break from my own work?

In what began as a quest to stay current, last year I read a lot more news—just not what was coming through my Twitter feed. I spent more time on big mainstream news outlet websites. I listened to NPR and PRI. I read local newspapers from rural Michigan, Florida and Nevada.

Last year, I checked out newsrooms. I paid visits to offices that, as a freelancer, I don’t normally spend time in. A privilege, for sure.

This year, though, I gave up most news outlets too, with the exception of an occasional and disappointed look at the New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, and Fox News.

I also read lots of local newspapers, which seem to be a heck of a lot better at covering the United States than big, mainstream East Coast outlets are.

I also spent more time focused on my own work, and talking to strangers on public transit, Greyhound buses and other liminal spaces. I spent more time with friends and doing things I love, like reading books or watching the sunrise or sunset.

What I realized from these last two Lents has changed how I view media, and my hard-working colleagues in it. And it’s changed how I want to live my life: blissfully social media limited.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Trump and other celebrity news is passed from outlet to outlet, feed to feed, like herpes; a disease no one wants and no one wants to admit they have, and no one will say where they picked it up from. Yet people do pick it up through the intercourse of Twitter, and they spread it across the media landscape as if controlled by zombie bacteria.

  2. Newsrooms are insulated, artificial environments. Journalists aren’t out on the street. They aren’t in court (unless it’s a sensational celebrity trial, like Aaron Hernandez last year, which is breathlessly live-tweeted) and they certainly aren’t out talking to real Americans in places like Arkansas—and they don’t get the cultural and class nuances in those states. Rather, they are in offices in Boston or New York, having meetings about how to get people in “red” states like Kansas to read or listen to their news. 

  1. The people producing media—journalists, editors, producers—are plugged in. Constantly. They view the world through screens. But the screen isn’t the real world. There is an entire reality that doesn’t happen in the Twitter feed and isn’t being reported on. This is the reality of, increasingly, low- to no- income citizens. The digital gap is growing bigger even as I type. The obvious answer is covering issues in a way that reflects the people—don’t you want to know what’s really happening outside your silo? Poverty porn and further ghettoizing the marginalized is not the way to do this. Neither is parachuting in a team of journalists to Detroit (or Ohio, or Whereversville) for a day to champion some new plan marketed as a saving grace. Some of the most factually inaccurate reporting I’ve seen on Detroit has come from a famous and highly regarded “truth”-telling outlet doing just that. The tough questions don’t get asked, because they don’t know what the tough questions are. And the parachuters are spoonfed sources to champion a false narrative. Same goes for the luxury bus tours HuffPo champions. What an embarrassment. Don’t think America isn’t paying attention, because it is, and for every story the Blue Bubble coastal media gets wrong, or half-tells, another person is further disenfranchised, and the idea of fake news becomes more entrenched. This is a huge price to pay for the luxury of staying plugged into a machine—or riding in the luxury of a private bus—and it results in clickbait trash being force-fed for clicks.

  2. Where is America in mainstream media coverage? I promise you it’s not “The Nazi Next Door.” What the people want—and what democracy requires—is news that truly impacts and reflects America's citizenry. Not homepages filled with echo-chamber hot-takes of U.S. government lines on foreign conflicts and Donald Trump’s White House Season Two. Certainly, there is good reporting happening. But it shouldn’t be buried in a pile of garbage in a news feed. And it shouldn’t be difficult to get an editor to realize a story is happening. I pitched what is happening in Oklahoma to a prime political media outlet last fall: the exhaustion with business as usual, the corruption the people are tired of, the winds of political change coming to a boil. I could smell the protests coming. Yet the editorial gatekeeper told me, from his office in a skyscraper in Manhattan, that Oklahoma is white and red Republican, and no change could get a foothold there. Never mind the majority of registered voters in Oklahoma are either registered Democrats or unaffiliated. Never mind Bernie won the primary easily, or got more votes in the primary than Trump did. Never mind the state has the largest population of Native Americans, and a large African American population. Never mind that Oklahomans have woken up to the scams that have impoverished them. The political landscape has changed, but if you read the major political news sources, you won’t know that, because they aren’t telling you what is happening in little towns there, where oil derricks pump day and night and fossil fuel waste makes everyone sick. 

  1. Remember that time the Twitter discussion was about ending the Electoral College? Or changing the way the primaries function? Or promises to cover middle America more accurately? Tweeting (and I suspect all social media) gives one the false sense of doing something about something that is upsetting. But in reality, tweet storms and twitching (bitching on Twitter) accomplish little more than a dopamine hit. #BlackLivesMatter is a great hashtag and an important movement, but how many people are talking about law enforcement gun control in the real world? Or the economic protest that has sprung from #BlackLivesMatter? Preaching on Twitter—even with 20,000 retweets—is not the same as preaching on the Mount, or on the Mall to a crowd of 250,000. Sure, it’ll give you a dopamine hit, but black kids are still being killed by cops, and an economic movement is starting, but is being overlooked.

  1. Outrage hits are shared more than solution hits. Is that really what you want to be a part of?

  1. Life is too short to spend it plugged into a device you paid too much for, reading and watching lies mindlessly shared by people you may or may not know in order to sell you crap—ideas and products—you don’t need. 

What I affirmed in my off-Twitter time is that there is a whole world out here that is not represented online, and remaining in self-imposed silos disconnects us from the good ideas and real-world connectivity we all crave.

Yes, I know there are online communities that are saving graces for people. And I’m glad you clicked and have read this far. Thank you. What I’m saying is that there is community in the real world too, and it requires your care and attention, perhaps a bit more than your Insta does.

Will I stay on Twitter now that Lent is over? I don’t know. It’s calming not to be on social media. I enjoy not being bombarded by news posted as snark. So much of it is nothing more than judgments passed from overly confident know-it-alls who are more or less using Twitter to fart in public. I’ll stick with the real world, where mercifully, people are civilized enough to keep their bile to themselves—or at least polite enough to excuse themselves before going to the restroom, to put it where it belongs.

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Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.