Books

07.09.13

Goodbye to Twitter Part Two: Lessons Learned

Writers need mystery and really shouldn’t be on Twitter. Here’s what novelist Benjamin Anastas took away from his 508 days of tweeting.

This is the second installment in a two-part post on benjaminanastas.com. Read the first part here, about how Salman Rushdie’s tweets almost put the author off Twitter for good.

I put my qualms aside and continued my experimental foray into the Twittersphere. I even kept on following Salman Rushdie, and his Twitter feed grew on me a little, although I did find that when I turned back to my favorite book of his, Midnight’s Children, the entire enterprise was newly suspect. Does Saleem Sinai really have to be born at the stroke of midnight when India gains its independence? Why not 12:05 or 11:47? And the telepathic powers he shares with the other “midnight’s children”—isn’t the whole contrivance just a little Twittery? This is part of what makes spending time on Twitter so tiresome, at least for me: the endless personalizing of events both great and small, the human need to play pundit with the forces that overarch our lives, to feel like we’re participating.

I did like exploring Twitter as a new written territory, though, and seeing what was possible to communicate in a 140-character tweet. Who did it well and found a voice of their own despite the limitations. Who didn’t bother to tweet coherently most of the time and still had a million followers begging for attention. I clicked more links on Twitter than I ever do on Facebook, partly because the veneer of personal connection has been stripped away and the communication is so much more telegraphic. Facebook is where you post your vacation pictures or connect with old friends; Twitter is all about work.

That’s another reason why I never cottoned to it. It did feel like work—and the wrong kind at that. It’s all ephemera, meant for instant consumption and destined for replacement by the avalanche of tweets to follow. (If you don’t believe me, look at some of the estimates for the lifespan of a typical tweet. This excludes, of course, the data being hoarded by the N.S.A.) I’d done some homework, so I had a pretty good idea of how often I should tweet in a day; that I should be sparing when it came to retweets; that following was a good way to gain followers; that if I wanted to gain an audience on Twitter—and keep as many of them as possible from un-following me—I had to offer something beyond a promotional platform for my book, an endless stream of reviews, events, links to Q&As, retweets of the users who read the book and tweeted me directly. Then you might as well be Tide laundry detergent. (But wait, Tide has 101,983 followers on Twitter! Who are they? What’s wrong with them?) I had to give my followers “me” the writer, or at least some version of me that would amuse, enlighten, or strike a chord in 140-character bursts, make their lives better for following me, or at least more interesting. If I could do that, the marketing wisdom goes, they would show their loyalty by buying my book, pushing it on friends and coming out to my readings. Or at least I hoped they would.

That was the bargain. It wasn’t quite a devil’s bargain. But it felt murky enough to me that I could never quite buy in all the way. I felt needy.

I came to Twitter because I had a book to sell, and my misgivings about the whole enterprise meant that I would never be any good at it. A phrase comes to mind: I was “pissing into the void.”

Writers are generally vain, needy, and shut inside for most of the day listening to the voices in their head, so when they come out, their behavior can be erratic.

For 1 year, 4 months and 22 days—or 508 days total—Twitter became part of my daily thinking ritual. Should I post that thought as a tweet? How about a picture of that lost parrot poster I saw at the park? Would that be funny? If I’m in Berkeley, is it worth tweeting about the reading I’m giving tonight in case some of my followers live out here? I never really tweeted enough to make it a worthwhile enterprise, not by any honest cost-benefit analysis (hours devoted to Twitter v. book sales), and I’ve come to doubt Twitter’s value as a marketing platform anyway. It’s much better at delivering news from the ground in a crisis or providing color-commentary for the Super Bowl ads. But I did like having an outlet for ideas that had no other place and would have vanished otherwise.

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I also liked hearing directly from the readers who found me on Twitter, like the one who tweeted this picture from Instagram of my memoir in her handbag:

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But really, aside from these nice side benefits, the whole thing is a boondoggle, at least it is for us. And by “us” I mean anyone who isn’t already a celebrity, a media star, an established brand, the literary equivalent of a laundry detergent. And even then I have a hard time seeing what being on Twitter gets you, other than the open and never-ending opportunity to waste a shitload of time you could be spending a lot more productively elsewhere. (Unless your personal assistant or your team of interns handles your Twitter feed, in which case I hope you’re enjoying your nice hot bath while the staff takes turns reading the daily blogs aloud to you.)

Joining Twitter doesn’t really make any sense for most writers. I mean, if you love it, go ahead. Keep tweeting your heart out. You have a steelier one than I do. My friend A. was right when he said that you had to enjoy Twitter for it make any sense. But here is why I think joining Twitter actually works against the writer’s interests—starting with the obvious and moving on from there. This list is totally unscientific and probably incomplete, so fire away in the comments if I’ve missed anything.

That Giant Sucking Sound? It’s Your Life

Twitter isn’t planning to go public in 2014 with an estimated market valuation of $11 billion because it’s in the democracy business, or disaster recovery, or it likes helping out with your local Neighborhood Watch. It’s that valuable in market terms because it wants to own your eyes, and everything on Twitter—from its look, to its speed, to the 140-character limit of a tweet—is designed to create a hunger in you for what it offers, to keep you coming back for more. It’s fucking diabolical, but we’re all used to being hopeless click-addicts now. (I carry a warm Satanic object with me everywhere and pay $120 a month to let it steal my life.) Twitter works in direct proportion to how much time you spend on it: if you’re willing to burn entire days on end, you’ll have a satisfying time on Twitter with lots of links consumed, comments favorited, pithy exchanges with your followers and friends. If you just dip in from time to time, you’ll find that your response rate plummets. It’s the nature of the beast that you have to do your time if you want to join the conversation. If you don’t, you’re a stranger in Twitter Village and you’ll be treated accordingly by the natives: no replies, no retweets, no new followers, and a slow attrition of the ones you’ve already gained.

Twitter wants your life. Don’t give it up so easily.

Tweets Won’t Gain You Followers, Publishing in the Real World Will

I know there are tweets that go viral and wind up getting quoted in the mainstream media. There are #hashtags to carry every little tweet far and wide and retweets to carry you into a whole new universe of followers. But in my experience, the only way to give a consistent boost in your follower numbers is to publish something in print, or give an interview on broadcast media (TV or radio), or have a Q&A run in a prominent paper or literary website. It wasn’t anything I ever did on Twitter that attracted more followers—it was being a writer in real life. Which demands the same time that Twitter wants, except you get a much more palpable return from it.

There is Such a Thing as Too Much Cleverness

Exhibit A. That’s all I’ll say on the subject.

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Tweeting Doesn’t Connect, It Makes You Lonely

The glowing screen has a funny effect on the heart. It makes it want things that are elsewhere, always elsewhere. There is a longing built into our online lives that can lead us to healthy attachments with multiple partners, a kind of polyamory of the mind, but it can also encourage the furtive transmission of waxed-chest photos and cock-shots. (Sorry, Anthony Wiener. I can’t vote for you. I love a good second-act as much as anyone, but the relentless pandering gets me down.) These are extreme examples of the kind of lonely misfires that Twitter allows, but I felt the temptation to seek comfort from my Twitter feed often enough to realize that it was only a matter of time before I did something embarrassing, reached out to a stranger in a too familiar way or revealed something in a tweet that I would later regret. I’d written a memoir dappled with embarrassments so I already knew what that was like, and I wanted to retain whatever was left of my dignity.

For me, there was one sure way to tell if things were getting risky: I checked who I was following. If I’d followed 10 women in a row who all looked fantastic in their avatars (journalists, writers, the odd fashionista), it was time to take a break from Twitter and attend to my romantic life. And there are lots of crush-worthy avatars out there.

Picture a scene: it’s 10 in the morning, the coffee is already cold and I’m riveted to Maeve Reston’s Twitter feed for the second time that week, reading from the bottom up as she tweets from a Rand Paul rally in Simi Valley, California before heading to a three-day Mitt Romney retreat in Park City, Utah. Maeve, I type in my head, are your thumbs made of gold? The Romney keynote stirred me. Will you run away with me?

That’s what Twitter does. It chains you to your neediness.

Proximity Has a Price

Distance is the writer’s friend. It’s nice to break out from your seclusion every now and then and give a reading to a room of actual people, or visit a college class that’s reading one of your books, or introduce yourself to someone on the subway who’s got his nose in your first novel. (I’ve actually done that before and it’s fun.) But for the most part the old adage holds true: You should never meet your heroes. And if your heroes are writers, you really don’t want to meet them. Writers are generally vain, needy, and shut inside for most of the day listening to the voices in their head, so when they come out, their behavior can be erratic. There was the famous poet who once cornered the only black student in my graduate program at a party and fell into his arms from a combination of pills and liquor, murmuring “You look just like Prince …” Any woman under 30 who attends a summer writing conference like Breadloaf will learn who the gropers are right away and how to dodge them as artfully as possible.

Thanks to the whole “Thank you, Whitney” episode I stayed away from Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton when it came out this past fall, and I wonder if I’ll ever read it now that I don’t trust Midnight’s Children the way I once did. Mystery plays a big role in our love of books, and by using social media to promote yourself, you’re only demystifying your work for everyone who follows you. And that makes you lose potential readers.

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My Twitter account is deactivated now. I won’t miss it. I’ll let that nefarious little bird with its stock-options sing in someone else’s ear. The next thing to go is my Facebook author page. Will anybody miss it? No. And then I’ll go back to being a writer again. Just a writer. Not a writer who’s wasting his time on social media.