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Why Twitter Brings Out My Worst Self (and perhaps yours)

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As a full-time freelance writer – having transitioned from law practice at midlife, accursed with all the selfish, self-doubting sensibilities that kind of crisis entails – Twitter brings out my absolute worst self. With my insuppressible, hereditary, Type-A personality, coupled with my raging but not formally diagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder, when I click on that deceptively peaceful, blue Twitter-bird icon, I transition into a digital-age monster.

I assume the same would be true for Facebook, Instagram, and all such forms of social media, but as Twitter is the only one of these soul-sapping hellscapes I’m on, this column concerns my Twitter peccadillos only – and, don’t take offense, I’m guessing perhaps some of yours, too. Caveat: this is not another one of those columns about how you, I, and all of us, really need to stop letting our smartphones consume us. Nor am I offering any pragmatic advice on how to use electronic devices less and more wisely, which really just means more intentionally.

I joined Twitter and click on that bird-of-distraction daily, more than I’d like to admit, with the sole intention of sharing my writing – which these days focuses, with the rare exception, on abolishing the death penalty, criminal justice reform, and reggae – with the world. Very quickly, just as with a drug or gambling addiction, and despite my own self-protestations, I became hooked.

The commonalities between casino slot-machines, with their various high and low-tech bells, lights, and whistles, and the Twitter platform, with its own adrenaline and endorphin boosters in the form of the “like” and “retweet” capabilities is jarring; indeed, once I wrote “America’s new president is like a gambler on an all-night binge in Atlantic City, compulsively feeding nickel-and-dime tweets, retweets and mentions into the slot-machine of his ego.”

But as much as I abhor Trump (and was on the record early and often about that), if I’m honest with myself when I’m gazing into the blue light of my phone, tweeting like a madman at people I know (but mostly people I don’t) – when I should be using that time to become a better writer, husband, pet owner, and person – I’m the new Trump of Twitter.

This is especially true when it comes to the topics I write on the most. But also any other random subject I’ve published a column about since devoting myself to writing including rescue dogs, skateboardinghomelessness, and gun control. (Anything I’ve written about and have an internet link to that I can easily attach to a tweet, a capability that is – as a writer and activist, dying to have his writing and arguments seen and heard by the world – akin to injecting a needle straight into a vein of an IV drug user.)

Because will I ever forget the times when famous reggae stars or Martina Navratilova or other Twitter account holders of note have retweeted my writing? No. And will I, unless and until I develop my own base of support – with legions of followers who will share anything I write or tweet thousands of times – be able to stop myself from trying to get them to share more of my own work? Doubtful! Especially since one of the more perverse attributes of Twitter is that while you might lose followers here and there with one or more “bad” tweets, the more you tweet, and the more successful you are at tweeting, the more your social empire grows. It’s the nature of the beast. An evil beast.

And if you actually have the stomach to follow me on Twitter, first, let me say, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. But also be forewarned: If you think you’re going to follow me and tweet about anything in my writing wheelhouse without subsequently being on the receiving end of a tweet from me, attaching a piece I’ve written on the subject at hand, you’d be wrong.

As much as I try to follow the advice of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus by “creating my own merit,” doing my own “useful work without regard to the honor or admiration [my] efforts might win from others,” when I stop checking my timeline and notifications to think about it, Twitter brings out my very worst, sometimes disingenuous, ingratiating, bullying even at times, know-it-all self.

All this being said, tweet-on undoubtedly I will, comforted slightly, as I hope you other Twitter account holders might be, by what H.L. Mencken wrote in his book on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “It is only by constant turmoil and conflict and exchange of views that the minute granules of truth can be separated from the vast muck of superstition and error.”

Unless you follow Trump. His tweets are only muck and error.

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Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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