‘ Knowledge troubles, but so too does the slower and more private play of remembering ‘: Olivia Laing on life after Twitter. Photograph: Matt Writtle/ Evening Standard/ Eyevine
After finishing the book, I changed my relationship with social media. I removed my Facebook account, but stood on Twitter, even though it had become palpably more adversarial, less friendly. Trolls, pile-ons, policing, the endless accusation of excellence signalling- it was increasingly hard to feel safe enough to say anything at all. The ground I didn’t leave is because it had become the place I came to for political news, especially during the seismic modifications of 2016.
That year I slept with my laptop on the pillow beside me, waking multiple times in the night to check my feed. Twitter was my constant companion, the lens through which I watched the EU referendum, Brexit, the American presidential safarus and Trump’s election. I couldn’t look away. Even though I suspected that the velocity and strangeness of happens “ve got something” to do with social media, I still belief social media was the place to find out what was really going on, hours before the clumsy newspapers caught up.
I wasn’t so much addicted to the spectacle as to the ongoing certainty that the next click, the next association, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I speak every last conspiracy theory and wove tweet, the wage would be illumination. I would eventually be able to understand not just what was happening but what it intended and what causes it would have. But there was never a definitive resolution. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing hypothesi and mistrust.
I recently read a description of the effects of the deeply addictive opioid OxyContin as total contentment and satiation.” I feel as if I have unexpectedly gained all that I require in living and no longer have anything to fear ,” a used said.” I am perfectly content both mentally and emotionally .” You can at least understand the appeal of that. But the stimulant I’d get robbed on was terror. I stood up all night construe Nazi websites and Reddit weaves by “incels” that proposed the answer to so-called sex difference, by which they signified a woman’s right not to have sex with someone, was redistribution, by which they signified the loss of a woman’s right not to have sex with person, which the last time I searched was announced rape.
The more perturbed I became, the more urgent the need for understanding. On 2 August 2017, I decided to start writing down everything I encountered online, from the unimportant to the momentous, in travel documents that over the next 7 weeks became a novel, Crudo , writes to real occasion. I was conducting an experiment. I wanted to record both the news itself and the effect of consuming it in a historically unprecedented mode, to capture what it was like to live alongside- inside- such a fast-moving cycle, to be saturated by revile information.
The thing that attained Twitter at once exciting and terrifying was that it perpetually overwrote itself, a spate of information, brand-new happenings stacking up by the second, so that the events of even a week ago seemed ancient, just recallable record. It gone by too hurriedly to process and so I stood at the edge of the stream and fished occasions out, to be considered more slowly.
The first item I recorded was Trump’s sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, “whos been” so briefly been the White House director of communications that a joke went round that return flies had longer life spans: 56,152 likes. Over the course of the summer, I interrupted my own bridal to record the abandonment of Steve Bannon. Twitter was the source of news, it was where I found out about the Grenfell fire and militias marching in Charlottesville, but it was also increasingly the information itself. Trump used it to threaten nuclear war, taking escapes to trashtalk the FailingNewYorkTimes. Hunched over my laptop, I made everything is down.
One of the reasons I’d told myself I needed to be online, especially as the world careened to the far right, was that it was our tariff as citizens to be educated, alerting, awake. But recording the process over months been demonstrated by that the actual consequence was that I was hypnotised by fright. The more internet-reality I devoured, the more I sat there, stupefy, paranoid, drained of hope.
I decided to leave not because I didn’t want to know how bad things were. I didn’t want to cut out the word alone, like those smug people who move to the lumbers or give up dealing with money and don’t realise the reason it works for them is because they’re white and 22. I left because I felt like my ability to act or see or even feel was being marred irreparably. All I could do was act. I didn’t want to be so polarised, or to lose all faith in the ability of humans to learn, to discuss, to change their imaginations. I didn’t want to lie in a soap of poison run by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
I deactivated my history in the autumn of 2018, telling myself that I was just going to take a short break. As long as you log in within 30 dates, you can keep your account, even though they are you deactivate it again immediately. At first I author the 30 day appointments in my journal, but at some item I forgot and when I logged back in the network didn’t know who I was.
It was sucha relief to be offline. If I encounter beings, I didn’t already is well aware they had once expressed an opinion I despised. Instead I could talk to them. Maybe I’d change their imagination. Maybe they’d change mine. I was sick of dogma. What I wanted was subtlety and openness. Honestly, I think that’s where convert comes in the world, and not by shaming and exiling parties on account of statements they’ve typed into a website.
A 2014 examine by Dutch neurologists suggests that when people ensure an accident, they can’t at first empathise, let alone reflect, make decisions or act, because they are attacked by an instantaneous flight/ solidify/ push response, which has to wear off before they can think in more helpful practices. It seems to me now that being on Twitter was like watching a ceaseless auto crash.
Over the years that I was there I discovered footage of hundreds of people killed and injured: African-American husbands choked to fatality by lily-white police, stonings, assassinates, a humanity in a cage set on fire. I wanted to know what was happening in the nations of the world, but there was never enough time to process the information, to consider responses or reasons, even to mourn. Everything happened on a knife-edge of psychological actions, which in turn fuelled more embarrassment and distress.
I didn’t leave social media altogether. I stood on Instagram, where there is very little politics and very little disagreement. Looking at a photo of plots and food makes a nice antidote to the book I’m working on now, which is about violence and discretion. Although the material is just as heavy as the things I find on Twitter, I’m encountering it mainly by way of journals, which contextualise and analyse the raw data of distress.
Because of Brexit, this spring I’ve spot myself hemming back towards my old-time dress of report intake. For the past few weeks, after everyone has gone to bed, I gorge on newspaper websites. But no matter how much knowledge I acquire, the narration has moved somewhere completely unexpected by the next day. The message isn’t helping , not in its accelerate and not in its abundance. Knowledge substances, but so too does the slower and more private act of thinking.
It seems to me that the most dangerous state to be in right now is numbness, and that our numbness facilitates precisely the savageries it’s was triggered by, a vicious circle it’s hard to know how to stop. Over the last two years, I’ve become preoccupied by something the painter Philip Guston was indicated in 1968. He’d been thinking about the Holocaust, especially about the concentration camp Treblinka. The mass killing wreaked, he illustrated, because the Nazis purposely persuasion numbness in both the victims and the tormentors. And yet, a small group of prisoners did manage to escape.” Imagine what a process it was to unnumb yourself, to see it totally and to bear witness ,” he said.” That’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this .”
I think about those words each time I wonder about returning to Twitter, climbing back into that numbing soak of disastrous intelligence. He didn’t mean flee as in run away from reality. He made unspring the trap. He signified cut through the wire.
Crudo by Olivia Laing issued by Picador in paperback at PS8. 99. To ordering a facsimile, go to guardianbookshop.com