‘ Knowledge topics, but so too does the slower and more private ordinance of recalling ‘: Olivia Laing on life after Twitter. Photograph: Matt Writtle/ Evening Standard/ Eyevine
After finishing the book, I changed my relationship with social media. I deleted my Facebook account, but bided on Twitter, even though it had become palpably more adversarial, little friendly. Trolls, pile-ons, policing, the endless accusation of dignity signalling- it was increasingly hard to feel safe enough to say anything at all. The conclude I didn’t leave is because it has now become the place I comes down to for political report, especially during the seismic converts 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 occasions “ve got something” to do with social media, I still felt 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 attach, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I speak every last conspiracy theory and wove tweet, the reward would be illumination. I would lastly be able to understand not just what was happening but what it made and what results it would have. But there was never a definitive conclusion. 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 equanimity and satiation.” I feel as if I have abruptly gained all that I want 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 stayed up all night construe Nazi websites and Reddit strands by “incels” that proposed the answer to so-called sexual inequality, by which they made a woman’s right not to have sex with person, was redistribution, by which they intended the loss of a woman’s right not to have sex with person, which the last time I seemed was called rape.
The more perturbed I became, the even more urgent the need for understanding. On 2 August 2017, I decided to start writing down everything I encountered online, from the inconsequential to the momentous, in official documents that over the next 7 weeks became a novel, Crudo , written in real epoch. I was conducting an experiment. I wanted to record both the bulletin itself and the effect of consuming it in a historically unprecedented channel, to capture what it was like to live alongside- inside- such a fast-moving cycle, to be saturated by revile information.
The thing that formed Twitter at once exciting and startling is because it invariably overwrote itself, a deluge of information, new things stacking up by the second, so that the events of even a week ago seemed ancient, barely recallable record. It gone by extremely rapidly to process and so I stood at the edge of the brook and fished things out, to think about more slowly.
The first component I recorded was Trump’s sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, who had so briefly been the White House director of communications that a joke went round that fruit flies had longer life spans: 56,152 likes. Over the course of the summer, I interrupted my own bridal to record the acceptance of Steve Bannon. Twitter was the source of bulletin, it was where I found out about the Grenfell fire and militias marching in Charlottesville, but it was also increasingly the word itself. Trump used it to threaten nuclear war, taking breaches to trashtalk the FailingNewYorkTimes. Hunched over my laptop, I wrote everything is down.
One of the same reasons I’d told myself I needed to be online, especially as the world lurched to the far right, was that it was our imperative as citizens to be educated, notify, awake. But recording the process over months been demonstrated by that the actual consequence was that I was hypnotised by repugnance. The more internet-reality I exhausted, the more I sat there, numb, 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 news wholly, like those smug people who move to the groves 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 was almost like my ability to act or fantasize or even feel was being impaired irreparably. All I could do was react. 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 attentions. I didn’t want to lie in a tub of poison run by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
I deactivated my report in the fall of 2018, telling myself that I was just going to take a short break. As long as you log in within 30 daytimes, you can keep your account, even if you deactivate it again immediately. At first I wrote the 30 date years in my diary, but at some part 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 parties, I didn’t already known better they had once expressed an opinion I reviled. Instead I could talk to them. Maybe I’d change their intellect. 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 beings on account of statements they’ve typed into a website.
A 2014 study by Dutch neurologists therefore seems that when people appreciate an accident, they can’t at first empathise, let alone reflect, make decisions or routine, because they are bombarded by an instantaneous flight/ freeze/ crusade response, which has to wear off before they can think in more helpful ways. It seems to me now that being on Twitter was like watching a everlasting auto crash.
Over the years that I was there I met footage of hundreds of people killed and injured: African-American soldiers strangled to extinction by lily-white police, stonings, assassinates, a gentleman in a enclosure set afire. I wanted to know what was happening in the world, but there was never enough time to process the information, to consider responses or effects, even to sorrow. Everything happened on a knife-edge of psychological reactions, which in turn fuelled more fluster and distress.
I didn’t leave social media wholly. I stayed on Instagram, where there is very little politics and very little disagreement. Looking at a photo of garden-varieties and food makes a nice antidote to the book I’m working on now, which is about violence and freedom. Although the material is just as heavy as the things I assured on Twitter, I’m encountering it primarily by way of journals, which contextualise and analyse the raw data supplied by distress.
Because of Brexit, this spring I’ve observe myself rimming back towards my age-old wonts of word uptake. 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 legend move away somewhere completely unexpected by the next day. The datum isn’t helping , not in its rapidity and not in its abundance. Knowledge subjects, but so too does the slower and more private behave 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 brought about by, a vicious circle it’s hard to know how to stop. Over the last two years, I’ve become haunted by something the painter Philip Guston said in 1968. He’d been thinking about the Holocaust, especially about the concentration camp Treblinka. The mass killing worked, he interpreted, because the Nazis deliberately generated numbness in both the victims and the tormentors. And hitherto, a small group of prisoners did manage to escape.” Imagine what a process it was to unnumb yourself, to see it completely 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 terms every time I wonder about returning to Twitter, clambering back into that numbing tub of catastrophic information. He didn’t mean flee as in run away from reality. He made unspring the trap. He represented cut through the wire.
Crudo by Olivia Laing is published by Picador in paperback at PS8. 99. To ordering a facsimile, go to guardianbookshop.com