‘ Knowledge stuffs, but so too does the slower and more private routine of belief ‘: 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 bided on Twitter, even though it had become palpably more adversarial, less friendly. Trolls, pile-ons, patrolling, the endless accusation of virtue signalling- it was increasingly hard to feel safe enough to say anything at all. The reasonablenes I didn’t leave was that it has now become the place I came to for political report, especially during the seismic conversions 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 had something to do with social media, I still guessed social media was the place to find out what was really going on, hours before the ponderous newspapers caught up.
I wasn’t so much addicted to the spectacle as to the ongoing certainty that the next clink, the next associate, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the honor would be illumination. I would lastly be able to understand not just what was happening but what it entailed and what repercussions it would have. But there was never a definitive opinion. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing opinion and mistrust.
I recently read a description of the effects of the intensely addictive opioid OxyContin as total contentment and satiation.” I feel as if I have unexpectedly 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 nighttime decipher Nazi websites and Reddit strands by “incels” that proposed the answer to so-called sexual inequality, by which they symbolized a woman’s right not to have sex with person, was redistribution, by which they entailed the loss of a woman’s right not to have sex with someone, which the last time I searched was announced rape.
The more shaken 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 trivial to the momentous, in official documents that in the course of the coming seven weeks became a novel, Crudo , written in real period. I was conducting an experiment. I wanted to record both the word itself and the effect of consuming it in a historically unprecedented way, to capture what it was like to live alongside- inside- such a fast-moving cycle, to be saturated by malign information.
The thing that became Twitter at once exciting and frightening is because it forever overwrote itself, a deluge of information, new things stacking up by the second, so that the events of even a week ago seemed ancient, scarcely recallable history. It gone by more hurriedly to process and so I stood at the edge of the torrent and fished things out, to think about more slowly.
The first item 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 marry 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 report itself. Trump used it to threaten nuclear war, taking disintegrates to trashtalk the FailingNewYorkTimes. Hunched over my laptop, I wrote everything is down.
One of the reasons I’d told myself I needed to be online, especially as the world lurched to the far right, was that it was our job as citizens to be educated, alerting, awake. But recording the process over months showed me that the actual consequence was that I was hypnotised by horror. The more internet-reality I ate, 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 bulletin entirely, 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 was almost like my ability to act or repute or even feel was being shattered 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 recollections. I didn’t want to lie in a bathroom 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 daylights, you can keep your account, even though it is you deactivate it again immediately. At first I wrote the 30 date years in my diary, but at some object 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 congregate people, I didn’t already know that they had once expressed an opinion I hated. Instead I could talk to them. Maybe I’d change their judgment. Maybe they’d change mine. I was sick of dogma. What I craved was nuance and openness. Candidly, I think that’s where reform 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 suggests that when people look an accident, they can’t at first empathise, let alone reflect, make decisions or act, because they are attacked by an instantaneous flight/ freeze/ contend 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 unending car crash.
Over the years that I was there I encountered footage of hundreds of people killed and injured: African-American humankinds strangled to demise by white police, stonings, slayings, a humankind in a enclosure set on fire. 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 emotional reactions, which in turn fuelled more fluster and distress.
I didn’t leave social media wholly. I abode on Instagram, where there is very little politics and very little disagreement. Looking at photographs 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 insured on Twitter, I’m encountering it chiefly by way of works, which contextualise and analyse the raw data supplied by distress.
Because of Brexit, this spring I’ve note myself edging back towards my old-fashioned garbs of word consumption. 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 story has moved somewhere completely unexpected by the next day. The datum isn’t helping , not in its speeding and not in its abundance. Knowledge problems, but so too does the slower and more private play of thinking.
It seems to me that the most dangerous state to be in right now is numbness, and that our numbness promotes 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 obsessed by something the painter Philip Guston said during 1968. He’d been thinking about the Holocaust, especially about the concentration camp Treblinka. The mass killing wielded, he showed, because the Nazis deliberately encouraged 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 paroles every time I wonder about returning to Twitter, clambering back into that counting soap of catastrophic message. He didn’t mean escape as in run away from reality. He meant unspring the catch. He meant cut through the wire.
Crudo by Olivia Laing is published by Picador in paperback at PS8. 99. To order a reproduce, go to guardianbookshop.com