‘ Knowledge affairs, but so too does the slower and more private routine of recollecting ‘: 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 morality signalling- it was increasingly hard to feel safe enough to say anything at all. The rationale I didn’t leave was that it had become the place I comes down to for political information, especially during the seismic changes 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 speed and strangeness of contests had something to do with social media, I still accepted 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 associate, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and stranded tweet, the honor would be illumination. I would lastly be able to understand not just what was happening but what it meant and what consequences it would have. But there was never a definitive opinion. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing surmise and mistrust.
I recently read a description of the effects of the intensely addictive opioid OxyContin as total equanimity and satiation.” I feel as if I have unexpectedly gained all that I require in life and no longer have anything to fear ,” a user said.” I am perfectly content both mentally and emotionally .” You can at least understand the appeal of that. But the stimulant I’d get fixed on was terror. I abode up all darknes see Nazi websites and Reddit strands by “incels” that proposed the answer to so-called sexual inequality, by which they necessitated a woman’s right not to have sex with someone, was redistribution, by which they necessitated the loss of a woman’s right not to have sex with someone, which the last time I gazed was called rape.
The more distressed 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 a document that over the next seven weeks became a novel, Crudo , writes to real epoch. I was conducting an experiment. I wanted to record both the report itself and the effect of consuming it in a historically unprecedented lane, to captivate what it was like to live alongside- inside- such a fast-moving cycle, to be saturated by revile information.
The thing that constructed Twitter at once exciting and frightening was that it perpetually overwrote itself, a spate of information, brand-new things stacking up by the second, so that the events of even a week ago seemed ancient, scarcely recallable biography. It gone by extremely hurriedly to process and so I stood at the edge of the brook and fished things out, to think about more slowly.
The first item I recorded was Trump’s sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, who the hell is 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 ended my own wedding to record the resignation 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 information itself. Trump used it to threaten nuclear war, taking ends 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 responsibility as citizens to be educated, alerting, awake. But recording the process over months shown us that the actual consequence was that I was hypnotised by horror. The more internet-reality I destroyed, the more I baby-sit 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 exclusively, 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 feel or even feel was being damaged 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 thoughts. 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 though it is you deactivate it again immediately. At first I wrote the 30 era years in my diary, 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 fulfill people, I didn’t already know that they had once expressed an opinion I abhorred. Instead I could talk to them. Maybe I’d change their sentiment. Maybe they’d change mine. I was sick of dogma. What I wanted was nuance and openness. Honestly, I think that’s where change comes in the world, and not by shaming and exiling parties on account of statements they’ve typed into a website.
A 2014 study by Dutch neurologists suggests that when people interpret an accident, they can’t at first empathise, let alone reflect, make decisions or routine, why it is attacked by an instantaneous flight/ freeze/ battle 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 ceaseless vehicle crash.
Over the years that I was there I assured footage of hundreds of people killed and injured: African-American humen suffocated to fatality by white police, stonings, slayings, a guy in a cage 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 cases, even to sorrow. Everything happened on a knife-edge of emotional actions, which in turn fuelled more distraction and distress.
I didn’t leave social media wholly. I remained on Instagram, where there is very little politics and very little disagreement. Looking at a photo of gardens and food makes a nice antidote to the book I’m working on now, which is about violence and exemption. Although the material is just as heavy as the things I understood on Twitter, I’m encountering it chiefly by way of volumes, which contextualise and analyse the raw data of distress.
Because of Brexit, this spring I’ve observe myself perimeter back towards my old-time practices of report consumption. For the past few weeks, after everyone has gone to bed, I gorge on newspaper websites. But no matter how much datum I acquire, the storey move away somewhere completely unexpected by the next day. The knowledge isn’t helping , not in its acceleration and not in its abundance. Knowledge troubles, but so too does the slower and more private number of thinking.
It seems to me that the most dangerous state to be in right now is numbness, and that our numbness facilitates precise the brutalities 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 in 1968. He’d been thinking about the Holocaust, specially about the concentration camp Treblinka. The mass killing drove, he showed, because the Nazis deliberately encouraged 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 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 words every time I wonder about returning to Twitter, clambering back into that counting bath of catastrophic knowledge. He didn’t mean escape as in run away from reality. He represented unspring the net. He meant cut through the wire.
Crudo by Olivia Laing is published by Picador in paperback at PS8. 99. To ordering a reproduce, go to guardianbookshop.com