Rethinking My Feeds: Unfollowed.

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[Note: The timing of the post is incidental. There is no joke coming. FYI.]

A couple months back, I shared some thoughts about rage-baiting and resisting the pull of hot-take media seeking to enflame our passions and soak up our attention for ad revenue. (At that point, the outrage du jour was Gillete’s “toxic-masculinity” advert and the Covington boys’ protest debacle–feels like a year ago, doesn’t it?)

I’m still thinking about my relationship with social media and how I use it. My recent dive into Cal Newport’s writing has further encouraged this self-analysis. (I’m currently listening to his last book, Deep Work, and it’s really, really good.)

New Twitter, Who Dis?

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about audience and curation–whom I’m speaking to, and whom I’m listening to. (Since Twitter is my main social platform, that’s the focus of my consideration here.) I’m reminded of a suggestion from Senator Ben Sasse in his book Them. After talking about a prolonged hiatus from Twitter, he came back to the platform with an entirely different perspective. His intended audience changed. When he used his personal Twitter account (his “professional” account is run by staffers), he stopped trying to impress the mass of humanity who happened to stumble across his tweets. He said he started writing to a specific audience–friends of his from his early adulthood, people he still kept in touch with over the years, despite physical distance. He said he wanted to write for them, to connect to them, to make them laugh.

Sasse described how having a specific audience in mind for his social media posts helped him focus on how to use the platform more intentionally.

Digital Connection Isn’t Worthless, It’s Just Insufficient

This idea of having a specific audience in mind got me thinking: why am I on Twitter, really? Though I have to admit that I have sometimes chased the attention of “celebrities” or others that I esteemed highly, over the years what has kept me on Twitter is the “digital friendships” I’ve made with like-minded people online, across the country. I’ve only met a handful of them in real space, but I hope to–that’s the biggest reason I want to make it to the G3 Conference or ShepCon one day.  It’s this group of connections that keeps me coming back.

If you recall my Digital Minimalism review a few weeks back, I wrote that Cal Newport dismissed these digital interactions as mere “connections” rather than communication, and he argued that digital connection should have the explicit goal of providing logistics for in-person communication. I think that’s partly true, but on the other hand I think there’s a place for the encouragement and (dare I say) friendship that can grow out of initially-digital interactions.

Are these folks on Twitter my friends? In one sense, no, because there’s no real-space experience communicating with each other. But in another, I can’t help but think of these people as my friends–my Twitter squad.

Trying Something Different

This leaves me with the question: if I’m going to use Twitter in an optimized, healthy manner, what would that look like? Two specific goals come to mind:

  • Following My Squad: One way to optimize Twitter is to dramatically reduce the accounts I read and engage-with to the handful of people I enjoy most. Here’s the thing: I don’t care to use Twitter for engaging ideological opponents or calling out falsehood. Maybe that’s your mission or ministry–have at it. I’m not trying to change lives here. I’m just looking for a little encouragement, a little humor, and the occasional free book giveaway. Limiting my inputs to people who provide that specific value could eliminate a lot of needless scrolling and still maintain some of those digital connections I enjoy.
  • Seeking Edification: Following people whose content challenges and encourages me in my faith and thinking is another beneficial method of approaching Twitter. Following the accounts of certain theologians and groups can bring a net-positive into my feed.

Now, there’s a clear disadvantage to this approach–namely, that it makes it much easier to crawl into an echo chamber and not engage ideas that differ from my own. I’ll grant you, that’s definitely possible; but isn’t it better to risk doing so and be honest about it? If you follow everyone under the sun but only stop to read and engage positively with the tweetfolk with whom you agree, what’s the difference, other than a bit of self-congratulation because your feed is “diverse”?

And that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to follow people whose views diverge from my own. I have several beneficial friendships and interactions (both in real life and online) with people who vehemently disagree with my religious views, politics, and perspective on the world. Some of those interactions (specifically, the IRL ones) produce good conversation and understanding, especially when we are reminded that the other person isn’t an abstract idea but a person with dignity and value.

That said, I don’t feel the need or obligation to expose myself to interactions that serve only to enrage or frustrate me. I get to make that choice, because Twitter (like all social media) is a voluntary program. I can choose whom to follow, whom to mute, whom to block. I shouldn’t be afraid to do all three, as need be.

If I’m mindful of the dangers of groupthink and seek high-value interactions online, there’s a good chance I can make it worthwhile to stay on social media, while limiting the scope of how I use it. I’d call that a win-win, wouldn’t you?

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Here’s my question for you, dear reader: why do you use social media? Who’s your audience? Do you agree or disagree with my proposed “squad and edification only” approach to Twitter, described above? Sound off in the comments–I’d like to hear your perspective on this. Thanks!

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