At Twit's End
Sitting outside this morning, I was listening to the birds. It was peaceful. They went ‘tweet tweet tweet.’
Then I had a realization. Had I been holding a coffee cup, it would have fallen, slo-mo-Usual-Suspects style:
See, I’d just made the connection, somehow for the first time, that Twitter is called Twitter because it is - wait for it - a collection of tweets!A collection of cute birds chirping their melodic, kind, beautiful sounds into the air for all to hear.
At least that’s what it’s supposed to be.
This is not my Twitter.
My Twitter feels more like a bunch of goats making those screeching goat sounds which I just learned are called bleats! Twitter should change their name to Blitter. Or Bleater. But Blitter sounds bletter.
(My quarantine cellmate / wife Lauren thought Blitter sounded like obliterate, which is basically what Twitter has done to my brain. Big ups to Laur on that.)
Here’s the deal
I scroll through Twitter a lot, and I never, ever feel happier after doing so. I go on there and feel like this:
Except in this case, I’m both Alex and the doctor in Clockwork Orange. I’ve done this to myself.
Strolling / scrolling through the goats bleating their heads off, I find myself losing my identity entirely as I become one with the stream, searching for the identities of others who I would rather be than myself. There's comedians and thinkers - people with opinions - I want to be all of them! And look at all the cool things they’re doing? All the conversations they’re having! My brain decides that all these people are better than me, a fact I can easily find quantifiable proof for when I see how 'well' their posts are 'doing' compared to mine.
Think of Twitter as a massive town square. There are people who have audiences who go out and say something. The audience reacts (hearts and comments) and in so doing there is maybe a feeling of shared community from which all benefit. But for someone who does not have that audience but also yearns to say something, to be heard, it feels like going out into that town square and saying something to crickets.
While writing this, I went on Twitter countless times. I am a moth, it is the flame. For brief intervals, I actually felt a sense of community - a few of my comments and posts had gotten some ‘traction’ (ugh). It felt nice. And then I scrolled through the feed and immediately felt terrible.
SADBOI NOTE: I feel a large sense of lame shame for even feeling this way. ‘Woe is me, privileged man who has no audience.’ But alas, the lame shame is usually a sign that you’re onto something and so I shall continue.
The Dark Forests Of The Internet
This reminds me of a two part article called The Dark Forest Theory Of The Internet (link) by Yancey Strickler, author, thinker and co-founder of Kickstarter. In the article, Strickler talks about his own inability to understand why he has such a hard time being himself on Twitter:
In “real life” I’m a reasonably self-confident, 40-year-old human. If we sat next to each other on a plane we’d have a good-to-memorable conversation.
But on the internet, I feel like a teenager struggling to find their identity. I’m all awkward exclamation points and weird over-explanations. I’m often too self-conscious to be interesting or real.
Coupled with this inability to know how the fuck to be yourself online, Strickler says that Twitter and other public spaces have begun to feel like a digital Times Square:
In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.
Strickler says that in response to our collective need for safety and community, we retreat to the smaller ‘dark forests’ of the internet, places like newsletters, private Slack groups, Discords, message boards, etc. Places where the stakes are much lower so we can feel more like our real selves where the stakes are lower:
These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.
My Own Dark Forests
This makes sense, and is definitely something I’ve found myself doing over the last few months. I’ve joined a private slack group of people obsessed with Roam Research, a new note taking platform that’s taking the very niche, knowledge management part of the internet by storm (Lauren pointed out how big of a nerd I am for writing this last sentence, unironically).
I’m also part of a Discord server for The Art of Gig, a newsletter for indie consultants that I started reading this year in the hopes of learning how to become a consultant and make some money.
As much as I love (and am slightly addicted to) reading through all the conversations in these private groups, I am not sure that they help me feel much closer to myself. Both the Slack and Discord feel like re-creations (not recreations) of the high school experience - there are the cool kids, the smart kids, the funny kids, and then there is me, watching everything from a far, judging, waiting and praying for them all to get together, pick one delegate from each - one smart kid one funny kid and one cool kid to come over to me and say “Hey Al! You’re a great and smart and talented AND FUNNY guy, what do you think about this or that or the other.”
But that doesn’t happen, because that’s not how things work. Not on Twitter or these dark forests or really anywhere.
Time to Bleat?
Should I become a goat and bleat myself to death? Bleating things into the Twitter void until I can grow an audience, enduring the pain it would take to get there? I’m not sure.
I’m halfway through a little book of philosophy called The Courage To Be Disliked. It’s a dialogue between a chill af philosopher and a super anxious, troubled sort of youth. At one point, they’re talking about competition:
YOUTH: Does that mean you dropped out of the competition? That you somehow accepted defeat?
PHILOSOPHER: No. I withdrew from places that are preoccupied with winning and losing. When one is trying to be oneself, competition will inevitably get in the way.
Preach it, philosopher, preach. I wish the youth would have responded with something like “What if I turn everything into a competition? What then Mr. Philosopher man?!”
But he didn’t (classic Youth), so I’m not sure where the philosopher stands on that. But I do know that right now, as I work to develop my confidence and my voice, both newborn infants, I too should stay away from the places that most feel like competitions. Twitter, the land of the goats, being high up on that list.
And instead focus on things like this blog. Getting my thoughts out there and sharing them with the world, even if I don’t feel like they are perfect. Because that’s the process, I hope to God, by which they can get great. Inch by inch, row by row, this garden might just very well grow. THEN we can have goats. On the garden.
At the end of part two of the Dark Forest essay (link), Strickler realizes the importance of not disappearing from the internet, knowing that there is value in staying a part of the conversation. If we all left the internet, then there’d just be goats and Russian trolls and that’s no good for anyone. To become a more honest version of himself, Strickler conducts an experiment to tweet normal, boring stuff twice a day for a month. He also shared the idea of the dark forest with the internet by posting it on OneZero, a medium newsletter, and it blew the frik up. There were others, hiding in their forests, with the same feelings as he did. I myself was one of those people.
Strickler closes with:
[The] process is ongoing, but my more-complicated-in-practice-than-theory answer is to strive to be your true self in every context and vow to be present wherever you are. We can’t lurk in the dark forests and expect anything to change for the better. To improve and positively contribute to the communities and cultures we’re a part of, we have to actively engage.
So where does this leave us?
Some birds, goats, a philosopher, and a youth all walk into a bar inside a dark forest. What happens from there, I have no idea.