A few weeks ago, I unfollowed everyone on Twitter—just over 2,000 accounts. It was a list I’d been building up since 2014, which is the last time I “nuked” my feed and started anew. Last time, I wrote two long pieces for BuzzFeed News about the experience. Those pieces are cringey now, partly because the internet I’m describing feels quaint and outdated. Back then I, like others, was very interested in following the day’s news in real time, whatever that meant. Here I am describing my foolish attempt to monitor tweets as they hit my feed:
Going into 2014, my feed had become intolerable. During big news days, [it] would move quicker than I could read it. Lately, Tweetdeck's internet client began to fail me, lagging under the weight of nearly 2,000 constantly chattering voices. The noise had overpowered the signal. I found myself wondering, at times, if the signal still existed at all.
An unbelievable amount has changed since writing that. I do not know a single person who still shares any kind of social-media-completist aspirations, especially on a platform like Twitter. The problem of the news of the day not reaching me is no longer a concern—in fact, it’s the opposite. Every morning, the news busts in through the walls of my consciousness like the Kool-Aid man.
The other thing that happened is, of course, the last eight years of life here on Earth. It’s been a time to be alive! And that has influenced the way we use our online platforms to construct our own digital identities and talk to each other. And not in a great way.
A concern that’s endured for me since 2014 is finding that elusive signal in the noise. What has always hooked me to the platform (besides the endorphin boosts of instant, algorithmic feedback and the ability to promote the work I do) is its flatness, by which I mean the ability to reply to almost everyone and conceivably be seen or heard by anyone. The same goes for the ability to peer into, and participate in, most conversations on the platform. Users are able to weaponize this for harassment (although Twitter now allows people to set rules for who can see and reply to them). But it also allows for serendipity. For many, that might mean brief interactions with famous people; in my line of work, it means being able to strike up a conversation with a source, or a witness to something I care about. It means lurking in a long back-and-forth between two experts on a subject I’m trying to learn about, and then reaching out to them to learn more. These interactions, when they happen, feed my curiosity, open my mind, expose me to sources of information that I’d have zero chance of finding on my own, and often inspire me to amplify that work or build on it with my own.
This is an idealized version of the platform and specific to what I do. For most people, the experience probably isn’t that deep. They’re on the platform to be entertained by drama and funny tweets, or to keep up with news, sports, or other interests while sitting on the toilet. No shame or judgment! I am the sicko in this situation.
Anyhow, eight years in, my Twitter feed had come to resemble a party that I’d stayed at for far too long. I watched people I’d developed parasocial relationships with morph into villains or curmudgeons or get famous. I saw a lot of people become the person their followers wanted them to be, which is never good. I knew I’d changed quite a bit, too (I gained about 170,000 followers, which definitely colored my experience). It was getting late; I was coming down and getting edgy, but trying to push back the dawn and my anxiety by staying at the party.
I was, finally, frustrated and jaded every time I opened the app. I found myself giving my attention to loads of people who I fundamentally believed did not deserve it. The dissonance in that action was making me feel awful, and to make myself feel better, I sought out more of what made me feel awful, so that I could feel superior. Dumb stuff, I know. But, like many, I’d become more addicted to things that made me feel outrage or even anxiety. I told myself that Twitter was no longer a place I wanted to be, which was true. But perhaps what was more true is that the version of Twitter I’d built for myself was no longer the place I wanted to be. So I killed it.
How to Do It:
Since Twitter doesn’t make it easy to unfollow everyone (and the manual process is hellish if you have more than a few hundred accounts), the best way to unfollow is to find a script that will do it for you. The one I found worked for me. I unfollowed 2,044 accounts in about 25 minutes by clicking a few buttons.
What It Felt Like:
A bit like this:
I’m ashamed to admit that the experience was, as I also remember it from 2014, strangely emotional, in the way that therapy can be emotional. The script I used flashed some of the accounts as it unfollowed them, which it seemed to do chronologically. I watched my personal eras on Twitter get systematically nuked. I saw changes in beats and emerging areas I’d monitored flash by: crypto, COVID, privacy, far-right extremism, disinformation, politics, tech and systems research, friends, co-workers, dormant brand accounts … bye! For a whole host of (probably unhealthy) reasons, it felt a bit like I was setting fire to a library of information that I’d been carefully curating. I got this creeping (and incorrect) sense that I’d now be unable to do my job. I felt bad and guilty but also a bit … euphoric? It felt like a giant weight had been lifted. For every great account excised from my list, there were probably four that needed to go. That part felt phenomenal and almost embarrassingly empowering.
Here’s what I wrote in 2014 about reaching “Twitter zero”:
The strangest thing of all was the feeling of isolation. My once-kinetic feed was now nearly static, but I knew that Twitter—my old Twitter, your Twitter, Twitter at large—was still happening around me.
It was, I noted, like losing your hearing in the middle of a dinner party. This time, I saw the artifice that’s central to the experience of whatever it is that we each call Twitter (or any feed). Yes, each platform has a distinct history, culture, customs, architecture, and algorithmic design that influences every user’s experience. But as I sat there staring at a feed composed of only my dumb tweets, it was hard to see my experience as anything other than something that I build for myself.
To begin rebuilding, I asked my followers to share some good accounts that “curate their feeds really well (always sharing good/weird/interesting stuff).” It was an attempt to try and find more of that serendipitous, mind-expanding, and delightful stuff. It mostly worked. Some of the good finds included a list of 100 ocean scientists and conservationists, a few accounts like this one that curate really interesting videos and links about physics and science. I got a whole host of names of great people I used to follow who definitely belonged back in the feed. The recommendations were far from comprehensive, but good/smart curators proved to be a great base. My feed quickly started to show me new and different stuff. The new follows were amplifying interesting stuff from other accounts—ones I’d never seen before—and so I followed a few of those, too. My network grew, but looked very different than before.