Note to the reader: this piece references domestic abuse. If you or someone you know is affected by topics discussed here, these links may be helpful.
We started our relationship in April 2009.
When we first “got together”, I’ll be honest I had my doubts, though people (literally) said “you should go for it, it will be amazing”. There was something mysterious – an unknown that drew me in. New things are naturally scary of course, but at first glance there was an appeal, so I dived in. I had no idea what a roller coaster of a ride it would be.
To be clear, in this context, I’m talking about Twitter. You might think it a strange analogy, though it’s fair to say relationships develop in many ways, not just intimately. You can have a relationship with your work place, your local supermarket, even your football team, without a hint of romance.
Some relationships are transactional; if I buy something from a shop, in return for my money, I expect the items I’ve bought to be usable. At a place of employment, in exchange for my work, I expect to be paid regularly, treated fairly and certainly to be safe. These expectations are reasonable.
The call of connection
Relationships are also built on myriad things; shared interests, mutual respect or a love of something that speaks to us or meets our needs. Connection and belonging are a source of human comfort.
But, as the saying goes, trust (like respect) arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. When you start to feel used, or there’s more take than there is give, it may be time to walk away. If things become abusive, you feel humiliated or unsafe, where the cost to your well-being is too great, it’s time to plan your escape.
With social media, the relationship might feel different, in the sense that we – humans – can be the product; we are “sold” to advertisers as one way of generating revenue.
In exchange for their cash, some “corporate giants” may have “access” to millions of us, to influence our spending habits and even potentially our opinions. In return for becoming that product, we – the “users” – get to share our thoughts, promote our work or just make new friends, for free.
Until now that is, at least in the case of Twitter. Rather than being a product or even a customer, we now seem more like a target. The cost of meaningful engagement is now apparently either $8 a month or potentially your mental health.
“Let that sink in”
If you’re not sure what I mean, you may have managed to miss the chaos of recent weeks since Elon Musk took over the platform. It’s not entirely clear (to me) if his purchase was wholly intentional or by accident. I vaguely remember (I think) him “joking” about buying Twitter some time back, followed by a “will he/won’t he” moment, which culminated in him walking into the company building, literally carrying a kitchen sink.
At first, I noticed an injection of excitement, just like when a relationship might get a reset after taking a break. I also had a lot of time for Mr Musk, though if I’m honest I think this was largely based on his cameo on Big Bang Theory. Nevertheless, being on the platform had a renewed energy to see where this new chapter might take us.
But following the arrival of the new sink-laden CEO (the role, incidentally, now apparently transferred to his dog), it wasn’t long before cracks started to appear and I started thinking about “breaking up” with Twitter, and not for the first time.
Over the years, I’ve taken time out – partly because of the daily drama and outrage which is exhausting to watch, but also because at times it felt…dangerous. I don’t use that word lightly. As someone who has spoken openly about being subjected to domestic abuse, the lack of safety when reporting felt all too familiar.
But more recently things seemed to be getting worse. And quickly.
From my own perspective, the chaos started when I didn’t understand what I was seeing on my feed; random content I’d never asked for or courted, despite what some say about algorithms showing you what you “like”.
Then people I usually engaged with stopped appearing altogether, not because they’d gone but because they had been replaced by complete strangers on my timeline instead. I’d go looking for accounts I knew I followed, and we’d rejoice at finding each other again as if we’d both just found the centre of the maze, only to realise we now seemed to be “trapped” in it.
And then, the harm ramped up.
I’ve been on the receiving end of abuse before on social media, because I talk about things that matter to me, which garners unwanted attention from people who try to derail the conversations we need to have.
But since the “take over”, I started to see more and more – and more – accounts spreading apparent misinformation and hate, albeit that’s something the new owner seems to deny.
One such account responded abusively to me, when I shared an article highlighting those injured in the Manchester Arena attacks are now having to go to court, following erroneous claims they are “crisis actors” – as if those families haven’t been through enough. The account that seemed to target me, showed no remorse for the harm this was doing the victims, and despite me (having spoken with other bereaved families involved in court processes) appealing to their humanity, the account continued. And if I tried to block, they just created a new one and came back.
Other things, that I would never support or engage with, showed up on my feed including blatant supre macist content with terrifying echoes of the past, that falsely implied, for example, that white men are the “blue print” for humanity. One account – which will remain nameless I hope for obvious reasons – had over 70,000 followers appeared to literally be re-writing history about the murders of millions of people and “hero-worshipping” the man responsible. I’ve never seen anything like it, certainly not in the days before the Twitter “take over”, and definitely never that close to my orbit.
Yet here it was, in 2023, on a public platform in plain sight. And despite reporting on Twitter’s own system to challenge harmful content – they seemed to continue to allow it, as if they didn’t actually care. Although Twitter has since suspended one account, several more exist with inflammatory, harmful commentary particularly aimed at marginalised groups. Rather than use the platform to connect people in meaningful ways, a worrying, growing minority seem to have free reign to widen the divide.
Too much, too often
It was a tipping point.
If you’ve ever been in an unhappy relationship, you’ll probably remember the moment you decided enough was enough. What seems small or insignificant to one person, can be the thousandth, painful paper cut for another. The “drip drip” effect can feel like torture when you’re on the receiving end, chipping away at any resilience you have left.
The fact online abusers* are allowed to show up every day and continue their apparent manifestos of hate, is a shocking indictment of what Twitter seems to allow, even as some describe the new owner as “falling with style”. *I call them abusers deliberately because “troll” implies they’re not human – they are, they walk among us and it’s important to acknowledge that. Even “bots” have humans behind them.
All this is happening, while it’s been asserted that “words and emojis are the worst that can happen…”, despite how consistently harmful some accounts may be. (An easy assertion perhaps for some who may be shrouded by the privilege and protections that wealth affords.)
This of course also seems to ignore that words can be violence and if harm is showing up online, it can “out there”. Hate has a timeline, and we know online harm is escalating, especially towards women. The platform appears unable to control the Kraken perhaps unwittingly released in the promotion of “free speech”, despite seemingly being unable to protect its users, according to Twitter insiders.
The end is often a beginning
For me, my relationship with social media developed as a mechanism to help people and promote my work, as well as raise awareness of causes close to my heart. I’ve never cared much for the number of “followers” I have, focusing more on quality of engagement rather than quantity.
But here I am, it feels like breaking up with Twitter; at least, I’m changing the dynamics of our relationship and asking for better. It’s not always healthy to compare relationships, I know, but if I can occupy other social media spaces and feel safer, I’d hope for the same wherever I go. It’s ok to raise the bar.
While the current owner will charge $8 a month if someone wants to edit a post, a “user” can already do that for free on other well-established social media sites. Other platforms have functions where not only can block, but delete abusive content as well as prevent accounts with the same IP address from coming back. Twitter, it seems now has a long way to go in raising its “standards”.
When any relationship is one sided or harmful, it needs to be checked. You can’t love someone enough to stop them hurting you; as bell hooks beautifully wrote “love and violence cannot coexist”.
All this said, I am sad about it; as I often say, you can grieve for anything that mattered to you that’s no longer there, even if society doesn’t understand it. The grief of change is natural, even for things that don’t make sense.
Can Twitter and I remain friends? We shall see; for now, something needs to change. Sometimes we have to put boundaries in place to let people know what we can no longer tolerate. I’m scaling down “contact” for the time being (I will be posting some content on there but without much interaction) but as I would with anything I once cared about, will keep checking in to see how things are. My honest hope is that all’s well that ends well, but that very much remains to be seen. At some point, it may be time to move on completely but, as can sometimes be the case, that may be the start of something wonderful.
© Copyright Delphi Ellis 2023
Delphi is the author of Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal – out now on Amazon and Hive.