Why I Deleted The Twitter App From My Phone (along with 122 others)
The concrete footpath outside the post office was a harsh place. Every weekday afternoon, before 2.50pm, I would be waiting there, usually alone, for my daughter’s school bus. This shadeless corner of the city was warm even on a Hong Kong winter’s day. But in the summer it was oppressive. I dared not be late for a young child in a big city, so I always tried to be there waiting ahead of time.
It was here my addiction to “checking Twitter” began.
My Twitter following, together with a big shift in my personal and professional life, began on that inhospitable sidewalk. I met photographers, writers, musicians, designers, models, entrepreneurs, marketers, producers, web developers, filmmakers, TV presenters and newscasters, even music industry executives, not just through a screen while standing in the sun, but also in person, over coffee, drinks or meals.
Twitter was like that back then. If Facebook was about looking into the past at all the people you’d had the misfortune of meeting, then Twitter was about looking into the future, at all the people you hoped to meet. Twitter was fresh, new, full of ideas being shared by interesting and creative people. There wasn’t much news, and even when there was it typically wasn’t politics, but tech, arts, culture, food and entertainment. Twitter brought people together.
You don’t need me to tell you that’s all changed now.
A Tokyo Twitter Experience
This week was meant to be busy but fun. I was trying to end May and start June focused on some photo and art prints I hope to offer for sale in July. It’s the kind of work that requires attention to detail; checking colours and print accuracy, making small and precise changes along the way.
Then in midweek my last remaining side project, the BeingTokyo rotation curation account, went into meltdown. I had helped start this Twitter project but was no longer involved in its day to day running.
A potential curator had dropped out and the person who handles the bookings took on a last-minute volunteer. But after only a few hours there were angry reactions from (mostly anonymous) followers dredging up hateful comments the new curator had made on her personal Twitter account.
The person who managed the bookings contacted me and then we had a huddle with the other co-founder and decided how to respond.
The curator had not specifically broken the BeingTokyo rules in her time on the account. But allowing her to continue would drag us into a “how many angels on the head of a pin” kind of debate about the limits of “free speech.”
This was against our rules.
In nearly two years of helping run BeingTokyo there were very few controversies. In the early days one curator pulled out at the last minute. Another quit after a few days, annoyed when his attempts to bait the audience didn’t go well. Our biggest problem was when a poorly thought-out joke backfired, which got the account locked down by Twitter for being in violation of their rules.
After that experience we decided on one rule to supersede all others: we would pull the plug if something took up too much of our time.
Getting the account unlocked by Twitter took up a lot of my time. It also, in the days and weeks afterward, occupied thinking time; a gnawing thought that leapt to mind in every quiet moment.
This current problem – the curator who played by the rules on one account but had a troubling history on another – was bound to consume even more time and cast a longer shadow.
It didn’t help that most of those pointing out the situation were anonymous users who were starting to attack we three moderators of the account. To me, the problem wasn’t just that someone had spread hate on an anonymous account in the past, but that this present situation was being used as a pretext to spread hate from anonymous accounts in the present.
So we acted, closing down the account for a week, reviewing our process of approving curators, and asking two new volunteers to help out before the next curator stepped into place.
I wrote a long explanation of the decision on my Twitter account, then let the other moderators know I wasn’t going to keep working on the project, as it was time for me to move on. It was also time to take a break from Twitter.
After a weekend during which Twitter had helped me reconnect with an old friend who was visiting Tokyo for a tech conference, and make a potential new friend who is visiting soon to study Japanese, the BeingTokyo incident was a painful reminder that for so many people, Twitter has become little more than a place to vent their rage and resentment.
It Started With Deleting The Twitter App
In the evenings after we temporarily shut down BeingTokyo, I felt compelled to check in to Twitter, during breaks while cooking dinner or in between sessions helping my daughter prepare for exams.
Exhausted, at the end of one such night, I unfurled my tired body on the sofa one last time to review the notifications. Most were supportive, but there was of course some anger, equally split between those incensed we hadn’t ignored the hate speech on the curator’s personal account and those enraged we had tried to temper our actions with reason by offering an explanation for our decision. Naturally, the critics generously seasoned their spite with abuse.
Sitting there, the feeling that took over wasn’t anger or sadness; it was emptiness, like being trapped in a dark, echoless chasm. I felt quite alone watching screen close down as the iPhone went to sleep. It was the quintessential “black mirror” moment, staring at myself, staring at this technological marvel we carry with us every day, wondering what it all meant.
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about deleting the Twitter app. Several close friends, creative and successful people, have either stopped using Twitter indefinitely or quit the service altogether. It seemed very little was left of the magic I first discovered at that sweltering Hong Kong bus stop.
How Many Apps Is Too Many?
Putting down the black mirror, I started to wonder about how much of that promise, the dream of the app economy, was also just a weight on attention now. I carry this iPhone with me every day, but could I even count all the apps waiting to vie for my attention?
Turns out it was 196!
Japanese Language Learning Apps
Starting with the apps I had installed for learning Japanese made sense, since this experience is at the core of everything good and bad in my life right now. I love learning Japanese. But, it’s been hard.
Sometimes a screen and some code isn’t the best technology. I’ve found speaking with real humans and writing with ink and pen to be far more effective as tools for learning Japanese. Out of 15 apps, I only kept two dictionaries, Learn Japanese and Imawa, which I find easy to use and accurate, as well as the ubiquitous Google Translate.
Photo and Video Apps
Can you remember when mobile phone photography was still a new thing? It doesn’t seem that long ago I interviewed a panel of “experts” assembled for a Social Media Week event. Back then, “What’s the new photo app?” was a question we all asked as we chased a way to turn these tiny iPhone snapshots into something more impressive.
But it’s been years since the novelty of trying new photo apps wore off. Like every other part of my photographic life, there’s a limited set of processes I use to develop and share mobile photos.
So, out of 36 photo- and video-related apps, I kept only PhotoShop Express, Instagram, FujiFilm Camera Remote, Slow Shutter, Snapseed, Sun Seeker, Lumu Light Meter, and TiltShiftGen, for old time’s sake!
After that, deleting apps was pretty straightforward. I followed Marie Kondo’s logic; does this app still bring me joy or does it serve an essential purpose? I can’t remember the last time I played Fieldrunners or Little Alchemy, but just looking at those icons made me smile. And while TokyoNavi doesn’t fill me with joy, it’s indispensable for getting around Tokyo.
A few apps had information that had to be retrieved before they could be deleted. Hidden inside a video app was a 10-second clip of my daughter from our days in Singapore. I still remember how it had been a terrible day for me. I had lost a big client because of continuing problems with my visa, and then I saw my daughter sitting on the sofa playing a game. The few seconds it took to rematch that moment (and save it for future viewing) had the same effect on me now as it did back then, to shake me into alignment with the things that really matter in life.
Beyond Just Quitting
For a while last year I wrote a series, This Week I Quit, which involved quitting some habit, app or activity in a quest to live a simpler and more focused life. This latest act could’ve been spun into a fresh series, since the apps deleted (cut from 196 to 74) cover such a range of activities and past interests.
From one perspective, a series of shorter blogposts would’ve made sense. But this change reflects the way things are moving for me right now: big, considered, dramatic shifts.
This change is about more than just one bad week on Twitter or a stash of neglected apps. It’s about how to be in the world.
Instagram has replaced prayers before meals. Every interaction is edited into a 140-character narrative for Twitter. We’ve gone from sharing what we do to living so we can share.
And, what does sharing cost? We think it’s free because we don’t pay for it. But, as humans, we’re often terrible at valuing our own time. If I billed Twitter my standard day rate for the time I’ve spent on their service, explaining it to users, building communities, creating content that gets shared and retweeted, they would owe me hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If 10 seconds of watching your kid play is enough to cut to the very core of your being, then how valuable are the hours we spend on our devices?