Leaving the Present: Three Months Twitter-Free

Three months ago today I quit Twitter. Of course, in grand scheme of life on the planet, this decision is so infinitesimally significant as to be completely meaningless. But given the number hours of my life that I spent on Twitter prior to February 4, 2014, the choice to leave has been personally consequential.

The most notable change has been a “weening off” from the fire hydrant of “what’s happening now”. Three months on, “now” is much more about whatever I’m doing at present, and less about what everyone else is doing (or, more specifically, what every one else is saying). But the first few weeks were frustrating, as I anxiously wondered what I might possibly be missing — a classic symptom of “newsfeed withdrawal”.

Over the last three months, I have followed local and global happenings much more slowly. I’ve also spent more time reading books. Combined, this is has led me wrestle with a question that I believe is critical to the way we approach media: “Is anything actually going to happen today that has not already happened a hundred times before?” Disasters, inventions, collapses, breakthroughs, calamities, discoveries, accidents, innovations, mergers, uprisings, bankruptcies, scandals… these are the medium of history. This is how we record the chronology of human existence. And you and I dwell within only the tiniest sliver of the whole story.

Twitter is like a viewer-curated version of the twenty-four hour news cycle. And, like the media conglomerate’s version of the phenomenon, it too reaches a natural threshold of relevance: if everything is important — all of the time — then nothing is ever really important. “Importance” becomes a self-referential metric of viewer ratings and retweets, because there is no other objective criteria to quantify its value. In the end, the fact that it is happening now becomes the sole criterion for importance… and the fact that it is declared as “important” endows the knower with a certain prestige and status: “Oh what? I can’t believe you haven’t seen that video yet!” (What is “viral” if not the designation that something is important for no other reason than the fact that is spreading right now?)

One can imagine a multitude of naturally selective reasons why we are inclined to think that whatever is happening right now is important. Keeping your radar up and your head on a swivel is extremely valuable in the game of survival. These intuitions run deep. Perhaps it is because of our instinct to be on high alert for ominous rustlings in the bushes that our attention is so easily hijacked by a little, portable device that instantaneously notify us every time a bush moves in the breeze (no matter where in the world the bush might be).

It is like we have technologically outpaced our evolutionary capacity to sensibly monitor our environment: we haven’t quite figured out that it is very difficult confidently say whether or not the events that happen on any given day are “important” until well after the day has passed. Importance is largely an invention of time herself, as she weighs consequences and ramifications. Today may be extremely important or completely insignificant — but today it is quite difficult to tell one way or another. Oh, we can theorize, hypothesize, scrutinize, and analyze the last twenty-four hours (or the last five minutes) till we’re blue in the face, but all we can produce are speculations about what it will all actually mean a year or two from now.

Leaving Twitter has prompted me to reframe how I understand what is “important” information. Today’s minute-by-minute commentary will be replaced by new commentary tomorrow, no matter how dramatic, sensational, or scandalous it seems right now. Its shelf live is as fleeting as minutes themselves.

I suspect that today’s importance is not simply a measurement of what happens today, nor is it necessarily composed of the abundant opinions we express about said happenings (regardless of how informed we fancy ourselves to be). What makes today important is how and why it sets the stage for life in five, ten, or a thousand years from now… just as the history of the last five, ten, and thousand years set the stage for us today. When it comes to understanding what is important, history seems far more informative than the present. The present is perpetually ignorant of why it might matter. Only from the longview of hindsight will we ever know if our collective, trending uproars are about anything of consequence at all.

Leaving Twitter has felt a little bit like jumping off the bandwagon of “now”. The experience has suggested that I might have more to learn about “the present” by looking back than by staring at an endless, minute-by-minute steam of dialogue, opinion, and reaction.

After all, we will always have opinions about the present and predictions about the future. What we seem to miss is that our opinions and predictions have all happened before, they have come and gone like the seasons.

At least, that’s what I’ve learned over the last three months.

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