THIS USER DOES NOT EXIST: Confessions of a Twitter Addict who Deactivated Twitter

Hi. My name’s @littlemisswilde and I’m completely addicted to social media.* Social media addiction is starting to become recognized as a legitimate thing, and I’ll happily start attending group recovery when that becomes commonplace. But most people wouldn’t even realise that they have a problem. Being completely obsessed with my own behaviour, I did. So back in April, when I had a dissertation to finish, I deactivated all of my social networks and deleted all of the accompanying apps (this includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and DrawSomething**) for 4 days. And, as expected, I didn’t cope very well.

I don’t have any inbuilt self control and the replacement provided by Mac only comes in 24 hours doses and isn’t available on iPhone yet, so such a dramatic step really was the only way I could get those 8000 words in on time. This is a timeline of the symptoms I experienced for what was genuinely the most traumatic 72(ish) hour period of my life, which is essentially a storify of the #IRL Twitter feed I was keeping in the back of my dissertation notebook. Yes, really.

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13/04/12 – 19:32

This is a stream-of-consciousness account of the initial moments of deactivation, written in a caffeinated trance as an attempt at immediate catharsis to clear my brain enough to actually get some work done, as was the aim of my sacrifice. Committing my feelings to paper was a replacement for committing them to cyberspace.

It wasn’t a carefully thought out decision, it was an impulse that I knew I had to act on. I clicked through the stages quickly without thinking of the implications (except the impact it could have on my Klout) and even when the messages came up – ‘Your account has been deactivated’ – it didn’t hurt as much as I expected it to. I closed my MacBook and walked out of the library, breathing deeply before reaching for my phone and deleting the Facebook and Twitter apps individually, my hand slightly shaking at this point. There was a moment of pride in knowing I’d done the right thing, and I reasoned with myself that it wasn’t forever, just until this neglected deadline had passed. But as I walked out onto the street the realization sunk in: what good was this act of martyrdom if I couldn’t tell anyone. I muttered under my breath ‘Oh God. What have I done?’ before continuing ‘I’m talking to myself.’ I knew I could have made this all sound so witty in under 140 characters. I began laughing, putting myself in more danger crossing the road than I ever have when scrolling through my feeds. I walked into Sainsbury’s and considered buying alcohol and cigarettes and filling the void left by my vices, but instead settled on a whole packet of biscuits. The urge to share this monumental moment was overwhelming so when I saw a face I recognized from my course I ran over and gasped “Something’s happened!” When I explained he looked at me with disbelief. A feeling of security ran over me: finally the sympathy I deserve! “Is that it?” I laughed and wished him well with his revision, realizing that he didn’t understand because we aren’t even Facebook friends. Weren’t even Facebook friends. But inside I was crying: if I’d broken up with my boyfriend or my pet had died he would have been more understanding, and to me, at this moment, this felt so much worse. I sat on the steps at UCL in awe of beauty of the sky behind the BT tower and wanted so badly to Instagram it. I wondered if anyone had noticed I was gone yet. They wouldn’t see that I’d last tweeted 53 minutes ago and just assume that I was working hard or having fun, they’d see ‘This user does not exist.’ I felt like I did not exist. 

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I returned to the library after this and, because adrenaline in that quantity is apparently a more effective amphetamine than the Ritalin that had clearly failed, made more progress in 4 hours than I had since I’d started work on this essay. But then I had a legitimate breakdown and went home, intending to CTFO but actually just replacing my Facebook-based procrastination with an oscillation between giggling and sobbing, and replacing my excessive Twitter updates with transatlantic phone calls telling my still-awake BFFs that I had become a cyber-martyr. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy my need to share and to fill the void left by the switch off of my ‘always on’ mentality, so I started writing in my notepad.

4-8 hours after deactivation

It’s like I exist, just me.

Deactivation is something completely different. If he wanted to contact me, I’d know. I don’t have anything to cling to.

I can feel the ups and downs of my concentration span. I’ve written for 15 minutes and then something just stops. It’s like the sleep/wake cycle – it may have started with an external stimulus but my own body regulates it now.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder but there’s nothing saying I’ve gone. We’re so used to consuming with such loose, gaping filters that the specifics have to be really significant to impact one user’s bigger picture.

I wonder if anyone’s talking about me.

I’m really lonely.

I really wonder what’s going on. It isn’t like me to check news sites, and it’s not like that. I’m not used to not knowing what my friends are doing, or which girls he’s talking to. Is this is what they mean when they say ‘fear of missing out’?

It isn’t as simple as feeling like I’m missing out.

Handwriting is good practice for exams.

I think these written tweets would make a good blog. Probably Tumblr.

LIVETWEETING THE HORRIFYING REALISATION THAT I CAN’T FUNCTION OFFLINE. WITH A PEN. ON PAPER.

I’ve never felt like this before.

Am I writing all of this shit down because I know I’ll blog it later? That is some fucked up counterproductive thought process right there.

I need to take a break from fake tweeting.

Just got home. Body not ready to sleep yet because this is when I’d usually waste hours on Facebook Chat. Feel positively antisocial now. Ready to give up.

Listening to music. So many lyrical status updates. I am profoundly shallow.

Can’t bring myself to open my laptop.

And amongst all of these ‘tweets’, over and over again is the disturbingly obsessive rewriting of the phrase ‘This user does not exist.’

The raw emotion in the diary-like quality of some of these ‘tweets’ is harshly juxtaposed with the self-parody of those that display an awareness of the absurdity of my physical and emotional reaction, however real. Looking back at the oscillation between genuine wallowing self-pity and comic self-deprecation I can literally see the tiny crack that separates my online persona from me IRL.

This first (abridged) collection of my offline ‘tweets’ says a lot about the nature of my need to share. Twitter’s number one selling point is that it’s all about now; the site exists for us to find out what’s going on right this minute. But sometimes when an idea for a tweet that I know will create a response comes to me at 3am I wait until lunchtime the next day to actually send it because I know more people will see it. At other times, I’m so overwhelmed by the urge to tell everyone what I’m doing that I get irritated and anxious if I can’t immediately post it. Not being able to do either left me in a bizarre state, caught between a digital ‘fight or flight’; unable to do either but somehow getting a minimal satisfaction of both by having at least recorded the emotions.

Despite having deleted my networks, all I’d really done was take away the real-time aspect of my performance. I knew I’d be tweeting these later or putting them into a blog so I was still consciously trying to create material that would be entertaining and would appeal to my followers eventually. I was so enthusiastic about the tweets in my notepad when I wrote them, but the second I was back online the present tense was far more significant, and four months later only about half of them are actually making it into this chronology, because most of them are total shit. Probably like most of the 21000 I’ve actually posted since 2009.

What’s more shocking than the nature of the need to share is how deep that need to share actually goes. Of course I’ve had periods of 4 hours where I haven’t been able to tweet because of signal or battery or because I’ve been too busy. Sometimes that’s traumatic: once I had a panic attack on the Piccadilly line because a tweet hadn’t sent before I went underground so I got off the Tube and got a bus, once I couldn’t get signal in Sainsbury’s so I pretended I’d lost my card so I didn’t have to do a 15 minute shop, countless times I’ve bailed on plans to go home and charge my phone. But really, those are all just standard #firstworldproblems.

This absence of the online extension of my normal existence was, understandably for the first few hours, the focus of my attention. Alongside the adrenaline of the initial shock, that focus pretty much explains the excessive mania and the hyperventilation. But the acute lurch of longing I felt in my stomach after a solid 15 minutes of concentration and the tangible change in direction and process of my brain after this period in time, several times an hour without fail, was not something that I had control over. It’s not something I can explain. Whether it comes from routine or habit or the chemicals my brain releases when I tell (almost) 2000 strangers that I’m having yet another coffee break, I was experiencing physical symptoms of withdrawal and addiction.

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The next morning

Really want to tweet about my dreams.

Less manic now. Do wonder what’s going on elsewhere though.

Breakdown at yoga. Can’t tell anyone how far I can bend.

My best friend and my boyfriend are the only ones who have noticed I’m gone.

Are my tweets just white noise?

Am I white noise?

I actually only waste time waiting to see if people are replying to me rather than actually creating content. Or even paying attention to anyone else’s content.

WHY THE FUCK DO I ACTUALLY USE TWITTER?

I almost caved that morning, after about 15 hours offline, tempted to just let my hopes of a 2:1 fade to grey. I had visions of reactivating my networks and recounting the horrors of the night that had passed to be welcomed by excessive sympathy and retweets. And this was my epiphany: I didn’t miss the Internet because I wondered what everyone else was doing; I missed it because I couldn’t tell them what I was doing. It wasn’t the connectivity that I was physically longing for, or the mutual relationships these sites pride themselves on facilitating; the only withdrawal I was experiencing was from the ease at which I could so freely exercise my narcissistic tendencies in the digital arena.

I found myself wondering if anyone had even noticed I was gone, that I no longer existed as @littlemisswilde, that there was a hole in cyberspace where I once was. Instead of refreshing my interactions on Twitter I was refreshing my stats page on WordPress, wondering if anyone had missed me and searched for me. Which very few people had done.

It was at this point that, regardless of what was at stake (my degree, my mental health, etc) I realized that I desperately needed to continue with this self-imposed digital exile. This deactivation had somehow gone from being about finishing an essay to about justifying to myself why I needed social networks at all. I needed to experience the fabled Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) just to know that I was doing social media right, because there was no point in going back if I was doing it all wrong.

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Day 2

I keep having urges to send people group texts saying where I am and what I’m doing.

Might start sending chain letters that would be heavily RTed tweets.

I just procrastinated for 2 hours without a social network in site. I’ve started doodling.

I just googled ‘How long will it take for me to recover from my social media addiction?’

I just wrote down a google search term.

My wit is completely wasted on a post-digital existence.

Don’t feel the need to reply to texts RIGHT NOW.

Pearl’s phone is broken. We’re considering getting pagers. Or landlines.

Maybe I feel calmer offline. I don’t miss Facebook at all.

Although I’ve deactivated Facebook it’s still coming up on my Spotify. I wonder how much I can glean about what my friends are doing from their music choices.

Someone just emailed me a song because they can’t post it on my wall. May as well have faxed me the album sleeve and told me to go to a record store and find it. Or have a gramophone delivered to my desk.

I still automatically open to where Twitter once was in my Social Media folder on my iPhone. Every single time.

Tried reading a newspaper today, just to see what’s going on. Articles are still long and tedious.

Description of Twitter in The Observer: ‘collective monologues’. Oh wow.

Do still keep having mild attacks of heart racing despair when I worry that Twitter won’t reactivate.

Trying to consider how I’d feel as a person without followers. The only feeling I can align this with is the moment you realise that you’re the only person who cares about something and you can’t find the words to change anyone else’s mind.

Just gave in and redownloaded Instagram. The only site where I could lose followers for my absence.

No TV to watch and no Facebook Chat so I’m lying here doing absolutely nothing. Please RT.

I just updated my Skype mood message.

Maybe I’ll start using LinkedIn or Google+ now.

This was clearly the lighthearted day of my disconnect: I was in the library actually getting some of my essay done and socializing with people IRL who understood the trauma I was going through and who laughed along (always with that worried look in their eyes) as I explained how I was feeling. That positive reinforcement of a giggle or a nod was the closest thing I had to a retweet, and it felt great.

At the centre of an addiction to social media lies that need to tell everyone what’s going on all the time, and because I was in company for most of this day I was able to do that. But I wasn’t joking about my desire to send group texts and I could feel the same self-regulating urges at regular intervals, although admittedly they were already becoming few and further between. Similarly, my ‘tweets’ were no longer naturally less than 140 characters.

It was on this day that I started discussing the far-fetched fantasy that I could perhaps have managed to get a First if I’d been stricter with my social media use throughout my degree. This idea was of course completely rubbished as I realized that I didn’t even need to oscillate between open Facebook and Twitter tabs to procrastinate hardcore on the Internet. A friend commented that the amount of time I spend on my MacBook without actually doing anything is really quite impressive. I laughed and changed the subject, but what she’d said had really resonated; she’d summarized the only real psychological issue I have that social media can exacerbate that wasn’t my Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Humanity will always find something to do that isn’t what we actually need to do, if the task at hand isn’t pure recreation. The iterations of social networks that we now have play on that fact of life: they are intricately crafted to ensure that they take up as much of our time as possible with absolutely nothing quantifiable to show for it. Pinterest is exhibit A: a recent surveyfound out that everyone’s number 1 problem with that is the fact that it’s essentially a gigantic cyber time hole.

The fact that this blog post, despite its length, has taken over 4 months to materialize says it all. Every time I sit down to write it I end up refreshing Facebook and Twitter instead. And most of the time it’s not my main feed I’m repeatedly checking, it’s the slow flow of interactions, and occasionally my boyfriend’s profile if I’m feeling interested in anyone but myself. I’m the first to scream from the physical and digital rooftops that the SOCIAL element of social media makes any minor flaws completely worthwhile. But even I began questioning at this stage how social we actually need to be, and when does it start becoming antisocial?

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Day 3

This user will never exist again.

The word ‘deactivate’ has such crushing, terminal connotations.

Real lethargy and depression. I didn’t want to get out of bed. Where there was an active void there’s a passive one now, but it’s still an emptiness.

I feel so out of touch.

I am suspended in the solitary void of the offline not knowing whether to stop or start breathing, and there is no one I can tell.

Regardless of the various epiphanies I’d reached relating to the role of social media in my personal downfall/the downfall of humanity in general (I’m sure that Facebook is at the centre of the Mayan predictions, somehow), this was my breaking point. I was miserable and depressed and grumpy and I could no longer be productive. I googled various things about addictions and they told me that after I’d got past day 3 I was basically cured forever, but I couldn’t see past the pain of day 3 and the absence was becoming counterproductive again.

So I gave in and in the middle of my all-nighter I reactivated Twitter. My timeline was empty: I followed no one and no one followed me. But Twitter’s help pages told me it would take up to 48 hours for things to return to normal and I, of course, believed my beloved and immediately related the woes of my 72 hours offline to the absent audience. Just as Twitter had promised, by the time I awoke it was like the entire experience had been an awful nightmare. I got out of bed and I tweeted my dreams. Even though I’d ultimately failed and reactivated my accounts before my deadline, somehow I got my essay in on time. And it was the highest mark I received in my entire degree.

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There is no firm conclusion in this blog post: these are the standard ramblings of a narcissist with a Twitter account and a lot of tasks to avoid. If anyone’s trying to do research into social media addictions I’d be happy to be a case study, but you probably don’t have to leave your house to find someone who has it just as bad. And if all of this sounds completely ridiculous to you then I dare you to delete your Facebook right now, sign out of Twitter and attempt to live a normal life for the next few days. No? I thought not. See you at Social Media Addicts Anonymous.

*There’s a whole other blog post in this statement. Expect it next week. (Read: Next year by my standards.)
**I never returned to DrawSomething

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5 thoughts on “THIS USER DOES NOT EXIST: Confessions of a Twitter Addict who Deactivated Twitter

  1. excellent articulation of a very real NOW problem that is quietly taking us all without our consent -like any addiction, you never know you are addicted until you try to stop. Fascinating!

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