A growing group of journalists has cut back on Twitter, or abandoned it entirely
In late June, The New York Times published an article by Noam Scheiber detailing discomfort staffers at The Ringer feel about managers’ commitment to racial diversity and inclusion. K. Austin Collins, a former Ringer employee, was one of four Black journalists to detail his frustrations for the article, and the only one quoted.
Scheiber’s piece on the sports and culture media company surfaced amid a broader transformation currently taking place within the media industry, in which Black journalists and other journalists of color are sharing long-held frustrations around their experiences with racism embedded in the culture of their workplaces.
Much of that conversation has been playing out on Twitter, in impassioned threads and replies.
Collins, however, hasn’t been weighing in. He hasn’t tweeted since the start of the year, and he deleted his past tweets. He still uses the social media platform’s search function and maintains an anonymous private account to check in on Twitter controversies — but not often.
His decision to abandon Twitter, motivated by a long-simmering sense that it wasn’t compatible with his emotional and intellectual well-being, served him well after the piece came out, he said.
“I think if I’d been on Twitter, I’d have been much more inclined to put the things out there that I said to the reporter that didn’t make it into the article, and say my piece,” Collins told Poynter. “But I just didn’t have that impulse. … Rather than hashing that out on Twitter, I’ve been texting with the journalist, talking to friends about it. That’s been healthier.”
Collins, now a film critic at Vanity Fair, is among a small but growing group of prominent journalists who have dramatically scaled back their use of Twitter at some point in the last couple of years. Some have deleted previous tweets and self-imposed a ban on posting new ones. Others have deactivated their accounts, erasing their digital footprints from the site. Still others have removed the app from their devices or given their passwords to friends and asked them not to give them back.
Many journalists use Twitter to connect with sources they might not otherwise reach; to drive traffic and attention to their published work; to rally support for union drives; and yes, often for fun and frivolity. During the last few months, amid an unprecedented global pandemic and nationwide protests for racial equality, the site has been a valuable platform for journalists assessing the rapidly evolving state of the nation and calling attention to the challenges they face covering it.
But for all the value journalists can extract from Twitter, they can also fall victim to its less savory aspects: engaging in petty squabbles over esoteric issues; fielding bigotry and bad-faith attacks from anonymous users and bots; enduring relentless brain stimulation that can distort perception and distract from more pressing responsibilities.
Talking to journalists who have softened or even eliminated their relationship with Twitter highlights the role the platform now plays in nearly every facet of the journalistic process.
It would be an exaggeration to declare that a mass exodus is taking place among journalists. No one I interviewed for this article said they believe all journalists should leave Twitter, or they wholly dislike Twitter, or there’s nothing to be gained from using the platform.
During a particularly urgent period for news, their perspectives highlight the possibilities for a media ecosystem that’s more critical of Twitter as a central medium for sharing, debating and even generating news.
What if everyone just…*whispers* logged off?
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) July 8, 2020
Getting noticed, for better and worse
Many journalists credit their professional accomplishments to relationships they first cultivated on Twitter.
Collins joined the social media platform as a graduate student in the early 2010s. He started to gain a following as a writer around the time he published a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books about Spike Lee’s film “Chi-Raq.” That article, he said, made its way to an editor at The Ringer, who followed him on Twitter for a month before reaching out and eventually offering him a staff writer job there.
Collins said he’s part of a generation of women and people of color who used Twitter to get attention from editors who might otherwise never be exposed to their perspectives.
For writers who don’t have full-time staff roles, that reality is even more acute. Rawiya Kameir, a freelance music journalist who writes frequently for Pitchfork, was an early adopter to Twitter in 2008. A few years later, she had free time while recovering from a broken ankle, so she started tweeting opinions about music. Before long, she developed enough of a following that editors started reaching out to her for assignments.
Kam Burns, who works on social media and audience engagement for Wired, used Twitter to network and find job openings after he graduated from college in 2017. He’s also on the organizing committee for the Trans Journalists Association, which was born out of Twitter conversations that eventually moved to Facebook and then Slack.
Journalists who belong to marginalized groups and live in small towns where they might not be interacting with other marginalized people in person can form valuable communities by connecting with others on Twitter, Burns said. “I think that’s a very valid reason to be on the app,” he said.
Twitter can also amplify voices in less savory ways. Julie Bien, a freelance writer and editor who teaches journalism to undergraduate students at California State University, Northridge, in 2011 gave a middling review to a comedy album by Rachel Bloom, now the co-creator and star of TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” After Bien tweeted a link to her piece, someone she didn’t know started blasting her mentions and contacting other people she knew.
“It caught me by surprise because it was a blog post, not even an op-ed, reviewing a comedy album,” Bien said. “It really caught me off guard how this person was like, ‘You’re going to hell. You’re a terrible human being.’”
She hasn’t used her personal handle since 2013.
A 2018 Amnesty International report found that 7.1% of tweets sent to more than 750 study participants (female journalists and politicians based in the U.S. and the U.K.) were “problematic” or “abusive” — and those numbers were much higher for Black and Latinx women than for white women.
Earlier this year, a Washington Post reporter had to temporarily move to a hotel to evade death threats after, in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, she tweeted the link to a Daily Beast article about the basketball star’s sexual assault trial.
This month, several trans journalists faced online abuse and threats of violence after they tweeted criticism of an open letter decrying “cancel culture” that was signed by several prominent people with a history of anti-trans rhetoric.
“Twitter was never a great place for trans-spectra people but it’s just endlessly triggering and toxic right now,” said Ændrew Rininsland, who is non-binary. Rininsland works on interactive data storytelling for the Financial Times and has been especially keen on cutting back on Twitter usage in the weeks since the letter.
Women, people of color and LGBTQ people might be discouraged from entering the field, Bien contends, if they know they’ll have to experience hate speech and physical threats as occupational hazards.
“It points to a lot of inherent bias in the world of journalism — we ask the most vulnerable populations to make themselves more vulnerable while asking them to also be very careful about what they say and how they say it,” she wrote in an email.
Harassment doesn’t just come from anonymous trolls; President Donald Trump has taken to Twitter on numerous occasions to berate reporters by name. And Kameir has had two celebrity musicians (Lizzo and Halsey) disparage Pitchfork to their millions of followers after they disagreed with Kameir’s assessment of their albums.
Kameir had already left Twitter at that point. Even when she was on Twitter, she typically only looked at notifications from people she followed, so she wasn’t overexposed to the waves of negativity flooding her feed after those celebrity outbursts.
Once in a while, “I would click over and it would be a nightmare,” Kameir said. “That’s not a motivating factor.”
What qualifies as “news”
Justin Charity, a staff writer covering politics and culture for The Ringer, deactivated his Twitter account in 2018. Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he realized he hadn’t tweeted for 10 days in a row. “It felt like ‘Shawshank Redemption.’ I was like, get out now, get out of the house,” he said.
He had been feeling increasingly disillusioned with the impulse that led him to participate in the Twitter conversations of the day, even when he didn’t feel personally invested in them or when the circulating opinions lacked nuance and context. The incident that crystallized this feeling for him, though, happened after he had already left.
On Jan. 18, 2019, a video surfaced on Twitter that purported to show a standoff at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., between high school students from Covington, Kentucky, wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and attending an anti-abortion rally and a Native American activist who was protesting the rally.
The immediate headline was, as Time magazine put it, “Kentucky Teens Wearing ‘MAGA’ Hats Taunt Indigenous Peoples March Participants in Viral Video.” But a longer video that emerged the next day clarified that the Native American activist had in fact placed himself near the students to help defuse tension between them and nearby members of the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Charity couldn’t help but shake his head at the role journalists on Twitter played in elevating the video to a nationally discussed spectacle that led to hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement funds for Covington student Nick Sandmann in defamation suits against CNN and The Washington Post.
“I used to live in D.C., I used to go running on the Mall. The idea that different political factions have weird soapbox political encounters in D.C. is not an abnormal thing,” he said. “If you sit and think about what was happening in the Covington video, s— like that happens all the time. It was just a clash of political perspectives and personalities in a way that didn’t have to mean anything.”
Being on Twitter too much can also put writers in the mindset of assuming their primary audience is other people on Twitter, said Corey Atad, a Toronto-based freelance culture writer who deactivated his account earlier this year. That can be particularly problematic when a high percentage of a journalist’s followers are other media people.
The introduction of conversation threading in 2015 accelerated the pace of Twitter discourse in harmful ways, Atad said. “It puts a primacy on having a take on something, which I struggled with for a while because on the one hand it’s very addictive to do that and to participate in that, but then as a writer it becomes limiting.”
Social media platforms like Twitter can pose obstacles to journalists’ ability to separate fact from fiction. In the early days of the pandemic, several prominent reporters retweeted a fake account’s false claim that the movie star Daniel Radcliffe had contracted the virus. A 2020 study from the Institute for the Future posited that 80% of journalists said they’ve fallen for disinformation or false reports online.
That’s not to say that Twitter can’t lead to worthwhile journalism. Jeff Jarvis, a journalist and professor at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, argued in a 2019 essay that platforms like Twitter help connect journalists to people who they might not otherwise prioritize in their reporting.
“If you are an African American who is shopping or barbecuing or eating lunch or going into your own home when a white person calls the police on you, you do not have a newsroom of journalists who look like you who will tell your story because they, too, have lived it,” Jarvis wrote. “The outlet you have is a hashtag on Twitter.”
Collins had an experience earlier this year that clarified another positive service Twitter can provide. He emerged from a film screening to the news that acting legend Kirk Douglas had died at the age of 102. Hours later, a friend texted him a link to a Twitter discussion that had emerged about Douglas’ alleged sexual assault of the actress Natalie Wood. “I was late to that conversation,” but it was worth having, Collins said.
Most working journalists in 2020 feel compelled to be on Twitter. Jarvis argues that journalists conversing on Twitter amounts to increasing transparency between the media and the public.
Burns, who stopped tweeting and checking his personal account earlier this month, said his bosses at Wired never required him to maintain a personal Twitter account or monitor the platform after hours. But he sometimes found success writing tweets for the Wired account using memes he had seen while scrolling the app during off hours the night before.
In some cases, editors and managers do insist.
In 2012, when Stella Bugbee was on staff at New York Magazine as editorial director of The Cut, her supervisors called a companywide meeting and told everyone they needed to join Twitter if they hadn’t already, to share their work and develop online personalities that audiences were eager to follow.
“There were people on our staff who had been on Twitter for a while and were pretty far along with followers. I distinctly remember being like, oh no, I’ll never be able to catch up,” Bugbee said. “It became a challenge.”
For a while, she had fun socializing with people and airing her thoughts. But a few years in, as the contentious 2016 presidential election loomed, the fun started to drain out. Bugbee felt obligated to participate in arguments over ephemeral trends and incendiary comments, including some of her own.
One day, something snapped. Bugbee deleted all of her tweets, and stopped checking the app on her phone and computer.
Bugbee, now editor-in-chief of The Cut, still keeps tabs on her feed from time to time and pops in to tweet about her publication’s events and accomplishments. But audience engagement metrics from the platform for her publication’s articles increasingly fail to reflect their actual popularity, she said.
“The false sense that something’s taking off on Twitter is not a good feeling necessarily,” she said, because sometimes that same story has failed to gain readership from other platforms.
“It’s only one source of feedback,” Bugbee said.
Many young journalists are encouraged by professors or internship supervisors to maintain a social media presence to get noticed by editors and hiring managers. A memo this spring from a committee of Washington Post staffers to their editors, shared (naturally) on Twitter by New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, offers another window into the dynamic:
“Editors often assign stories based on what is trending and what competitors or sources are saying on Twitter. When editors ‘flag’ tweets or mention observations from Twitter during meetings, some reporters feel they are receiving mixed messages — they’re told they don’t need to be on Twitter to be successful in their jobs, but they’re expected to monitor everything their competitors and sources are tweeting.”
Charity worries about the sense of obligation journalists feel to remain on Twitter. He was in college when the practice of offering unpaid newsroom internships was starting to become taboo. “People seemed to all be on the same page about what you’re asking people to give of themselves in order to even get in the door in journalism. That felt encouraging at the time. But I think in retrospect we just replaced it with Twitter,” he said.
“Now, more internships have better terms, but instead the thing you need to do is leverage your entire identity and personality to perform a journalistic brand on Twitter. To me it feels like backsliding from what the whole conversation was,” Charity said. “… People put so much of themselves into that forum. (Twitter CEO) Jack Dorsey isn’t paying them. It feels like a sham to me.”
For some who have moved away from Twitter, the problem isn’t the content so much as the existence of a tool for distraction. Rose Hoban, founder and editor of the online publication North Carolina Health News, said she used to spend an hour a day scrolling and retweeting, at the urging of younger colleagues, in hopes of attracting some eyes to her fledgling publication.
It mostly didn’t work. “Maybe we’d get six readers a day from Twitter,” she said. When she live-tweeted health care committee meetings, two or three people would closely follow, but “I always feel like it doesn’t really produce a lot of return.”
Hoban worries that she’s confirming her younger employees’ perception of her as out of touch. But she finds herself agonizing too much over the right tone: “I am stretched in so many directions. I don’t have the time to sit down and compose the perfect tweet.”
Still, she’s used Twitter more for work since the pandemic started, and she’s hardly alone in going back and forth. The Internet is littered with articles by prominent writers declaring that they are abandoning Twitter once and for all — but in many cases, searching for those writers’ handles on Twitter confirms they’ve since returned.
Abraham Riesman, a culture writer for New York Magazine, co-wrote an early 2016 article entitled “Good-bye to All That Twitter.” But he’s dipped in and out since, in part because he’s promoting an upcoming book. He can’t argue with the results; earlier this year, he noticed that his book shot to the top of an Amazon preorder list shortly after he tweeted about it.
But being on Twitter, scrolling through what feels like an endless stream of dispiriting news, “I tend to be more enraged and despondent, and also more buzzed. It gives me this high that’s kind of incomparable,” he said. “It’s the high of snorting crushed information and having it go straight into your bloodstream.”
During the pandemic, he’s tried to focus more on acknowledging the role Twitter has played, both positive and negative, in his personal and professional life. “Like any addiction, you can’t rid yourself of it until you admit that it is an addiction,” he said.
He’s also tried to apply some lessons from his experiences on Twitter to his writing. He’s more deliberate with his word choices because he doesn’t want to write something that could invite bad-faith readings and turn him into “the main character of Twitter that day.” And he tries to be more concise, knowing that his pieces enter “an unbelievably saturated environment” once they’re published. “You have to be able to resonate with a reader on a level that they’re going to devote you a lot of attention and benefit of the doubt,” he said.
How it feels to leave
In response to questions about the benefits and drawbacks of journalists using Twitter, a spokesperson for the company shared a statement: “Twitter is an invaluable tool for journalists, and the quickest way for the public to find and consume their reporting, which is why we believe it’s critical that journalists feel safe and empowered on our platform. We know that isn’t always the case, and have been transparent over the past several years about the improvements we’re making to promote healthy conversation and build tools to ensure the safety of journalists.”
The company has taken steps to address concerns like the ones I heard from journalists while reporting this article. New tools allow users to hide replies to their tweets and limit who can reply, and the company said it has increased the numbers of accounts it locks or suspends for violating the platform’s rules. Last week, the company announced a concerted effort to ban users linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Still, every journalist who has left Twitter had something positive to say about the experience of no longer using it.
Charity said it’s given his writing a different “accent” that’s more open to expressing ambivalence and exploring varied perspectives.
Collins has felt more freedom to be funny in his criticism now that he’s not dispensing his quips in 280 characters or less.
Burns has appreciated the respite from pandemic horror stories that have been flooding his personal feed for months. “Reading those accounts throughout the day is so draining, and not necessary to grasp what’s happening,” he said.
Deactivating Twitter has helped Kameir to alleviate anxiety. “I’m a little bit clearer and can draw from broader references and can think about things in a more contextual way than a reactive way. … I feel a lot more confident in my work,” she said.
Several Twitter abandoners also mentioned recognizing that the world is much larger than the ecosystem of active tweeters would suggest. Twitter announced in 2019 that it has 126 million daily active users worldwide — fewer than the number of adults in the U.S. alone.
Collins said coming from a lower-class Black family from the South gives him a window into a world many white journalists on Twitter have never seen. “The people in my life, the people I’m related to, are just having completely different conversations,” whether it’s assessments of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, or opinions of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” an online lightning rod that more people liked and found acceptable than the Twitter narrative would suggest, Collins said.
Toward a healthier relationship
Distancing oneself from Twitter doesn’t mean entirely ignoring its place in the world. Charity has handpicked a handful of individual people’s accounts he can check to take the temperature of Twitter chatter on a particular issue. Bugbee now largely follows publications’ handles rather than the people who work for them. Rininsland has retreated to the open-source platform Mastodon, which bills itself as a friendlier alternative to Twitter.
Karen K. Ho, a reporter for Quartz, has spent the last several months tweeting daily reminders for her Twitter followers to break the bad-news-addiction habit of “doomscrolling.”
Leaving Twitter also doesn’t have to be permanent to have a lasting effect. Atad reactivated a few weeks ago to help boost a friend who was looking for work after leaving her journalism job. He’s found the platform useful for tracking protests as they happen, rather than relying on descriptions in news articles that might leave out important context.
Deactivating for a prolonged period helped him develop a healthier relationship with the site, he said. He might deactivate again before long. “People have to be mindful about using it as a tool versus it taking over their life,” he said.
Collins now sees the slower pace and visual appeal of Instagram as a more pleasant alternative to Twitter. He’s contemplated sharing his articles on Instagram Stories with clips from movies he recommends, and he’s been swapping stories with fellow Black journalists using Instagram’s “Close Friends” feature, which allows users to control who can view their interactions.
He’s not alone: Instagram appears poised to pull ahead of Twitter among social media sites that online audiences use as sources of news, and already has for users between 18 and 24 years old, according to a 2020 Reuters report.
Gone are some of the Media Twitter tropes that most irritated Collins: journalists sharing work because it’s written by their friends rather than explaining why it’s worth reading; phrases like “Let that sink in” or “Let me be clear;” threads that make his eyes blur no matter how riveting the subject matter. Gone are the bad feelings about news developments being reinforced by his peers’ tweets. Gone is the ambivalence about sharing an animal video or something else that doesn’t comport with his professional side.
He knows not everyone can afford to abandon Twitter altogether. But he thinks some journalists might benefit from limiting their intake or adjusting their reliance.
“I can’t say that I’ve been slow to get intel on any mass shootings that have happened, or on things like (COVID-19), or celebrities dying. I certainly tend to be hyper-aware of every new release date that the new Christopher Nolan movie has had,” Collins said. “I just don’t feel that I’m missing anything.”
Mark Lieberman is a reporter based in the Washington, D.C., metro area. His writing currently appears in Education Week, and he has bylines in The Washington Post, DCist, Inside Higher Ed, Vulture, Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Vox, USA Today and The Week Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkALieberman, where he might be lurking less than usual after writing this story.
July 28, 2020 at 12:51PM