Context: I’m working through some things at the moment. As I do I will try to share parts of it that I think will be useful to other people, but these will still be somewhat personal and will be heavily redacted.
Epistemic status: My understanding of both addiction and the mind are at best simplified, at worst may be very flawed without my realising it, but the conclusions still seem to be useful for me.
Attention conservation notice: 90% problem framing, 10% solution. Skip to the end if you just want the idea.
Hi, my name is @DRMacIver, and I’m addicted to Twitter.
I know there’s a lot of moralising panic around internet addiction, and I don’t want to feed that, so let me just state outright: I’m not here to judge your Twitter usage. Mine is on the high side, and when I try to correct that it tends to revert to its previously high state after a short while, and I don’t like that. Your Twitter usage may be fine for you.
I don’t think the comparison is unwarranted though. Twitter is basically a Skinner box.
The only other addiction I have struggled with is caffeine (my flatmate jokes about my struggles with the mildest addiction in the world. Though I think this underestimates how bad caffeine addiction actually is, I’ll certainly grant that it’s not up there with a lot of the more serious ones).
These feel pretty similar from the inside – there is a gap between the state I want to be in and the state I am in, and closing that gap requires a state of constant willpower even after I’ve seemingly fixed the problem.
Addictions in general seem to have at least two parts: The inherent addiction, and the problem that you are using the addiction to solve. It’s not that the rats in the rat park don’t get addicted, but because they don’t have the problem of social isolation that the rats in the cage are solving with drugs, they are able to wean themselves off it.
This has been my experience with caffeine. Previously when I quit caffeine I would get through the initial awful couple of days, the merely crap week or two, and then I’d no longer be addicted to caffeine.
I’d also be exhausted all the time. As well as being an addiction, the caffeine was something I was using to self-medicate, and without it the problem that I was using it to solve came back. I didn’t like being exhausted all the time, so I inevitably started drinking caffeine again.
I don’t have a caffeine addiction these days. Sometimes I drink caffeine. Occasionally I do so often enough in a row that I accidentally re-addict myself, and then get mild headaches when I stop. It’s mostly fine.
Once I mostly sorted out my sleep (thanks, nose surgery) and found some medication that worked better for me than caffeine (sorry, this is one of the redacted bits. Talk to your GP and/or dodgy grey-market internet pharmacy, but obviously I cannot condone the latter option), I managed to get my baseline up to “kinda tired but mostly functional”, which seems to be good enough that I don’t automatically fall off the caffeine wagon.
So what’s the equivalent for Twitter? What need is the addiction fulfilling?
Well, uh, I made a list. It has eight items on it, in roughly three different categories. Turns out that it may be a tire fire hellsite hot take machine, but it does seem to fulfil some genuine needs in my life.
Most of that list is on the redacted pile (I may write about some of it later), and some of them are probably unsolvable without solving massive coordination problems, but one thing stood out as worth sharing and actually solvable. It’s also a problem that is worth solving in and of its own right, even if it doesn’t make a dent in the addiction: Twitter has become a place where part of my extended mind lives, and that’s not a great idea.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but trying to think things through bare-brained is terrible. Try just sitting there, closing your eyes, and thinking through a problem. Even if you’re one of those weirdos who can paint imaginary pictures on the back of your eyelids, there’s a really hard limit to how much you can handle on one brain alone. Even if you have a much better focus than I do and can actually keep yourself on track, your working memory is only so large. Mine is pretty good I think, but I still very rapidly hit my limits when solving complex problems.
The solution of course is to stop trying to think with just your brain. Maybe this is more obvious if you’ve trained as a mathematician, I don’t know – certainly a lot of why this is obvious to me is that the idea of trying to prove a theorem without writing it down as you go is basically laughable for most of us. A mathematician with a pen and paper is an infinitely more capable creature than a bare-brained mathematician, because their working memory has expanded enormously.
It goes beyond that of course. We think of language as the tool to explain our thoughts, but that’s mostly nonsense. Language is as much a tool for thinking as it is a tool for communication – there’s a reason why explaining yourself to a rubber duck is such a powerful technique for understanding things.
So how do you expand your intelligence? Using a tried and true method: You write it down. Suppose you have a thought and you go “Hmm there’s something there”. Even if you don’t care about capturing it, writing it down will significantly help you expand on and flesh out the thought.
So, as my mind buzzes away throughout the day (honestly, damn thing won’t shut up. I’m working on it), a thought surfaces, I want to expand on it, so I write it down.
Well, Twitter, obviously. It’s the most readily available medium for short ephemeral pieces of text that I want to think through. I’m already using it, and there’s a little text box I can just write stuff down in right there.
This seems like a bad life choice, even independently of the general desire to reduce Twitter usage.
As well as resulting in a rather noisy timeline (I have several friends who have unfollowed me because they couldn’t deal with the volume. Sorry), it also has an unpleasant shaping effect – I don’t want to be a person who is only able to think properly about things that are expressible in publicly visible 280 character chunks. A lot of things I think about do not fit into that category, either because size, personal nature, or any one of a number of other things that would make just really not want to share them on Twitter.
Anyway, i don’t know how to solve the Twitter problem more broadly, but this one I can solve.
Like I said, I’m working through some things at the moment. One way I’m doing that is by making use of that extended intelligence I talked about above by writing about the problems that I am trying to solve, by hand, in a physical journal. This has proven pretty helpful in an occasionally-terrifying sort of way.
I would like to keep doing this, but my track record with keeping journals is pretty poor, as is my track record with forming a habit of doing difficult things.
So, to recap, I have:
- A compulsive habit of writing down my thoughts in a place that I would like to stop using for that.
- A place for writing down my thoughts that I’m worried that I’m not going to use enough.
Yeah I don’t see the connection either. Maybe if I stare at it a bit longer.
Anyway, so that’s what I’ve been doing over the last couple of days. When I feel the desire to tweet to think through something, I (usually) write it down in the journal first. If I still feel the need to tweet something about it, I can, but the journal is the place where thoughts go to form, and Twitter is where I share them.
We’ll see if I keep this up. It’s looking pretty good so far, but things usually do for the first week or so.
Anyway, that’s it. No snappy conclusion to tie all this up, sorry. Just a thing I’m trying – It might work, it might not, but I thought I’d write it up now while I was getting started and the idea was reasonably fresh.