Recently I had one of those dreams. I woke up wanting to forget it immediately, like most dreams. But it reached out from the depths of my subconscious with a message that rippled and reverberated through my waking day. You know those dreams? They’re sticky.
In my dream, I’m sitting at the bedside of an older woman. She looks familiar. I can’t place how I know her — she isn’t my mother or an aunt — but I can’t shake the feeling that we are related. The woman holds my hand. She is dying.
‘Bridget,’ she asks, ‘how do you feel about the time you spend on Twitter?’
What a weird question for a woman on her deathbed to be asking, I think. Nonetheless, her question makes me defensive. I find myself immediately listing all the positive aspects of my Twitter experience.
‘In many ways, Twitter has given me wings,’ I explain. ‘Through it, I’ve met editors and publishers. I’ve grown a fan base. Through this crazy hellsite I’ve connected with people all over the world. I’ve managed to find like-minded individuals in an intensely polarized political moment, and we’ve reached out in the darkness and supported one another through pandemics, social unrest and celebrity deaths. Twitter might even be a large part of the reason I got sober in the first place. I could only look at tweet after tweet about being blacked out and drunk before it occurred to me that I might have a real drinking problem. It’s been the source of almost all the interviews I’ve found for my podcast and the inspiration for my YouTube show. Every single penny I’m making can probably be directly or indirectly traced back to Twitter.’
The dying woman nods as she listens, almost as if she is remembering something from a distant time. She seems to intuit my defensiveness. It’s like she can see right through my rationalizations to the truth in my heart.
‘And what is the downside?’
The downside. Well. Where do I begin? Like everyone, I have a love-hate relationship with social media. To be honest, I’ve always been skeptical of it and never really wanted to join in. Twitter is my fix, but you can insert any other social media platform you’re addicted to and what I’ll say will probably be true with minor variations.
The downside is that it robs me of joy. This is ironic. In the cyberpunk novels about our dystopian future, we plug into virtual reality to escape the horror of real-life reality. Those sci-fi writers have it backwards. I’ll be doomscrolling, freaking out about the world burning and look outside. My dog, Hope, sleeps peacefully under the orange tree. Butterflies and birds fly by. It looks like a Disney movie from outside, but inside I’m fighting strangers, bots and trolls, thinking I’m some kind of hero — when really I’m a moron making myself miserable.
All I have to do is log out, but I’m a slave to my online persona. And she’s a slave to the algorithm, and we must feed the algorithm. Sure, all these platforms are free, but the algorithm demands a toll. And it’s nothing less than our souls.
Social media robs me of being present with the people and animals who deserve it the most. How many times have you sat in bed scrolling next to your partner? When I was waitressing I’d see entire tables of friends and family all looking down into their boxes. Not engaging. Not interacting. Not realizing that we are here together and then we are gone. Not aware that tragedy could strike any moment and we will have squandered those last precious moments with those closest to us chasing likes, ego strokes and dopamine. How many times has my dog stared at me, begging to go for a walk, while I ignore her pleading eyes for just one more refresh? Someday she will be gone and I will give anything for one more walk with her.
It robs us of time, the most precious and limited resource in life. The amount of time I’ve squandered on social media is embarrassing. Instead of learning Spanish or writing one of the five books I’ve been threatening to write, or reading any of the hundreds of books on my list, or gardening or painting or doing any of the multitude of things life has to offer — I’m trying to win a battle of wits which has no winner and no prize and no end.
At a certain point during my extended travels around the world I realized that traveling, which I thought could never be a bad thing, had become another form of escapism. I thought I was Hemingway, greedily feeding at the trough of life’s experiences. But in reality, I didn’t want to face my demons, my lack of discipline, my low self-worth and my alcoholism. I feel the same about Twitter. I justify it for work or human connection or networking, but at a certain point, I have to face that it’s nothing more than another addiction, a thief robbing me of happiness, potential and time.
As all of this flashes through my head in the dream, I look at the old woman dying and suddenly realize she’s me. It’s me on my deathbed, looking back at how I’ve recklessly spent my time. I wake up, filled with shame and regret and a resolve to be different.
Wow, I think. I really need to tweet about that.
This article is in The Spectator’s August 2020 US edition.