In what would be my final tweet, I wrote that I'd discovered a new, "surprisingly good" organic soda and asked if any of my followers had tried it. But before they could answer, my account had vanished, along with more than 80,000 tweets expressing the triumphs, tragedies and transient moods of the past three years of my life.
I had suddenly, without warning, deleted my Twitter account. Or to use the popular term, I'd "committed Twittercide."
Not even my closest friends had seen it coming, though I'd been planning it for weeks. It had been a calculated decision to keep it to myself; I didn't want anyone to talk me out of it.
* * *
Twitter was, I'd often insisted, a fantastic marketing tool as well as a terrific "writing practice." As a journalist, I lived by William Faulkner's tenet of "you must kill your darlings" (i.e., delete excess words and literary self-indulgences), and Twitter, with its "140 character or less" tweet limit, forced me to craft short, punchy sentences to express my thought of the day. Or the hour. Or sometimes, literally, the minute.
But Twitter was more than an interactive writing practice: it was my personal and professional "online community." My followers included thousands of fans who would congratulate me on my latest films, suggest future scene pairings, or post links to "customer reviews" I could then re-tweet to my 20,000+ followers. I exchanged tweets with my girlhood beauty icon, the astonishingly-gracious Andie McDowell, and became "Twitter-pals" with an award-winning science writer I'd long idolized.
Twitter has the paradoxical ability to make the world at once bigger and smaller: housewives and celebrities, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and porn stars, become suddenly, weirdly accessible to each other. The resulting exchanges can be hilarious, charming, and often a little surreal.
But there's also a dark side. The once-solitary ritual of memorializing one's private thoughts has become a device for casual social interaction, and it's hard to know what to keep to ourselves anymore. Increasingly, the answer is: Nothing. Even the deaths of friends or loved ones are events to be "live-tweeted," our grief inanely expressed with "sad face" emoticons and abbreviated, hash-tagged sentiments: #RIP #uwillbmissed.
Through Twitter I learned that even people I knew "in real life" weren't always who I'd thought they were. Someone's casual, stream-of-consciousness tweets might reveal them to be a vapid bore, an awful speller, a two-faced "frenemy," or a humorless jerk. I "un-followed" or "blocked" offending tweeters. Sometimes, that offending tweeter was me.
The pitfalls of social media were hardly new terrain for me, though, and I'd struggled with my feelings about Twitter for years. Yet, no matter how much anxiety or stress it had caused me to "join the conversation," I'd concluded that Twitter's benefits, both personal and professional, were too good to give up.
Or maybe I was just addicted.
Addiction and its less-hardcore comrade, compulsion, are distinguished by their power to consume us, distract us, and prevent us from giving attention to more important things. As our sense of helplessness grows, we may look for ways to assign our habit redeeming -- even useful -- qualities. When it came to me and Twitter, I'd always invoke the "kill your darlings" defense: Twitter's character limit helped me to write in brief, I'd tell anyone who asked why I "tweeted so much." It was an invaluable tool for me as a writer -- maybe the best writing practice I'd ever had.
The problem was that, aside from constructing tweets, I wasn't doing much writing. I'd go for days or even weeks without updating my daily journal, pitching a new magazine article or working on my memoir, yet not a day went by when I didn't tweet. A lot. It was becoming harder to deny that Twitter was keeping me from writing more important things. That it was just one big, self-indulgent "darling" in disguise.
I was wrestling with that disturbing insight, when I embarked on a new relationship with someone I'd met and fallen hard for. To refrain from mentioning him on Twitter, where for years I'd shared up-to-the-minute plays of my personal life, seemed unthinkable. Yet, when I tweeted about him, I felt as if I were violating something sacred. Something private. This new state of mind was so foreign to me that at first I didn't recognize it, but there it was: I didn't want to share what I was feeling. Not with friends or coworkers, or curious exes secretly perusing my tweets. Not with fans, trolls, or industry gossip hounds.
So what is there left for me to tweet? I can always stick to promoting my movies, or re-tweet gushy compliments about how great I am. I can cheerfully announce when I've completed "60 minutes of cardio on the StairMaster!" or report that a new, organic soda I've just tried is "surprisingly good." I can limit myself to the kind of insipid tweets I'd once considered a complete waste of time. Or, I can delete my account and focus on "real life," so that I might write about it (and yes, share it) in a meaningful way.
I can allow myself to once again construct rich narratives, rather than reduce my every feeling and idea to a clever sound bite. I can stop distracting you (and myself) with frivolous musings and attempt to write something that will stay with you longer than my 27th-and-counting tweet of the day.
I can kill my darlings and write only what's essential, but I'll need more than 140 characters to do it. I just might need a whole book.