Saturday, Aug 15, 2009 12:15 PM UTC

Addicted to Twitter

How I learned that I was powerless over micro-blogging and my life had become unmanageable

Last Thursday morning, I sat down at my computer with my cup of sludgy coffee, just like any other day. I checked my e-mail and glanced at the New York Times Web site. But when I opened up Twitter, expecting the usual hodgepodge of scattered thoughts and hectic questions, I found there was nothing there. Nothing at all.

It was the day of the Great Twitter Outage. But I didn’t know that yet. I only knew that something was terribly wrong.

Actually, it was funny, in a kind of pathetic, soul-crushing way: I stared at the blank screen, hitting refresh over and over. Waiting for everyone to come back. For my online life to resume. Finally, I accepted the truth. Twitter, my favorite unreliable news source and constant companion, was gone.

So what did I do?

I walked away from the computer, and out the door, into the startling sunshine of an Atlanta summer morning. The kids and I played in the damp green of the backyard, and then we headed to the playground, where I sat on a park bench and watched my boys climb and swing. We got ice cream.

Only wherever I went — I took Twitter with me. I was thinking in Twitter! All afternoon, my mind percolated with 140-character thoughts that I longed to share with anyone. No, with everyone.

Overheard: “That guy is a little aspergie.” Can’t decide if I’m offended or not.

Why do preschool teachers NEED to glue food to things? I cannot put fruit loops in a scrapbook!

Does anyone else remember the book, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present? “She likes birds in trees” <sigh>

It was the oddest feeling. It was as though I were actually posting these thoughts. Formatting them and sending them to all my friends, through the mysterious ether of the Internet. Only I wasn’t. It was all in my head. I was just sitting there, on a park bench, twittering to no one. And that’s when I knew I had a problem.

My addiction shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I’m an absolute extrovert. The last girl to leave any party. I yammer at my seatmate on every plane ride. I ask nosy questions. For someone like me, the the interactive nature of the Web is a dream. I can always be talking to someone.

On top of that, I’m a stay-at-home mom who spends most of her time with two people who are just barely verbal. So the Internet is a magic tunnel from my diaper-filled cave into the world of adults.

If that weren’t enough, I’m also a children’s author. So the Web has become, for me, a promotional tool — a way to meet readers, librarians, bookstore people and teachers. I can Skype classroom visits and conduct interviews online. I can collaborate with other writers. It’s great.

Or it has been, anyway. Now I’m beginning to see the darker side. Yes, the Web feeds my career, my need for daily chatter and it lessens my sense of isolation. But it is also a time suck, a distraction, a wedge between me and the people I love best. And I blame Twitter.

I was OK with e-mail and Facebook. But Twitter! Twitter is different. It’s faster and bigger and looser. It’s the biggest cocktail party in the world, 24-7. And remember, I’m the girl who can’t leave a party.

It wasn’t always this way. I didn’t understand how it worked the first time I logged in. I’d heard it described as “micro-blogging” — but what did you do with it? I’d post, and then leave, only to try again the next day. But I wasn’t interacting. I hadn’t figured out its brilliance was the back-and-forth.

Now I understand you don’t do things with Twitter. You become a part of it. That’s why it doesn’t work when people try to use it as a sporadic “marketing tool” or check in every three days. Twitter is unspooling in real time, and so what happened an hour ago is, well, in the past. Nobody will bother to read what you tweeted four hours ago any more than people at a get-together will overhear what happened before they got there. Like any party, if you duck in and out for a few minutes, you miss all the best parts.

On Twitter, I can simultaneously ask 1,200 people, “Where should I get lunch at the Atlanta airport?” and in about three seconds, I’ll get a tweet: “there’s a great burger at the Sweetwater bar on concourse B”

On Twitter, I can entertain myself by messaging my heroes. I once wrote to Neil Gaiman: “Just wanting to know if someone with thousands of followers bothers to read their mail?”

He wrote back, “No.”

Twitter never goes to bed. Twitter is useful. Twitter is good. Twitter is too good. I have, at my fingertips, the world I have sought all my life. I can eavesdrop on conversations between editors. I can send messages to Bruce Springsteen. Stalk ex-boyfriends. Who wants to walk away from that? Why does anyone ever leave the house?

Well, um, because meanwhile — my kids are watching TV, the dishes are piling up, my new book is behind schedule. I haven’t showered. And I haven’t even noticed. I’m too busy to notice.

Or I was. Until suddenly, on Thursday, I hit that refresh button, over and over, willing Twitter to return. Feeling a little panicked.

Until I registered the fact that it was gone.

Until I untethered myself from my desk and confronted that pile of dirty dishes.

Until I emerged from the house and found I could not, even then, leave Twitter behind.

That made me sad. And it scared me. So, after mulling this over for a few days, I had a talk with my husband. “Don’t laugh,” I said. “But I think I have a problem with Twitter.”

I waited for him to smirk, tease me. He didn’t.

“Yeah, I’ve been wanting to say something about it for a while,” he said. “But I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“Oh,” I said. “Is it that bad?”

I cried then, just a little. To think I’d let such a thing happen. To think that I’d lost time with my kids, my husband. To think of the work I could have accomplished. But also, I cried because I knew, with a real sense of clarity, that this was an addiction. I cried because I knew I’d have to cut back. I’d have to disconnect.

Now I feel embarrassed, stupid for crying over the loss of Twitter. Of course my kids mean more. Of course I need to do the dishes. And yet what bothers me isn’t just that my kids have been watching TV. It isn’t just the house getting messy, or the fact that my husband and I don’t talk at night when I’m too busy chatting with 1,200 friends I’ve never met.

It’s all the mental and creative energy spent on words that don’t even get archived. It’s all the tweets that could have been conversations with my family. All the words I could have poured into poems or lines of dialogue or essays like this one. All the thoughts that should not be formatted, reduced, condensed to 140 characters. All the ideas meant for mulling. All the words best spoken to an audience of one (or none). It’s the idea that thinking is not a performance, hard as that can be for someone like me to accept.

So I quit cold turkey, spent a few days offline completely, in a kind of self-imposed intervention, which only reinforced my awareness of my addiction. In the morning, my need to touch the computer was nearly overpowering. I forced myself to read the paper (the actual paper). By evening, it was easier, and my husband and I went on a date (an actual date, with actual beer). By the next day, I felt freer, saner. Distance really helped.

But now, I’m unsure of how to proceed. My Twitter addiction isn’t quite like a drinking problem. I can’t just abstain altogether. I can’t keep the computer turned off.

Twitter, and Facebook, and googlechat, and e-mail and whatever comes next are not drugs, though they can become unhealthy. They’re daily tools, part of the world we live in. I really do need to communicate with people, check my calendar, pay my bills. I need to e-mail my editor daily, and there’s no way around that. I can’t move to a cabin in Wyoming and send letters by homing pigeon. Instead, I have to find a kind of moderation. I have to find a balance.

Which, for this week anyway, is taking the form of keeping track of my time. I am allowing myself no more than an hour online each day. I am using a stupid egg timer, and only replying to work-related e-mails. Which feels silly, childish, but that’s the price I pay for my overdose. Penance for the many hours of TV my kids watched this summer.

As for me and Twitter? Well, I can’t lie to you, I’m still there. I’m leaving my account up, and I have posted a few times each day this week, just to see what it feels like.

It feels OK, I guess.

But each time I post, I slam the computer shut with a wham! Each time it’s like I’m testing myself. Because with Twitter and me, the minute it feels too natural, the minute it feels like a real conversation, is the minute I start to worry.