Mark Zuckerberg launched Meta’s Twitter clone Threads last week, with more than 100 million users signing up in the first seven days. The Meta opportunity was spawned in large part because Twitter is collapsing after spectacularly bad decisions by its owner, Elon Musk.
But instead of criticizing Musk for his poor business choices, we should be praising him. By making it more and more difficult being on Twitter the way its users liked it, it created a golden opportunity for millions of people to partially free themselves from a terrible addiction to social networks.
About 20% of Americans use Twitter and manage to get rid of this time waster. We can finally reduce our need for that little dopamine hit that came from the platform. We should look at Twitter’s collapse as an accidental gift from Musk and not replace it with another social media platform.
We are all more and more online. In 2010, only 11% of Americans age 65 and older were on social media; now 45% of that age group are, according to a Pew Research survey. Twelve years ago, about a third of people between the ages of 50 and 64 had a social media account; now it’s three-quarters. And about half of Americans aged 18 to 29 say they are “almost constantly online.”
In fact, in the pre-Musk era, 66% of Twitter users indicated that they visited the platform at least once a week. They did this even though the overwhelming majority of users said they found inaccurate or misleading information on the site, with a third of them saying there was “too much” of this type of content. And 26% of people said it increased their stress levels.
Scientific studies suggest that this addictive behavior pattern has rewired our brains over the years. Internet addiction is recognized as a phenomenon “characterized by excessive or obsessive use of computers online and offline that leads to distress and impairment” by the American Psychological Assn. For children and teenagers, it’s even worse. Research shows that there are negative brain development consequences for teenagers who check social media regularly.
But by making Twitter less useful and less fun, Musk is forcing us to reduce our reliance on his product. It’s like he was in the cigarette business and suddenly rationed our access to a third of a cigarette a day (unless you paid extra for a pack with a blue check mark, of course).
Now addicts are faced with two options. Option A: Switch to a similar cigarette company like Threads, Mastodon, BlueSky, or even Truth Social (which leaves a terrible taste in your mouth). Or option B: Drastically cut back on smoking.
Consider option B.
There are certainly downsides to consciously parting ways with a 24/7 short content service. Twitter really can be a great tool for news investigations and monitoring. I first learned about COVID-19 in late 2019 when someone tweeted that Wuhan, China – a metropolis the size of Chicago – was disrupting bus and train service.
And real social connections can be forged there. I have relationships with people I’ve met on Twitter that I’ve never met in real life. And I met people in real life after connecting with them for the first time on the platform. I even got a job once through a contact I met on Twitter.
On the other hand, I also have friends who got kicked off the platform and had to go into hiding in real life. I was harassed there by ISIS fanboys, Hezbollah fanatics, anti-Semites and various right-wing personalities. Being a woman on Twitter often looks awful. So, it’s a mixed bag.
Still, I didn’t leave Twitter. But I also didn’t go into Threads or any other alternatives. And my phone indicates that my screen usage has dropped dramatically since Musk announced this month that non-paying users would have more restrictions on how much they see on the platform.
Let’s be honest: those who like Twitter will probably still check it occasionally. We may not have completely kicked the habit, but by fundamentally screwing up his product, Musk is putting us squarely on the road to recovery.
Aki Peritz is a former CIA analyst and author of “Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History”.