Stretching Out: What Twitter does to our sense of time
This lesson from offline spaces can be applied to digital habits, especially the ones that shape our experience of time. Which digital rhythms are we actively following because they make us feel good, and which are we entrained to?
The past few weeks, watching people weigh alternatives to Twitter, I’ve been reminded of a moment that occurs in every episode of “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” She makes her clients put every piece of clothing they own into a giant (often horrifying) pile before going through it, holding and addressing each garment individually. Although Kondo is sometimes written off as a minimalist who tells you to get rid of everything, to me, her work has more to do with intention and cultivating meaningful ties to the things you have. Clients on the show often end up reckoning with their identities — who they are and who they want to be — and with fundamental shifts they’ve been too scared or busy to take on. For Kondo, to arrange your things is to arrange your best self and your idea of the good life.
This lesson from offline spaces can be applied to digital habits, especially the ones that shape our experience of time. Which digital rhythms are we actively following because they make us feel good, and which are we entrained to? Entrainment, a term that originated in biology and then spread to the social sciences, refers to the alignment of an organism’s physiology or behavior with a cycle; the most familiar example would be our circadian rhythm. The signal driving entrainment, in this case light and dark, is called a “zeitgeber” (German for “time giver”).
The concept of entrainment points to the ways in which our experience of time can be affected by so much more than the number of hours we have in a day. The Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh demonstrated an extreme example of this with “Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980-1981),” in which he punched a timecard and took a photo of himself every hour on the hour for a year. Although Hsieh imposed this entrainment on himself, any commuter who leaves home before dawn or any assistant who fits her activities into the patterns and preferences of her boss recognizes the sense that even our “free” time is not really free if we are constantly thinking about it. To be entrained to the activities of people or institutions often means that they have power over us, compelling us to rush, wait or both.
Something like entrainment seems to be at work in our relationship to Twitter and other forms of social media. The rate of updates and notifications provides a powerful zeitgeber — one that can even override our circadian rhythm, as any nighttime scroller knows. I first became aware of the depth of my entrainment after the 2016 election and again at the beginning of the pandemic. It seemed that the more I used these platforms, the more I got psychologically adjusted to a certain social frame rate — one that happened to be ticking by with constant developments and quickly evolving outrage. It was as if opening my phone revealed a stream of time running much faster than the one in the room where I sat.
The resulting shift in my sense of time had a range of effects. I found it harder to pay attention to other events and processes that took longer or played out less sensationally even if I cared about them — like the local effects of climate change, grass-roots housing campaigns or even just the details of friends’ lives. I felt like my thoughts were running on shorter loops or never getting completed. Even my breaths were short, as though a full inhale couldn’t fit into such tiny intervals, and my joints would ache from a state of constant anticipation. It was the feeling of a furrowed brow, applied to my entire body. Most haunting was a sense that I had no substance, and that the physical world, with all its minute fluctuations and gradual changes, was somehow losing its color and texture.
In the past few years, in part because of how frayed my mind felt, I started avoiding my Twitter and Instagram feeds altogether. From this remove, I sat down and wrote out on paper what it was that I really wanted from these platforms. The answer ended up being a sense of recognition among peers, connection to people with shared interests and whose work I admire and the ability to encounter new, unexpected ideas. As opposed to algorithms, I wanted these new things to be recommended by individuals who had reasons to like them, like the weekly set on my local college radio station by a DJ whose wide-ranging taste I’m at pains to describe, but reliably enjoy. Really, I think I just wanted everything to have a little more context.
With this in mind, I slowly started piecing something else together — at the time, a mix of emails, group chats and RSS feeds. But finding more context often means going more slowly and as I did so, I was confronted by my old habits and expectations around time and pacing. Information no longer came in through one nonstop fire hose, and even though that was precisely what I had complained about, the change made me uncomfortable and dissatisfied. Was something missing? The management scholar Allen C. Bluedorn has written that patterns of entrainment can persist in an organization long after the original zeitgeber is gone, and this is a bit like what happened to me. Years of inhabiting a temporal attitude had left a deep indentation on my mind, as if I were waking up early for a job I no longer had.
Over time, the indentation softened, and I got used to a different definition of what it meant to be connected. In the absence of the constant updates, signs of other tempos began to enter the picture: the migratory ducks arriving in the lake nearby, the long email from a friend that only comes once every few months and requires my full attention, the unglamorous city council meeting, the long, historical arc of something just now cresting in the news. My breathing, eating, sleeping body felt more real, with more traction among the sensory minutiae of the everyday. I even felt I could see further in both directions: into my past with all its failures and triumphs, and into the future where I might do something as-yet unimaginable. But what I’m describing is not a linear progression or a once-and-for-all kind of story. Now and then, I get remagnetized to that old clock and have to remember to step away.
Of course, not everyone is so lucky. Entrainment to tempos in work, health or child care aren’t so much individual choices as they are reflections of power relationships, and many would require collective action or outside support to adjust. But for many of us, plugging into the pace of mainstream social media may not be as necessary as it feels. If the experience I’ve described sounds familiar to you, try stepping away. See if some of the things you originally came to social media looking for, including things you’ve never found, might be available through slower, less commercial channels, which have less of an incentive to suck you in.
Odell is the author of the book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.”
The New York Times