Ben Ward

Out of Time

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San Francisco

Last Christmas, I walked out of 1355 Market Street for the final time after over 7 years. I finished my career at Twitter satisfied, proud of the work I’d done. Not bitter, but very, very tired. I’d put so much into this work, and atop Twitter’s outsized impact on the world felt a deep entanglement between my personal ambitions and Twitter’s. For a messaging system so simple at its core, it’s not been a simple company to work for nor one that’s had to navigate simple social challenges. That catches up with you. I enjoyed working in two roles, engineering and product management, and will always be grateful to the people who helped me learn to do those jobs better.

There is a point, though, where you have to take a break. Where you need to — as one of Twitter’s core values says — “seek diverse perspectives” and find some different problems to solve, or new versions of the same problem from a different place. It’s going to be good for me to shed the assumed defaults of Twitter’s operation when I think about what the right way is for people to communicate. For me to communicate, even. When I think about the unforeseen shortcomings of everyone being thrown together in a single space. When I think about every communication being broken into atomic parts. Mechanics that have at times been brilliant, and also the cause of great contextual breakdown.

I find myself now still using Twitter a lot. Actually, freed from the shackles of representing an employer I’m much more comfortable just Tweeting things personally than I was before. Less pressure to say things that are “valuable”. But also I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the relentlessly real-time nature of it. The obligation to communicate this way is loosened, there’s room for more doubt and scepticism than before.

One line of thought that’s occupied me a bit is the isolation of discourse. For example:

Yesterday the New York Times published a letters page of contributions from self-identified Trump voters. The reaction inside my bubble on Twitter is rancorous. I don’t think the page is terribly valuable except to note that these anecdotes are light on personal experience and repetitive in Fox News talking points. The reaction on Twitter is that this shouldn’t have been published at all. That by embracing this the Times has somehow validated the viewpoints, and that this marks an unacceptable surrender to Trump Facist America, harmonised with “where are the letters from muslims?, or homosexuals in the military, or…”. The same breathlessness was present when the Times also published a single article profiling a modern American Nazi family. It was derided for presenting them in soft-focus, humanising manner.

The discomfort I have with these reactions does not concern the quality of those articles, or even the editorial direction of the Times (all which seem legitimate targets of critique for various reasons), but that we’re treating these articles in isolation. All this energy exerted to tear down one piece that failed to overwhelmingly decry its subjects, and a letters page that didn’t line-check each contribution, as if they were the only pieces on the American far-right that someone might read. That left to stand, they could mould someone’s entire viewpoint on the issue now and forever.

Knowledge is a body of work. This letters page isn’t a revelation, but it’s a confirmation of the insidious nature of Fox News agenda and people’s willingness to project and protect it. I can read some of those letters and know a little more about the forces at work. The fascists haven’t won because one page of the NYT didn’t put an “Always Remember: Nazis = Bad” front and center — the greater body of work (not exclusively in the Times) should cover that.

Besides being very uncomfortable with our rush to invalidate anything that isn’t a complete proof, it’s also a worry that on-Twitter attitude is reverberating decontextualization onto other mediums. Tweets are torn down in isolation if they’re not correctly caveated. There’s an unwillingness to wait for a full thread, or to collate greater knowledge ourselves. We’re quick to tear down the tools we need to acquire more complex knowledge, things that are learned in aggregate. If we can’t express things that are incomplete or unfinished, we’re not going to get smarter.

My time not working isn’t strongly defined. There’s no checklist, much as I’ve been tempted to make several. There’s a lot I could do from ideas of rest, travel, projects both new and neglected, and crafts. But, off the back of anxieties like this above, I broadly understand that I need to find space. I need to follow instincts on how to fill my time, trust them, allow myself to be bored and find new creativity in that. And I need to be patient. I need to step back from this Very Real Time frothing.

I hope I don’t look back on Twitter with regret. But, I hope I can use this luxury of time and space to better understand what might be better in the future.

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