a blue cartoon person is drowning in a smart phone

A Year on Twitter.

It is a year since I resolved to write a monthly blog. Twitter has played a significant part in my life in that time. I have learned a lot, and made friends that I never would have met, but have strayed into some very dark places too. Has it been worth it?

At the end of 2018, I was offered the opportunity to submit a monthly blog by Ataxia UK. I was convinced that between updating some pieces I had already written and taking inspiration from my recently increased use of Twitter, I would have no problem writing a modest 1000 words a month. It also meant I could keep writing regularly. As a long-standing Trustee of AtaxiaUK, I wanted my views to be independent from those of the Charity, so I decided to self-publish them online for free. My site is called ‘According to Me’. I write about my personal experience of life with Ataxia and these are sometimes shared by the Charity. I also go a bit deeper and write about wider social issues from my unique perspective as a disabled person. My regular readers are a handful of family and friends, but it has helped me crystallise my own thoughts and feelings.

Twitter has really helped me explore the world. Twitter is like a fully formed social hierarchy, where there is an entire language that everyone just knows. With 330 million users around the world users expressing themselves, organisations selling products or dangerous ideologies, you end up with the usual shit-show when we humans corrupt anything we touch. All the worst things about human behaviour are here. From the aggression, the bullying, the insecurity and the hierarchy of the ‘Blue Tick’ users who have over 10000 followers, to the jolt of chemical satisfaction you get when you get a like, a mention or a new follower.

Being honest about who you are is important, but can be uncomfortable too. Aspects of my own identity that I take for granted (white, male, heterosexual) are thrown into sharp relief against a backdrop of years of oppression of others. I found hearing all these voices to be a deeply humbling experience. We can passionately disagree with others, but some use the anonymity offered by Twitter to go too far. Good people become fiercely involved in arguments with ‘Trolls’ who have nothing but open hatred for others with different views. They often lurk on ‘trending’ threads and will engage any contributor with a different view to their own. It is quite chilling to take a short journey along the timelines of people like this and see them function as ‘normal’ people in other aspects of their lives on Twitter.

I struggled early in my Twitter experience. As Christmas 2018 approached, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of genuine pain, unhappiness and suffering from my fellow disabled people all around the world that Twitter was exposing me to. So much so that it was stopping me from enjoying my own Christmas. Realising that I was in control, I took a short break and ‘unfollowed’ the most consistently negative people I was following. That helped. Through being careful, the worst thing that happened to me on Twitter since, was finding out the ending of Game of Thrones, a series I had been watching for five years, hours before I got to watch it myself! Now, I take a short break from Twitter if I’m planning to see a newly released film!

I hope I’m not ‘Mansplaining’! If you choose to be honest about who you are, there are a lot of positive aspects to life on Twitter. My full name is my Twitter handle, I am fully responsible for the words I use. I love the interconnectedness, the feeling of being at the centre of the world. I learned a lot of new ideas that have influenced my thinking, new acronyms and insults and made friends with people I was following on Twitter. There are so many tribes or groups, like an extended family to share your problems with. I was encouraged to see how strong the disability movement actually is and because disabled people express their whole selves, how much closer to other oppressed identities it is too.

The real generosity and kindness of my fellow users never ceases to remind me that the world is not all bad. When the independent bookshop (@ImaginedThings) that Tweeted about how their business was in trouble in a world of online ordering, myself and many other Twitter users placed orders with them over the next few days. I still order books from them when I can.

Dan White speaking at the 2019 AtaxiaUK Conference in London

At the AtaxiaUK Conference in October 2019, I invited a speaker I had followed on Twitter and met for the first time. Along with his Daughter, Emily, Dan White (@Danwhite1972) is a campaigner for disability equality and has written and produced the first instalment of a comic featuring disabled people. I saw his work, ‘Department of Ability’ on Twitter, bought it online and read it at home. I had seen him give passionate interviews and invited them to come and speak at our conference about the perceptions of disability, where they come from, how they hurt us and how we, as disabled people, can change them. I sat in the front row as Dan spoke, nervous that perhaps he would not strike up a rapport with the audience, but he was great! Another excellent speaker was Tom Shakespeare (@TommyShakes), a renowned academic and advocate whom I follow on Twitter. After hearing him speak so eloquently about relationships, I went and brought his book (from my new favourite, independent bookshop of course!)

But my ‘Hot take’ for my year on Twitter is the idea of ‘Gaslighting’ – the psychological manipulation of an individual or group to question their own beliefs and their sanity. This idea is quite chilling and seeing the rise of populism around the world and how polarised people in America struggle with one another over Trump, Gun Control and the UK with Austerity, Brexit, and both with Climate Change and all kinds of Human Rights. Both sides claim to be right. ‘Spoiler Alert‘; the documentary ‘The Great Hack’ is about how Social Media users are profiled and influenced to vote without their knowledge. I have already criticised the traditional media for its role in marginalising minorities, but during the recent general election in the UK, it went beyond even that. I could feel towering waves of anxiety, hope and disappointment rise, and then come crashing down as good people defended their beliefs whilst being saturated by outright lies. In a war of fiercely held opinions, Twitter is the front-line.

Twitter has had a great influence on my life in 2019 and I will definitely continue to use it. It has been worth it. I have learned to treat Twitter great care. Like life, it is what you make it. Be careful who you follow and the places you go. Above all, be nice to other people and always be yourself.

Richard Brown (@_richardcbrown)

December 2019

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