When we talk about social anxiety online, it’s often written about in terms of upward comparisons, trolling, and feeling isolated. What we don’t seem to talk about is how social anxiety can play out from the very thing that we’re supposed to be doing: engagement.
I’ve noticed a change in myself of late. I’ve had a Twitter account for years; used it for many different reasons. Yet recently I’ve come to dread having to speak to people online, much the same as when offline. We all know that one thing we have to do to feed and please the algorithm is to get chatting. We’ve all seen it and been it, piggybacking off a popular account, replying to a group of people in our communities daily, just simple things like “have a nice day” or “hope you’re good”. Sounds benign right? Of course, there is nothing wrong with anyone exchanging such pleasantries, but we know that there are some forms of engagement and attention that we don’t want.
I was on a personal Twitter break for a little while late last year. Since I’ve returned everything seems different. When you return to your old Twitter space and that same space isn’t who you are any more, it can be quite surreal to see how much has changed. I’ve found myself in a site of cultural mismatch, that has resulted in a lot of anger, pent-up frustration and calling what feels like everyone and everything out. What I’ve perhaps failed to acknowledge is how anxious I am online these days; speaking with people carries too much weight but at the same time I do want to keep in touch with friends.
Then there are the reply guys. Since I started using my personal account again it has felt relentless. It happened on Christmas day, my birthday, there was often one there. In these moments of happiness and excitement, we don’t have time to go and check out everyone who is engaging with us. We reply to them thinking, “they’re just being friendly” but actually it’s all about them wanting to boost themselves by targeting a large group of women and seeing who will engage. Many of us have fallen into this trap. It’s not a weakness, more a social norm that we know we should be polite to those who are friendly to us and they exploit that.
So there’s the algorithm, the norms, the pests and our own moral compass – all hitting out and laying on the pressure to engage. Is it any wonder that social anxiety online goes beyond what we are seeing and consuming, to how we feel pressured to behave and engage?
The problem with Twitter replies is that they are unpredictable. Unless you insulate yourself and disable them you’re open to anything that could come your way, which in itself causes a lot of anxiety. When you see that notification go off and lines of text appear in your mentions, it can put you into fight or flight mode. I’ve lost count of the times J has said “someone just replied to us” on ASW’s Twitter and my first reaction is literally “Oh no, what now.” Because after years of dealing with replies, you come to know how it can go. We’ve all had the smarmy reply when we’ve argued a case for something, or the ambiguous reply, but you’re not allowed to ask what they mean in case it makes you look stupid. We’ve been mansplained, trolled, and even had debates with friends at times. Even the more benign and friendly replies can become exhausting when there are too many of them. You often don’t know who you are talking to, and at times you don’t know how to respond. It’s a site of social anxiety that is under-explored and not considered enough.
You might be thinking, well if it’s really that bad then maybe just take a Twitter break. I can completely get behind that but sometimes we just want to be online without having to take part in the theatrics. We just want to read stuff, perhaps comment here or there and be able to share our stuff without a comeback. But some of us are also trying to network on Twitter, trying to build a life, a movement or another venture. You could be someone who is completely burnt out but to be seen and visible you need attention, and that means you need to engage, no matter what.
On my personal account, I tend to restrict replies to people I’m following or sometimes I disable them altogether. But at times we need to engage and learn from others because it’s not just about who we are. I’ve been speaking with people about this recently, and what that taught me is that we don’t need to reply to everyone. We may feel that we do because we’ve internalised the norms of being polite and the fear of being unfollowed. But really, this stuff is not more important than our health. The problem is that because this isn’t being spoken about at large, and Twitter is renowned as a place of chatting and debate, it’s not something we consider for ourselves. If we suppress how anxious we are feeling, eventually we start to lash out. We lose sleep and worry about what’s coming next. I’ll be honest. I started to disable comments on my tweets by the evening because I was waking up in the night fearing the replies that might be waiting. If there was one waiting I would be awake for sometimes the rest of the night wondering how to respond. That’s how bad it got for me but I’ve acknowledged it now, and I think it’s important to share this because I know I’m not alone.
Twitter is a place of community, and without it, many of us would perhaps feel a bit lost. But if we are to build communities on the platform that are inclusive and valued to the same extent as offline communities, then we need to consider the anxieties that people have. Because social anxiety online is just as prevalent as offline.
If you are reading this and have also experienced social anxiety on Twitter, then I hope this helps. I don’t have all of the answers and solutions, but acknowledging and speaking openly about this issue might spark some discussion and help others to understand, whether they experience it themselves or through a loved one.
A key point to end on is that replies will arrive, and engagement will always be there, but it’s OK to step away from it when we need to. We don’t have to reply to everyone.
Laura Barrett is an MSc student with a research specialism in cyberpsychology and online communities.