Twitter Is Weird—and Other Things Fatherhood Taught Me

Lessons from using the Internet like a normal person, not an obsessive information consumer
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My poor abandoned computer (Alexis Madrigal)

It was about 11 am on August 29 when, as always happens in the movies but rarely happens in real life, my wife's water broke, and she went into labor. 

Then it was today, November 1, and I returned to work. 

For the intervening two months, I stopped being a full-time information consumer and producer. I didn't "unplug." I deprofessionalized my use of the Internet. 

The videogame world has a useful analogy: There people talk about "core" gamers versus other types. Core gamers overwhelmingly come from certain demographics and their behaviors and interests are distinct from the much larger group of people who play games sometimes. They have dedicated gaming hardware and try out lots of games. They care a lot about graphics and don't mind mastering complex control systems. Casual gamers are different. They like easy-to-play games where the learning curve is not steep. And they don't spend a ton of time or money on games.

In my normal life, like many other journalists, I am a core Internet user. But in the baby bubble, I became a casual user, just someone looking to read the news and keep up with friends and family.

It felt good. It felt right. 

I would lose track of my computer. I'd find it in weird places, buried under stacks of books, under chairs, or creeping toward the appliance garage where the food processor lives.

It's not that I completely eschewed the Internet. It's just that my phone was good enough for what I was doing: emailing sometimes, texting, Instagramming, timing feedings, reading books on the Kindle app, listening to music, Netflix, banking, setting the DVR. I could do all that right in the flow of my day with one hand. 

As the days went by, I began to notice some of the things that were deeply important to the core Internet user in me began to seem very strange. Chief among them: Twitter.

When you're plugged in all day, Twitter is fun. Whatever happens in the world, other people on Twitter are talking about it, turning it over, composting it, growing new things in the substrate of the day. If you're following along, each successive layer of jokes and elucidations make sense, but if you come in at 4pm just to check in, it's like starting The Wire in season 4 ("Wait, who is McNulty again?"). Twitter can add blue lines to connect conversations and inline images to spice up the timeline, but it's the very things that make Twitter fun for the core user that make it daunting for the casually interested. And what's interesting is that this phenomenon is horizontally scaled: the same problems crop up whether you're talking New Yorker literary circles, biochemists, comedians, or Black Twitter

None of which is to speak ill of Twitter, exactly. It's great for what it is. But if you're not a professional information gatherer, you don't need it. Which might say something about its potential for growth, ahead of its IPO

On the other hand, Instagram was paced perfectly for me as a casual user. I only follow people that I know personally, so I can reasonably expect to see most of the photographs people post. Because of the way I've designed my network (private, small) and the way the Instagram works (few people have incentive to post a lot), it felt manageable. Instagram also felt cozy: The day's news rarely makes an appearance. It's all about private life, family and friends, cooking and parties and sleeping in late. I enjoyed it immensely, especially after I got my parents on board to see pictures of their grandson. 

Speaking of baby pics, I found myself asking the kinds of questions we ask ourselves in this techno-anxious age. I'd snap a photo of the kid and then wonder, "Am I detracting from the experience of the child by photographing the child?" Was this all just digitally driven narcissism, driven by corporate feedback loops? As the New York Times' Nick Bilton put it the hard version of this argument in a piece about sunsets, "What’s wrong with me? I can’t seem to enjoy anything without trying to digitally capture it or spew it onto the Internet."

Which itself is a variation on a widely held belief among particular classes of Americans that one’s physical and digital lives should be kept distinct, largely so the inferior digital one doesn’t pollute the purity of one’s embodied experienced.

Few episodes are more amenable to this analysis than taking care of a newborn. You can’t text a baby a diaper change or tweet your way to a breastfeeding. Rearing a tiny mammal is as bodily as it gets.

Yet, I’ve been struck by how much imagination parents bring to bear on our tiny infants. A newborn is, and I’d imagine always has been, a creation of the mind, at least in part. 

And sitting right at this interface of the bodily and the imaginary are our photographs. Nowadays, family members expect a nearly continuous stream of baby images. What my Aunt Chiquita wants to see is not merely that our baby is alive, but to get some sense of who he is. And the stream of photographs allow us to craft an identity for a child that cannot communicate his own just yet.

In  “real life,” he is a tiny, speechless, motor control-less creature just getting used to life outside the womb. But in his photostream, he’s moving adroitly from sleeping lump to baby gorilla to active participant in the human world. The real-time existence of this record is a new thing in the world.

A friend, the writer Jon Mooallem, once told me that the things that are hard about parenting are easy to talk about, while the great things about kids are nearly impossible to describe. I think that's one reason that the lingua franca of new parents is trading miseries.

The photos we take and post, though, try to get at the other (good!) layer of the experience. That is to say, there is truth in the neverending baby photostream. The stories we tell ourselves about our children, on or off Instagram, are as real a part of becoming mothers and fathers as the diaper changes and sleep deprivation: they’re how we make meaning of this grueling, beautiful experience. Parental life does work at these dual levels, time moving both too slow and too fast. 

In any case, my paternity leave was over in the blink of an eye. I'm glad to be back.

And I'm deeply grateful to my inimitable boss Bob Cohn, our tech team Becca Rosen, Megan Garber, and Robinson Meyer, and the good people of Bica Coffeehouse for opening early. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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