What my most successful tweet taught me about Twitter

The other night I had a tweet that was met with what was, for me, a large reaction. Like most people on Twitter, I follow a few hundred people and a few hundred people follow me back. I send my comments out into the void. Every now and then one of them gets a like, very rarely one of them gets retweeted, and that’s about it.

Naturally, I had a split second of thinking “Oh god, what the hell did I say?

It was therefore a big surprise to me that a few days ago I logged into Twitter and saw that something I had shared had received around 50 likes, 10 retweets, and garnered 8 replies. Depending on the size of your social media presence, that may not seem like much. For me, that’s almost like going viral.

Staring into the blackness

It all started when I saw a tweet about something called Vantablack. It is the world’s darkest manmade substance, able to absorb over 99% of all visible light. It is used in things like deep space telescopes.

When I saw the tweet about it, and I looked at the image of it – which is basically just a hole in my phone screen – a thought occurred to me. And then a second one: I should put that first thought on Twitter. So I quote-tweeted the message about Vantablack and explained my thought:

It was quite late at night when I did that, so I closed Twitter and went straight to bed thinking nothing of it.

An usual amount of attention

The next morning I woke up and after a while (all right, before I got out of bed) I thought I’d see what was going on Twitter. As already said, my posts, like most people’s, don’t really get that much engagement. Logging in and seeing one notification is quite exciting. So when I saw 18 (Twitter groups them), I was very puzzled.

There’s something so captivating about an area of pure (almost) black. The idea of staring into the abyss, lost in thought, was one that overwhelmed me.

It didn’t help that just the night before I had finished reading the book So You Have Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. It is a fascinating book all about those regular Twitter pileons and the way they can destroy people whose (often) only crime was a poorly phrased joke or misconstrued message.

Naturally, with that fresh in my mind, I had a split second of thinking “Oh god, what the hell did I say?”

But of course I hadn’t done anything wrong. It just seems that my introspection resonated with a lot of people.

Filling in the emptiness

I wasn’t joking or exaggerating with my tweet. It genuinely did occur to me that if I had Vantablack, I would paint a patch on the wall and I would get lost in it.

There’s something so captivating about an area of pure (almost) black. The idea of staring into the abyss, lost in thought, was one that overwhelmed me.

When there’s nothing in front of you to see, when it looks like you are just staring at a gap in space, you have no alternative but to try and fill it with your own thoughts. Some people put the television on not to watch, but simply to disrupt the silence. I felt this patch of unconquerable darkness would prompt something similar.

It is kind of telling that the thing I have had the most reaction from on Twitter was something essentially talking about losing oneself into the abyss.

It might not have been a black hole in an astrophysical sense, but it was a literal black hole, and the idea of it seemed to exert some kind of intellectual pull. I think of myself as quite a ruminative person, and I couldn’t think of a better space to encourage thinking than a complete absence of anything.

It might not have been a black hole in an astrophysical sense, but it was a literal black hole, and the idea of it seemed to exert some kind of intellectual pull. I think of myself as quite a ruminative person, and I couldn’t think of a better space to encourage thinking than a complete absence of anything.

It’s like the fundamental problem most beginners have with meditation – the struggle to actually clear your mind of a single thought. As soon as you make that space empty something crops up. It’s like breaking a dam but expecting the water held behind to stay where it is. I thought, and I still do, that Vantablack is actually incredibly beautiful.

Losing ourselves to Twitter

At the same time, it is kind of telling that the thing I have had the most reaction from on Twitter was something essentially talking about losing oneself into the abyss.

Maybe that’s why we come to Twitter in the first place. There are so many ways you can lose yourself there, primarily by losing faith in things that you like to believe are universal – like common sense and decency.

Twitter has always been a kind of self depreciating place. I don’t think this is an original thought of mine, but I can’t actually remember where I’ve seen it, but Instagram and Facebook are the places where people go to show off, to try and make yourself look more successful or cooler than you really are; Twitter seems to be the opposite – a race to the bottom.

Everyone is competing to be as messed up as they can, sharing their deepest anxieties and joking about their mental health. Perhaps that’s why the idea of the abyss resonated so much.

Perhaps the people for whom the idea struck a chord felt a sense of familiarity. We know the abyss, we recognise it, because we are already there. We’re surrounded by Vantablack, but we can’t see that fact because it’s lost in, well, Vantablack.


Follow me on Twitter for more of whatever this is: @RewanTremethick

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