Earlier this month, I received a notification from Twitter congratulating me on my ten-year anniversary as a member. The email featured an image depicting balloons, party hats, a cake and virtual exploding fireworks. The email – from ‘The Twitter Team’ – thanked me for a decade’s worth of ‘valuable’ contributions to the platform (none of which were named), all while reassuring me of my status as a valued member of the so-called ‘Twitter Community’.
By all measures, this was a routine, auto-generated email that I would have otherwise sent to my trash folder. But receiving the email caught me off guard, and for weeks, I felt a sense of unease and disorientation. Perhaps it was because the following month, I would turn 31, and so the email forced me to reckon with the stark reality. Rather than a twenties filled with adventures, risks and romance, the vast majority of these formative years – the last decade of my ‘youth’ – were spent in solitude, in front of screens, endlessly posting into cyberspace, hoping that people would notice and listen. To an extent, they did. While I initially signed up to Twitter in the hopes of landing a graduate job after university, the platform became essential to my eventual career path in journalism. My first (unpaid) internships were offered after editors read my WordPress blog. As I grew my following, I was able to connect with senior editors and highly respected columnists, landed staff writer positions at leading digital media brands and even got offered a book deal. At the end of my twenties, I was no longer someone looking for attention and praise, but had received enough of it to become a minor internet celebrity in my own right, complete with a verified checkmark, invites onto radio and TV panels, and every so often, dubious offers to go on ‘influencer’ holidays to Dubai, funded by shady marketing agencies.
Ayisha Malik, The Movement, Headline Review, London, 2022
Yet, as I reflected on my decade being an active Twitter user, far from feeling accomplished or triumphant in my career goals, I’d found myself burnt out and exhausted. Moreover, I had grown disillusioned by the promises of the internet and digital publishing that had afforded me a degree of prominence. Rather than seeing social media and self-publishing sites as democratic tools that facilitated free speech and allowed people to speak truth to power, I’d found myself feeling weary when confronted with the ever-expanding abundance of online content, in the form of Tweet threads, YouTube videos, Substack blogs and TikTok trends. As more content was generated – all produced under the premise that such content creation was ‘empowering’, particularly if created by a minority – I wondered how much of the digital content I’d spent the past decade producing, had positively contributed to my own faith group, communities or broader society, and whether the majority of it had served only to amplify my own digital presence and ‘personal brand’, before dissipating into the digital ether. If, as technology companies and digital publishers kept insisting, content was truly empowering and democratic, why was I feeling more powerless and lacking in hope than at any other point in my life? Why, in spite of having a platform and public power, did I feel disengaged from politics, and unable to imagine a future worth looking forward to, or wanting to participate in?