On Twitter and adulthood

I’m 27, about five years out of college. I’m young by any reasonable standard, but I’m also not new to adulthood. I’m married; I own a home; I’ve moved past the first stage of my career; many of my friends are completing graduate school, getting married, and seriously considering having children. College is increasingly in the rearview mirror—my social circle has dispersed as each of us further defines our independent adult lives.

My perspective is not the same as it was five years ago. As I’ve discussed previously, I have a far better understanding of my relationship with money and the role it plays in building an adult life. Living and owning property in an adopted city, I’m now heavily invested in local quality of life issues like crime, city services, and taxes—things that I was fully insulated from in college.

I’ve also now spent half a decade in the workforce, which is perhaps the largest influence on the way I think today. The contrast between going to school and working a job feels massive. In school, one’s learning journey is bounded and well-defined; each year, you master the next increment of knowledge, culminating in a degree. In the working world, the learning journey is unbounded and dynamic—the clean theory of school must be applied in the messy real world, clashing with constrained resources and unpredictable human behavior.

The entire purpose of consulting is to provide reasonable solutions to the unbounded, poorly-defined problems that organizations face. During my time in the industry, I’ve been overwhelmed by the complexity of our economy and society. Large organizations, from megacorporations to your local transit agency, are really confederations of sub-organizations that are rarely in perfect agreement. They are subject to a variety of constraints—economic, regulatory, ethical, political—that make change painfully difficult. There is often a good, rational explanation for why things are the way they are today.

As I get older, the world feels increasingly nuanced—and Twitter feels increasingly stupid. A platform that is a continuous feed of short opinions from highly personalized accounts is a perfect breeding ground for black-and-white thinking. I’ve noticed this a lot more in the circle of urbanist accounts I’m a part of, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. This is the style of discourse that produces takes and observations like:

  • All roadway projects, regardless of context, are pointless because of induced demand
  • High-speed rail is always the answer (e.g., the infamous map)
  • If X city were built to the density of a historic European city centre, it could hold Y people / we could fit Z people in the area of this parking lot/highway interchange
  • All public transit should be free
  • Apartments should always have ground-floor retail
  • Sunbelt cities are not “real” cities
  • Land value tax is the answer (I’m extremely guilty of this one)

I don’t disagree with the directional advocacy of any of the above points, but what frustrates me is the lack of curiosity innate in this style of posting. These takes are rarely accompanied by any analysis of why the status quo exists in the first place, what concrete steps would need to be taken to achieve change, or what the benefits of change even are. Much of urbanist Twitter is merely dressed-up complaining with no interrogation of constraints or tradeoffs.

One grating example is the somewhat popular online suggestion that we should get rid of the golf courses in Forest Park. While I agree that golf courses generally should not be a privileged land use in urban areas, the immediate and unqualified claim that we should eliminate the Forest Park course fails to engage with why it’s there in the first place and what value it provides to the city. The course is about as old as the park itself, having opened in 1912, and it’s the only golf course in the entire 60-square-mile area of the City of St. Louis. It’s a municipal course, meaning it’s obligated to maintain public access and an affordable fee structure. The course likely generates significant revenue from fees and facility reservations (e.g., weddings, fundraisers). Ultimately, this is not like an exclusive country club occupying dozens of acres that could be used for housing—it is a publicly-owned amenity that has existed for over a century.

I can see an argument for reprioritizing some of the land dedicated to golf, which has happened before—the main course was reconstructed in the early 2000s, shifting it away from Art Hill. Perhaps we don’t need the smaller second course, The Highlands, in the park’s southeast quadrant. But what exactly would the park do with the new land, and what constituencies would you piss off by shrinking or elimninating either course? Forest Park is already in the midst of other ambitious capital programs, like the $10.5M East Waterways project, and I’m sure they have more up their sleeve. I don’t see how a contentious and expensive fight to eliminate a unique public facility would end up benefiting the park or its visitors. You can already imagine the heated political debate over denying city residents access to a popular sport typically reserved for elites. Is this all just to bolster the city’s urbanist credentials?

This tangent represents my broader point: everything is complicated! You have to accept and enage the complexities and tradeoffs. I am also guilty of oversimplification and proposing pie-in-the-sky solutions, both on Twitter and elsewhere in life. I suppose it’s easy to fall into those thought patterns when you overindex on ideology but not implementation. I want to say this is a characteristic of youthfulness (and I’m sure it’s correlated), but I see many older folks on Twitter fall into the same simplistic grandstanding.

In addition to being simplistic, these takes are also uninteresting. Consider the tweet below layering the Paris Métro onto a map of Seattle. I’ve seen dozens of variations of this tweet “genre” and it’s increasingly insufferable. Yes, American cities could be denser and have far more developed transit networks—but comparing Seattle to Paris doesn’t tell us anything about how to do that. It doesn’t engage the vast differences in the history and governance of each city. It’s just fancy complaining. A more interesting question is something like “how do we get Seattle to build better light rail?”

I suppose I’m increasingly disillusioned with what drives engagement on social media. Memes and righteous proclamations are clearly Twitter’s currency. I’ve noticed this in my most-engaged tweets, which tend to be images or brief, punchy statements of advocacy. I get it—people use Twitter to validate their perspective rather than to uncover the truth. And no political movement can succeed without getting people to buy into grand visions, moral clarity, and calls to action. I won’t claim to be above that.

However, when it comes to sharing my own opinions, I’ve found I can’t continue tweeting like I did a couple of years ago. I tweet far more conservatively these days; I often abandon posts if I feel I don’t have a sufficient understanding of the topic to defend or explain it if challenged. My tweets are increasingly grounded in verifiable information (e.g., news articles, datasets) and couched in qualifiers and weasel words. Consequently, my follower count has plateaued, but that’s okay—rapid growth would require debasing my content and would increase my exposure to the site’s most unpleasant users. That wouldn’t be fun, and having fun is the primary reason I use Twitter.

No social media account is obligated to be nuanced or even reasonable—after all, it can be fun to be the unreasonable soapboxer. For my own sanity, I’ve been unfollowing accounts that seem more interested in clickbait than conversation. I hope the urbanist movement retains the healthy level of political pragmatism that has helped it achieve policy victories in cities across the country. For the time being, a bold yet pragmatic approach is the right path forward in a country where 9 in 10 households own a car. You have to pick your battles.