Why You Should Use Twitter, and How Not To Go Insane in the Process
What if there was a place where people with the same interests as you hang out and talk about the things which you are so passionate about? What if there was a place on the Internet where you had free and easy access to the most insightful writers, the smartest researchers, and the most talented artists from all over the world?
This place exists. It’s called Twitter.
Twitter is better known for having wrecked our chances of ever getting flying cars and for destroying democracy, but those who focus on such tired talking points miss the point of what makes Twitter such a unique place. In the old days, communities were built around message boards. If you liked video games, you had to go to one such message board if you wanted to talk with people who liked games as much as you did. But these message boards were insular. Each community was built around a single topic, which meant your many interests could only be satisfied by visiting different message boards.
And this posed a problem. How were you to find the place where ‘your people’ hung out? Suppose you had taken an interest in blacksmithing. Where do all the blacksmiths hang out? How are you supposed to find that out? The cost to finding these communities was immense. You were shut off from like minded people simply because you did not know where they were.
Twitter is what you’d get if you were to put together into a single place all the world’s message boards and decided to limit each post to 280 characters. It is a community of communities - a metacommunity.
Where before these communities existed insulated from one another, each in their own secluded corner of the internet, now they are jumbled together on Twitter, where millions of people from all over the world are brought together into a single place where they can talk about their passions and interests with many others like them.
It is this immense mass of people that makes Twitter special.
On Twitter, I have access to hundreds of people who are as excited about the same things I am. I get to watch conversations between economists discussing the latest happenings, psychologists talking about the latest findings. I get to learn about how technology leaders think about the world, and the future they are trying to build.
I call it my learning engine.
With Twitter the rate at which I learn goes into overdrive. It is like having a personal research team without having to pay for it. I get exposed to things that I would never otherwise get exposed to, things that materially change my life as they open up new gates through which I can satisfy the rabbit hole of my curiosity. And it never stops. The first thing I do when I wake up, after my morning coffee, is browse what my research team has been working on while I was asleep. Every day there’s new things to read, new things to take a look at. Twitter is what God would have created if he was designing a paradise for the infovores of the world, except Jack Dorsey got there first.
Twitter is a magical place. Investing your time and effort to make sure you are using it properly is one of the highest return things you could be doing. As Andy Matuschak put it on The North Star podcast: “Twitter is this magical place where if you manage to follow the right people, tune your settings just right, and have the right stance, it will help you think better.”
Which is why everyone should use it.
It can be tough for those on the outside to fire up a Twitter account and understand what it is that makes it worth their time. The very idea of following people so that you can read what they write in 280-character chunks seems dumb. It certainly doesn’t look like any other social media platform, and there’s a sizable gap between when one starts using it and getting enough of an understanding to use it well.
Any proper use of Twitter starts with this fundamental principle:
You are the one in control over who has permission to put things in front of you.
Putting ads to the side, the only tweets that you see are the ones the people you follow put there (Retweets are tweets from other people that someone you follow chose to put in front of you). That simple fact is what will determine how much value you get from Twitter. Curating the list of people you follow, following the right people, is what will make or break your Twitter experience. If your timeline is filled with junk, then you might as well don’t use it, but if you are careful in choosing who to follow the payoff is enormous.
If the main action is in who you follow, the question beckons: Whom should you follow?
Follow interesting people.
How that principle caches out in concrete terms is up to you. Interesting people come in all shapes and sizes. What is interesting to me may not be so to you. What matters is that you follow the most consistently interesting people you find. How do you recognize them? They are the ones sharing interesting things.
They could be experts in niche academic areas sharing the latest research, or obscure bloggers spinning flimsy theories that purport to explain how society AcTuAlLy works. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that if you find what they share interesting, you follow them. Follow enough of these interesting people and you will have created a place on the Internet that has been specifically tailored for you.
What’s more, the more you use Twitter, the more to your liking it becomes.
The more interesting people you follow, the more interesting things you will be exposed to. Some of these interesting things will be interesting people. Follow these people. They too will share interesting things, some of which will, again, be interesting people. And away the flywheel goes.
Much has been written on how social media is the bane of all evil. Now I wonder if this isn’t because they never learned how to use Twitter properly.
Following interesting people is a good first step in that direction, but some hygiene is required to make sure that Twitter brings value to your life rather than detracting from it. It’s easy to lose your sanity in the chaos of the Twitterverse. The following is a list of rules that you should follow if you want to keep your wits about you, and in so doing experience Twitter at its best, a place that catalyzes growth by connecting you to the smartest and most interesting people the world has to offer.
Do not follow people who waste their time on politics.
Politics is the mind-killer, and in few places is this more visible than on Twitter.
Do not follow people who use Twitter as another avenue through which they fight their political battles. The gladiatorial arena that is political warfare brings the worst out of people, and Twitter elevates these tendencies up to eleven. Not only does it bring together people with the same ideologies, it does so for their perceived mortal enemies as well. Like two planets orbiting each other, eventually they will collide.
These people are not interesting. Quite the contrary, people whose identity is tied to politics are boring beyond belief. No matter what happens, you know what they think about it. They do not add value to your timeline, they detract from it by polluting it with political talking points about the latest manufactured controversy or the latest crime against humanity that insert ideological opponent committed. Do not follow these people.
Do not follow news sites.
There’s little reason to follow the Twitter accounts of news websites. This goes beyond the first rule, though it also follows from it. Recall what we discussed about you being the one in control over who gets permission to put things in your timeline. The point of following interesting people is that their interesting-ness acts as a filter over what gets shown to you. That filter is what makes Twitter so valuable. It separates the wheat from the chaff.
News websites lack that filter. By following their Twitter accounts you will be permitting a bot, or worse, a social media intern, to put things in front of you whose only merit is that they were published by that website. If you think you should follow them to keep tabs on what’s happening around the world, note that if it was truly important the people you follow would already be talking about it.
Just as people doubt whether a tree has fallen if no one was there to hear it, then has something truly happened if your Twitter feed is not talking about it?
This rule applies to following journalists as well. Journalists are by and large boring people, so by the principle of only following interesting people they should be denied entrance into your timeline. To make things worse, they also make their living by participating in the trenches of political warfare, so by the first rule they should also be denied entrance.
Finance journalists tend to be better than most though. Make that what you will.
Unfollow people that trigger you.
Nassim Taleb is one of the most important intellectual figures of our age. He is also a massive asshole on Twitter.
Leave the self-flagellation for another place and another time. When you’re on Twitter, focus on the happiness and excitement that having access to hundreds of interesting people brings you. That means cutting off from your timeline those with the uncanny ability to annoy you. Your timeline is a magical place, a place of learning and excitement. Try to keep it that way.
It doesn’t matter what it is that they do that annoys you. I was tired of watching Nassim go off on one of his tired tirades about how this person is a charlatan, or that person doesn’t deadlift, or whichever spasmodic script that’s become so characteristic of him he was performing.
So I stopped following him.
Use the mute function liberally.
While we’re talking about maintaining an equanimous mind, Twitter allows you to set up a list of words and phrases that you do not want to appear in your feed. I don’t think the value of this feature needs much explaining.
Anyone who’s been on Twitter for a while has noticed how, from time to time, a rift in the fabric of time and space appears and sucks onto itself the mental energy of everyone. As if a master switch has been flipped, people turn into hungry zombies who’ve spotted a fresh brain served on a silver platter. They can’t stop themselves from shambling towards it, their ravenous instincts overwhelming their mind. The current President of the United States has an uncanny ability to create these rifts. He says something, often stupid, and then everyone is talking about it.
The mute function acts like a shield against this. Just add “Trump” to it and poof, you’ll never see it written in your timeline ever again. Continue adding words and phrases to this list as these rifts appear.
Make lists to separate your interests from each other.
Interesting people often have lots of interests. Some of them do not overlap neatly. I am sure you identify with this dilemma (you are an interesting person, are you not?).
I am a bit weary of promoting this advice since Twitter’s interface for handling lists is a monumental piece of flaming hot garbage, but separating the accounts you follow into different lists based on why you follow them can help make your experience smoother and more manageable. It also allows you to cleave off entire communities from your life when you deem them unworthy of your time. This happened to me after the 2016 US Presidential election, which destroyed the minds of many fantasy and science fiction authors I enjoyed following. Thankfully, I had siloed off that community into a separate list which I have since then not opened.
Videogames have held my interest since I was a little kid playing Red Alert 2 on my father’s computer, and from then on I have followed the industry with interest. Game developers marry the technical, the pragmatic, and the artistic in a way that is appealing to me. However, the videogame Twitter scene has a different vibe from the economists, techies, and weirdos that I follow on my main Twitter feed. Siloing them off into different lists allows me to keep tabs on what these communities are talking about and sharing without suffering from much whiplash.
Take periodic breaks.
The notion that social media websites devote considerable resources to hacking away your attention from under you is now common knowledge. Twitter is as guilty of that as any other.
You’re scrolling through your timeline when a bright blue popup appears to tell you that there are new tweets for you to read. You refresh the page, scroll over those, and again the blue popup appears, resetting the cycle. The notification’s icon is shining red, beckoning you to open it. Did someone like your tweet? Is someone mad with something you tweeted? You had planned to do something else, but you can’t help yourself. You need to know.
These design choices, made to get you to continually use the website, are further compounded by the investment you’re putting in by curating your feed. The whole point is to make Twitter more valuable to you, so it’s no wonder that you start spending more time on it. It’s hard not to. Everything else seems so boring in comparison.
As time passes, it becomes harder not to become embroiled with the idiosyncratic expectations and rules of Twitter. It’s not that we forget there’s a world outside of it, it’s that we mistake it for the world. Because it’s all we see, we think it’s all there is. The latest storm to take over Twitter is confused for something that people, real people, flesh and blood people, actually care about. The truth of the matter is that very few of them know anything about what goes on there.
By taking periodic breaks from Twitter you’ll be reminded of that, and when you return you will do so with clearer eyes that are better able to separate what matters from what doesn’t.
Once in a while, purge.
Curation is a lossy process. Your attempt at only allowing interesting people into your timeline will not be perfect. Some people will turn out to be, well, boring. Some will actively pollute your feed with things you dislike (see previous rule on not following people that trigger you).
An important part of curating your Twitter feed is being on the lookout for these bad apples and rooting them out. And even in this you will not be entirely successful. It’s easy to unfollow someone who turns out to be a deeply racist and misogynistic alt-right troll, but most people are not that egregious in their unpleasantness. Most people don’t call that much attention onto themselves. They’re boring, sure, but they’re boring in a way that you just scroll by their tweets without noticing they’re there. These people might have passed some initial filter which made you follow them, but since then they’ve added little value to your Twitter experience. It’s not that they are fundamentally uninteresting people, it’s just that they’re uninteresting to you. You keep following them because they’ve never given you a reason to actively put in the effort of unfollowing them.
I don’t presume to know what’s the limit on the number of people you should follow on Twitter. At the time of this writing I follow 629 accounts and sometimes find myself overwhelmed with the amount of tweets I have to go through. Whatever the number, over time you will accumulate leeches whose tweets suck away the vitality of your feed. Think of purging the people you follow as picking weeds. You want your garden to grow into its full, lush, potential.
Open up the list of accounts you’re following, and for each one ask yourself whether it has proven itself worthy of the permission to put things in your timeline that you’ve given it. You do not need to be sanguine about it. You can give people second chances. But going on a purge once in a while is a way to remind yourself that your permission is conditional, not absolute. And as you giveth away, you can also taketh away.
Bonus rule - Do not contribute to the shit flinging.
Everybody knows that the Internet can be an unpleasant place. The point of many of the previous rules is to create a personal bubble where everything’s sunshine and unicorns and where the demons are kept at bay.
Yet despite your best efforts, you will nevertheless come face to face with some of the worst things that the Internet encourages. Someone will say something, and the faceless mob will mercilessly pile on it. They will throw bombs behind the safety of a screen, forgetting that on the other side there’s someone else, a person just as them.
You will be tempted to contribute your fair share of that. Try not to. There’s enough shit being thrown around for you to add yours to the mix.
Whenever you read something that angers the very core of your soul (remember not to follow people who trigger you!), keep the words of Marcus Aurelius in mind:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.
Focus on the positive aspects of Twitter, the people who use it to share their interests, to talk about what’s on their mind. Watch, as countless communities spontaneously emerge to bring together people from all over the world over their love for something.
Focus on what makes Twitter an interesting place, a place like no other on the Internet.