How To Best Use Twitter
[Note: While I do intend to write more about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this post is intended to address this only indirectly rather than directly, by helping illustrate how to find other sources of information, and you are once again implored to rely on other news sources. I need to get inside the war’s OODA loop to write about it usefully, which requires more dedicated time than I’ve had this past week.]
It is high time for me to talk about the only practical way I know about to follow developments in the world in real time, whether they be a war, a pandemic or something else entirely, which is Twitter and in particular Twitter Lists.
I do not know of any practical alternative. One can of course watch or read the usual news reports, which are mostly effectively State Media of various quality, for various different States. When you’re reading about an actual war, the State part of State Media becomes more prominent and harder to miss.
The best TV sources for international events like the war that I have are Bloomberg (as far as I can tell, the closest thing to non-state media) for the economic side of things and the BBC World News for the more general side. Occasionally I’ll take a glance at CNN or Fox News or various other networks to get a sense of what they are focusing on. I have not attempted to directly watch any Russian broadcasts but am curious what is the best option for that.
For domestic American events, there are no non-obvious TV sources I have found, and TV is essentially useless other than to know what the Narratives are saying or to cover discrete events like debates, elections or the State of the Union. Any kind of #Analysis is strictly fuhgeddaboudit.
For written media, the usual suspects are what they are so choose your favorites. None of them seem able to keep up with the pace of play other than Bloomberg offering insight into markets, so they are mostly again useful for ‘how are things being presented and sold’ than insight into actual events.
For what is happening, Twitter is where it is at.
To use Twitter properly, there are four vital pieces of technology.
Tweetdeck or another similar alternative application.
Knowing who to follow and read.
Unfollows, filters, mutes and blocks.
I’ll also give advice for how to start out, and some thoughts on regulating use.
Twitter by default will present posts using an algorithm. Things it thinks you will be more interested in, or that will generate more engagement, or that otherwise it decides on a whim to show you, will be shown to you. Things it disfavors will be dropped on the floor.
This is no good. The biggest issues are:
It makes it impossible to follow things in real time.
It makes it impossible to reliably see things you decide you want to see.
It makes it impossible to know when you’re ‘done’ with new content.
It makes it impossible to avoid seeing things more than once.
It inserts random stuff you never asked for.
Twitter’s website is fine for sending direct messages and chatting. It’s acceptable for checking individual profiles to see what they have to say and whether you want to include such a person in your information diet. It’s also fine for viewing an individual list. That’s another reason to emphasize lists over following people.
However, for the purpose of following the people you follow, Twitter’s website is useless. You want to use something else.
My choice has been Tweetdeck. Tweetdeck allows you to have lots of columns, one for people you follow, one for notifications and then any number of additional lists. Also it’s free.
It is definitely not perfect. When I want to explore a particular Tweet or screenshot it, I still open a default Twitter window for that.
So there is probably something out there that works better, and hopefully people will let me know about it in the comments. But Tweetdeck is easy to set up, easy to use, free and has served me well.
Knowing Who to Follow
Following someone is a package of several goods.
They and potentially others see you follow them.
They can DM you and perhaps you can DM them.
The posts you want from them appear in your feed.
The posts you don’t want from them appear in your feed.
You see interactions between people if and only if you follow all of them.
If they’re locked it’s the only way.
Some but not all of these also apply to adding people to lists, which I’ll get to in the next section.
Sometimes the DM clause is important, but mostly it is not. I find it far better to leave DMs fully open. If someone wants to talk to me, I want to see what they have to say and decide whether to respond. There is a rate of contact at which that would become non-viable, but I am nowhere near that threshold. So the DM thing is mostly moot.
If you follow someone they will see that you follow them. This sends them a message that you see what they are saying and are interested in what they have to say. In many cases, that is a message you’ll want to send. It can also be important to friendships. I don’t mind doing this as a token for people who post super rarely, but if someone posts a lot of stuff you don’t find valuable, it’s important to know to pull that plug.
Most of the question is: Do you want this person’s posts in your feed?
Marc Anderson’s theory is to follow (and block) based on a single Tweet. I think this is a terrible, no-good, very bad take. If I blocked people for one bad take the way he does I would block him for it. He would, of course, approve.
If you go that route, you’ll end up with a firehose of people most of whom are mostly saying things you do not care about and/or things of not very high content value. With too many of them, you’ll start missing high value things because you can’t process all the info. Meanwhile, with too many things in the firehose, you won’t notice that a given person is low value unless they provoke you to block them, so you won’t know to get rid of them.
Thus, I follow the principle of look at their posts based on one Tweet, and form a follow/list/no-follow decision.
What I am looking for is their average quality. A good follow often posts rarely, but makes your life better when they do post. Having 10,000 people who post once a year but post a lot of great stuff is great. If someone almost never posts, but you know they’re someone worth engaging with in general, that’s usually a great follow.
If you post every hour, that can obviously provide a lot more value, but it can also waste a lot of time, and bad interactions also actively make your life (very slightly) worse. The easier it is to instantly notice something is not worth your time, and the less it pushes your buttons, the lower the cost it imposes - so for example Wordle is a negative, but only a small one. A Tweetstorm of 100 posts in a row is much less punishing because if you don’t like it it’s easy to skip, and so on.
Once you follow someone, start tracking in the back of your mind whether seeing their posts is making your life better or worse. If it turns out you’ve made a mistake, you’ll want to quickly correct it, either demoting to a list or eliminating entirely. It’s mostly a lot easier to figure this out all at once before you start, so I try to focus on that, but that can give you the wrong idea.
It’s also a good idea to periodically review your list of people you follow and remove those who you realize no longer belong or are not pulling their weight. As a rule of thumb, once you get above about 300 people, you should be very suspicious that you are following too many. If you decide to disagree with me and not use lists at all, that number can likely go somewhat higher to something like 500-600, but thousands is definitely a mistake.
Adding someone as a full follower is a high bar for me. Adding someone to a list is a lower bar. Adding to both is an even higher bar, since it means seeing things twice, but you may need to do this to capture their interactions with others, or if others use your lists.
It’s true for lists as well, but if you are following someone who posts at all regularly, that entails knowing how you want to handle their Tweets. Who is to be taken seriously? Who is coming from which perspective? Who is purely for fun? Who wants personal interactions? If your answer is ‘this is too much information to be tracking’ then you are following too many people. If someone basically never posts, then it can be worth keeping them around despite this.
Things to Beware
What are some good reasons to consider not following someone?
Lots of stuff you don’t care about. Wordle, cooking that doesn’t grab you, personal details you don’t care about, lots of stuff about topics you simply don’t care about. You want to tolerate some of this, but if someone is mostly talking about cars and you don’t care about cars, don’t follow them.
Self-promotion. Anyone who does a lot of self-promotion has to really earn their keep in other ways.
Spam. Especially if it’s dangerous spam, but also if it’s ‘retweet this to win!’ Again, I find this is more costly than you may realize.
Spoilers. If people ruin TV shows, movies or sporting events you care about, sorry, that’s simply not acceptable. I have a sense of when I consider Twitter ‘safe’ versus ‘unsafe’ and during ‘unsafe’ periods it’s my fault, but if I need to be current on Mets games to check Twitter, that’s not gonna work.
Not Safe For Work. You likely want to make sure these are in their own list.
Misinformation. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s fine, but there are limits to how often is acceptable especially if it’s happening on purpose… unless you are fully aware of the problem and want to know the word on the street.
Politics, especially Political Advocacy. Sometimes you want politics. I maintain a politics list, and if something sufficiently important is happening you’ll want to know. But I believe strongly in keeping the strong forms of this mostly distinct, especially perspectives that reliably rile you up and make you angry, either at them or at the other side or at the world in general. That’s not something you want to happen continuously.
Just Not That Great. Someone had a good week and you followed them, but mostly they’re just not that great. Pull the plug.
Getting Old Fast. There’s a bunch of things that are fun for a while, but which get old after a while. This can include gimmick accounts that are fun for a week and then that’s enough, or less subtle stuff that can last longer. It’s not them, it’s you.
Cancel Bait. If you’re in a sensitive position, ‘following the wrong account’ might be an issue at some point. Also you don’t want to be interacting too much with anyone who has a tendency to take one mistake or disagreement and blow it way out of proportion, so consider steering fully clear.
Sometimes I want to know what is happening in the political or economic worlds, or among fellow Magic: The Gathering players, or what the broader rationalist-adjacent world is thinking, or sports, or what is going on with Covid-19 or the war. At other times, I very much want to ignore such matters, or only pay attention to extent they are important.
Even if I want to read up on all the day’s developments in the next hour, I’d rather do them one area at a time. Going back and forth between games and Covid and economics requires constantly shifting what programmers call ‘state’ and is best minimized.
By default social media forces you to take whatever is on offer, but Twitter lets you avoid this via the use of lists. You should use them aggressively, whether or not you choose to roll your own. Lists also let you offer those lists to others.
This gives a very large advantage to accounts that have focus. Someone who clearly belongs on one of your lists is far more useful than someone whose focus is split, even if you are inclined to be fine with the different portions. If you’re not interested in the other half of what someone posts, that’s a lot of de facto spam to filter out, and anything in the wrong mode can effectively be spam.
For each list, the goal is to have enough people to get a feel for what is happening in the area, but not so many that it overwhelms, which tends to mean you want between 20-100 members depending on the details. Much more than that and it’s probably more of a firehose.
What lists should you have?
There are two basic lists I think essentially everyone should have: The NSFW List and the Politics List.
The NSFW List is the one you keep private. By default, anyone can see who you follow, and also by default those posts can pop up on the screen any time you check your phone. It’s good to keep at least one list where you put all the people who have things you’d like to keep to yourself, and it will often make sense to have two or more - either because they are different subcategories, or because there’s a ‘top’ one you want to check on the regular and that is similar to the secret version of follows, and a ‘normal’ one for things you only check sometimes or don’t mind missing.
The Politics List (here is mine) is there because you want to usually be uninterested in politics, but that does not mean politics is uninterested in you. Anyone who riles you up on the regular and isn’t a very good personal friend goes onto this list. The usual suspects that tell you what Narrative is from both sides should also go here even if you find them wrong and obnoxious - you’ll want all the top presidential candidates, many of the high officials, and representatives from not only ingroup but also outgroup and fargroup.
This is so you know what they are saying during key developments, and by putting them on this list you’ll hopefully be in the mental state to not let it get to you. Having someone here is very very much not an endorsement of any kind - it takes all kinds.
Right now, of course, you’ll probably want a particular War list for accounts that are covering developments there. I have one of my own, but I’m not ready yet to transition over to it, so I’ve been using the ones from Noah Smith and from Bob Gurley more, and this larger one when I want a larger firehose for a bit. ‘Rolling your own’ in this situation is likely not worth it for most users.
Similar to Politics I have a list for Economics. If you have other similar technical fields you’re keeping up with, you’ll want something similar.
Naturally I have a list for Covid-19. I keep it small, as it is only the people I want to check for Covid-19 but that I do not want to keep following post-pandemic.
If you have hobbies that form their own worlds, it’s good to have a list for them.
I have a list for Magic: The Gathering, which is a bunch of Magic players who often talk about Magic things. I’ve become steadily less engaged over time so this has been getting steadily more neglected and old-school, and I rarely check it.
I of course have a Rationalists list. There are some quirky inclusions and exclusions here. and this list has the most people I also follow because it’s important if you want to get the most out of such people to get the interactions, which have a lot of the value. In particular it’s worth noting that this includes a number of people who wouldn’t self-identify as rationalists, including the meta-rationalists and the post-rationalists but also people who simply talk and think in the same way. It also includes one historian who goes on lots of insanely long threads because I don’t know where else to put her.
I have a list called Shameless Commerce which is a place for accounts for restaurants, game companies and related people who are very much going to spam ads at you or at least links to articles, but where that is something sufficiently relevant to my interests. I have another (private) list for musical artists and similar folks as a way to track tour dates and such, but it’s hard to use because all of them are very spammy.
I have an old list called comedians that should be self-explanatory but it turned out that Twitter wasn’t a good medium for comedy, so it’s mostly deprecated now.
Finally for public consumption I have a list called Football that I’d like to have more good members for, that is for when I am watching sports in real-time and spoilers are now fine.
Keep Your Focus and Use Replies
My approach to posting on Twitter takes this very much to heart. Know who your followers are. For a while, my Twitter was focused on Magic: The Gathering and games, so I would be careful about posting non-Magic content. Now it’s more focused on rationality and Covid and the blog, and the majority of my followers don’t care about games. There is certainly a time and a place to talk about games anyway - I’m about to stream, or something is happening with my game Emergents, but too much gaming talk would drive people away.
You only care about the followers you care about. If it’s mostly about the people you know, then it is of course fine to ignore the priorities of others - if they want in, that’s their call, if not that’s fine too. Similarly, you may actively want to drive the wrong people away, such as when Dick Nixon loses some followers by talking about baseball and says “good.” When this is due to politics, I’m less of a fan.
My solution to the focus problem is replies. Others only see a reply if they follow both accounts. So if I’m replying to a gamer or a game’s account, then anyone who sees it is probably interested in games. If I’m replying to someone into rationality minutia, then I can go into the weeds there, and so on.
One might worry that the world contains tons of accounts and everyone can only follow a few of them so your chance of having the good pairs is small, but the world that counts in such contexts is relatively small. If you are paying attention, you’ll end up following enough of the right people, and/or including them in your lists.
Unfollows, Filters, Mutes and Blocks
Whenever you see a post that makes your life worse, it should automatically trigger a soft check to see if countermeasures are in order. If you don’t actively manage what you see and don’t see on Twitter both on the addition end and the subtraction end, you’ll end up with more and more junk and the experience will slowly get worse.
For people who are being followed or listed, have they produced a bunch of value to you in the past? Are they providing something you value? If not, you should have a very itchy trigger finger when you get irritated. You can use this as a random time to realize you weren’t getting much you care about - if you can’t remember them providing value, either they’re not, and/or you’re following too many people. For lists you check rarely you need to have more tolerance in case you’ve forgotten why they’re there, but even so, not overly much.
Also you can consider ‘demoting’ people from followed to a list, or ‘promoting’ them to be followed whether or not you also remove them from their list.
If someone is super high value it can be worth checking who they follow in turn.
Filters are not something I use much. Once a filter is on, it usually never comes off, and you have poor feedback on whether or not it worked out, and a poor sense of the people in question. Sometimes it means you miss something important, so I get the sense I should tread lightly. Still, I probably should have set up that green-square filter a while ago for Wordle and all that.
Mutes and blocks are similarly one-way, but much less dangerous, and much more necessary. I strongly disagree with ‘follow based on a single Tweet’ but I totally agree with ‘block or mute based on a single Tweet.’
There are certain kinds of being-an-asshole that people worth engaging with simply will never do. Life is too short, pull the plug. But if the only offense is that they’re an asshole, or being deeply stupid, or simply won’t shut-up about various things in ways that keep eating your time, that’s what mute is for.
Block is for someone who is actively working to make your life worse, or life worse in general. This can be commercial, like crypto-bots. It can be that they’re looking for people to cancel or yell at, or otherwise seem likely to quote tweet and start something or similar, so you’d prefer their eyes turn elsewhere. Another reason is that if they’re making replies to your posts seem dumber or more political or enraging, then you want to make that stop.
Or perhaps you want them to know for the satisfaction. There is that too.
The world is smaller than you think. Taking the time to block or mute people will pay dividends if you’re a power user.
When you start using Twitter you’ve got not only zero followers but zero people you are following and no lists. The first step is finding some people to follow.
Twitter will automatically scan your contacts for users, and they will suggest big-following accounts like celebrities and news sources. Say yes to your real friends and contacts, mostly say no to the big accounts.
There is an easy-to-use feature that is much better at getting you started than Twitter’s suggestions, once you find the accounts of your good friends. That feature is to look at who your friends are following, or what lists they have made public. Also check who people whose thinking and taste you respect are following - especially the ones who only follow a few hundred people despite having a lot of posts and followers.
That doesn’t mean you want to trust their judgement without checking or thinking. It does mean that you should think briefly about what it means that each of them is indeed being followed, and update your actions accordingly. When in doubt, check the feed.
Once someone has been active for a while, the fewer people someone follows, the more that should count for something. It occurs to me that it would be very possible to do some sort of automatic Google-page-rank-style calculation, to see who has high-quality followings who have a high bar before following people.
You can, of course, check who I am following, while keeping in mind my choices are a quirky mix and likely to mostly be not for you even if I’m not making a mistake.
I use and check Twitter more than would be healthy for most people. That’s been necessary for me to keep on top of Covid-19, and now Ukraine. It is not without its downsides, so it’s important to set limits to help with that.
It’s not as bad as Facebook. I am of course Against Facebook. But still.
First, I highly recommend you Bring Back the Sabbath. Once a week, at a minimum, take a full day’s break from things that are not restful for you. Definitely include social media on that list.
In similar fashion, when you are present, be present. Don’t check your Twitter feed while in conversation, or at a meal, or when hanging out for a nice evening. When possible I literally put my phone somewhere else to help with this.
I also recommend not checking on one’s phone except when things are truly happening in real time. Don’t install the app either. By using your computer, ideally a desktop, you can process the information more efficiently and avoid getting your brain and actions constantly interrupted. Deep everything, not only deep work, requires putting such dopamine hits out of your mind.
You want to not fall into the habit of checking constantly. Email has the same issue, but at least there there’s an important trade-off - responding to people quickly has big advantages.
Ideally go to the next level.
When there are not real time events going on (including being in active conversations), which I’ve managed to use at some times but not others, is to only check at minimum intervals of at least a day. Most of the time, the world can wait, even if right now it does not feel that way. When I’ve managed to stick to this policy it has definitely been an improvement to my day-to-day and I want to be getting back to it soon - or at least get to checking only Ukraine lists at other times.
That goes hand in hand with limiting the size of your feed and lists. A less constant drip of stuff makes constant checking less tempting. It also means that you can check less often and for less time, and still pick up the stuff with the highest value - you want to be able to check once a day and not feel any fear of missing out.
Note on War Bias
While Twitter is my only known technology for following something like a war in real time, and you can customize it to aim for balance, the War makes this essentially impossible.
The war is a situation of unusual moral clarity. The villain of the piece is (in my model at least) intentionally playing a cartoon villain. They are also going with ‘deny that there is a war’ rather than ‘we are winning’ or ‘we are justified in a way a Westerner might understand.’ This is all a less insane choice than it first appears, but it has its consequences.
As a result, there is a very dominant Narrative here in the West and dissenting voices mostly stay quiet. Russia has outright banned Twitter, although that did not seem to have made any noticeable difference. Essentially all reports and information are from people who stand with Ukraine or at least desire a Ukrainian victory. Selection effects are extreme, and it is all but impossible even to assemble a feed of what is happening that isn’t also full of direct appeals for help.
How do we avoid having this bias give us a warped picture of what is happening, on every level? This is a final exam for bounded distrust.
The good news is that there is essentially no reason to pretend to be actually figuring things out but lying about it. Sure, there’s a reason to share a particular misleading or unconfirmed or even rather transparently fake individual thing. But there’s no reason to also be visibly trying to figure things out. The audience for such attempts is small, and that audience can tell. There are a lot of eyes on essentially everyone reporting much of anything, which also helps.
Thus, in my experience so far, I believe I have been able to get a good sense off of very little data what type of source I am dealing with, so I can respond and update accordingly. That still leaves tons of fog of war and confusion and unknowns. On many of the very big questions I remain deeply confused between different models and sets of facts. Yet things are nowhere near as epistemically hopeless as they seem.
Going beyond that would be beyond scope here.
Make It Your Own
Twitter’s strength lies in its customizability. When I went looking through the people I follow, and none of them are essential follows, or even obviously correct follows. There’s tons of knobs you can turn, and no one’s Twitter need be like anyone else’s Twitter.
Similarly, these suggestions are based on how I get the most out of Twitter and try to keep the costs reasonable. Your situation will be different, so by all means ignore or reverse this when it does not apply to you.