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Blog // Creativity
August 5, 2021

How to Use Twitter

Twitter is more than just a social media platform. It’s part of the Zeitgeist, our moment in history. Using it well is an undervalued skill.

A lot of people use Twitter, but many of them don’t seem to enjoy it. There are good reasons for this. You can find a lot of hate and misinformation on social media.

But there’s no need to dismiss it entirely. I have Twitter to thank for some of best friendships and professional opportunities. Every day, many people rely on Twitter to stay connected to their communities or informed of things that matter to them.

It’s worth remembering Twitter is a piece of software, a tool you can customise to dramatically change your Twitter experience. And Twitter is innovating to improve the effectiveness of these customisation tools.

It’s worth taking a look at how to use Twitter in 2022.

But before we explore the Twitter of your future, it’s important to take a moment and ask why we bother using Twitter at all.

Why Are You Using Twitter?

So many people open a Twitter account, follow the recommended users and trending news stories, then proceed to have a miserable experience.

So, before going any further, ask yourself what you want from Twitter. What kind of people do you want to hear from? What kind of ideas do you want to be exposed to? How do you want the experience to make you feel?

Then you can customise Twitter to work for you.

For me, Twitter isn’t a tool for news, celebrity gossip, raging political arguments, or anything like that. It’s a tool for meeting interesting people.

When I’m on Twitter, I want to hear from people who make things, like artists, chefs, designers, photographers, musicians, writers, and so on. If there’s a crisis, like the pandemic, then I want to hear from experts. This means academics, scientists, and public health experts. I’m also interested in the daily experiences of people who live in cities I love, like Adelaide, New York, or Tokyo.

Engaging with these kinds of people makes me feel encouraged, inspired, and informed.

Follow People Wisely

To try to tame the experience they have on the platform, some Twitter users follow a very limited number of accounts. It’s an understandable mistake.

Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar compared the size of different primates’ brains to the size of their social groupings. He wanted to find out how many relationships humans can sustain. He said it was 150. Although there’s a debate around the accuracy of Dunbar’s number, as it came to be known, most of us understand there’s a limit to how many people we can have in our social circles.

Limiting how many people you follow on Twitter to something like Dunbar’s number would make sense if you were trying to recreate your physical social life online. But why would you want to do that?

Think of it this way. Imagine if your world really was just 150 people. Okay, you’d know everyone’s name and their favourite beverage. But you wouldn’t have any art galleries, movies, or sporting events. And you wouldn’t have a smartphone to read this on, since that took a lot more than 150 people to make.

We cope with living in a society because we have strategies to deal with a much bigger number of voices in our life.

My grandparents’ generation didn’t have the internet. Their social life was close to Dunbar’s number in terms of friends, family, work colleagues, local shopkeepers, etc. But count the authors and poets they read, newspaper columnists, singers and radio announcers, movie and sports stars, and you start to get a pretty large number of people they enjoyed following.

Relax your restrictions and open yourself to following more people on Twitter. But do it wisely. Here’s how to make that work.

Mute Aggressively

If you’re seeing too much of a personality or topic that doesn’t interest you, then mute them. Living in the privacy settings (which we discuss below), the mute function is one of Twitter’s most powerful tools. You can mute something forever, or mute it for a day, week, or month, which is handy when you just want a rest from something that might normally interest you.

Mute works fairly well. Sometimes you have to add a few variations of terms to silence a topic, but it can be done.

I tend to mute irritating people rather than block them. There are good reasons to block people on Twitter, especially if you are also reporting them for violating Twitter’s terms of service for hateful or violent speech. But some folks take misguided pride in being blocked – whereas if they are muted, they are effectively shouting into the wind, unaware you can’t hear them.

Pin Your Hopes For All To See

Every year, I write a tweet about how I use Twitter and pin it to the top of my timeline.

Read people’s pinned tweets. And their bio. While you’re doing that, check out their most recent tweets and the stuff they like. Also take a look at which of your followers follow them.

If you see stuff you like, hit the follow button.

If you’re not sure, then don’t. But the follow button isn’t a marriage proposal. You’re not giving people the keys to your house. You can unfollow (and a lot more) if needed. Following is just giving people permission to bring something positive and useful, something that meets your goals, into your Twitter experience.

Skip The Timeline And Curate Lists

When you open up Twitter, you see a main timeline. This has updates from all the people you follow, more or less, depending on what Twitter’s algorithm feels like showing. Ignore it. The main timeline is chaotic, noisy, and random. Like the falling code in The Matrix, it’s too much.

Instead, use Twitter’s secret weapon: lists.

With lists, you can organise people into groups, based on any interest or topic you like. You could make a list full of chefs, cooks, and food writers. Or if you’re into black-and-white photography, you could create a list specific to that interest.

You don’t have to follow people to add them to a list. So, if you want to track an interest for a brief period, maybe something like an election campaign, or the Olympics, then create a list for that. When the thing is over, just delete the list. You don’t have to manually unfollow a bunch of accounts.

Lists can be public or private. I make most of mine public. But I have a small private list, a nod to Dunbar’s number, with my favourite people on Twitter.

Protect Your Focus By Bookmarking And Turning Off Notifications

Deep work and digital minimalism are recurring topics on this blog. One of the ways Twitter can break our focus is by interrupting us with notifications and soaking up time with interesting distractions.

So, turn off your notifications from Twitter. All of them. You can wait to see that witty reply to yesterday’s tweet later. You don’t need to know someone just followed you.

Good notification hygiene is important. Enjoy your moment on Twitter and then move on to the rest of your life.

When you see something interesting that would take more than a moment to enjoy, bookmark it for later. People are constantly posting interesting links on Twitter. But if you always consume that content on the spot, then you risk a moment turning into something bigger. Two minutes becomes twenty, and Twitter starts to take over your attention.

Bookmark things for later. Then when you have a longer break, you can read those interesting articles and watch the cool videos.

What About Trolls?

Twitter generates conversations. Like-minded people bond over shared interests and exchange ideas. It can be wonderfully inspiring to see genuinely human connections made online. It’s beautiful to watch.

Sadly, because it’s the internet, or because it’s a part of human nature, some people want to tear this down. We commonly call these people trolls.

The subject of online trolls is vast. Ginger Gorman’s first-hand account, Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout, is a good place to start exploring this. Angela Nagle’s Kill all normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, adapted from her PhD research on politically motivated trolling, is also insightful.

Trolling is not an even game. Women are more likely to be trolled than men. Minorities of every type are more likely to face online hate. Trolls usually have multiple accounts, or even automated accounts, to amplify their attacks.

Thankfully, Twitter has been improving its tools for dealing with online hate. We discuss those below. The company is finally taking the problem seriously after years of inaction. The situation isn’t perfect, but it’s better now than it was.

It’s also worth noting that not all disagreement is trolling. People might take issue with what you say. You might not like the way they do it. I don’t like snarky cynical comments, for example. But that’s not the same thing as trolling. It’s not a systematic attack. Just as in the rest of life, just because someone is being difficult, we don’t immediately assume they are full of hate.

Other Features

This article could easily be five times as long if we explored every feature Twitter has, especially as Twitter keeps adding new features. But for now, here are a few things to try.

Advanced Search – In addition to basic search functions, Twitter also lets you filter searches by location and restricting them to people you follow. I use the latter all the time.

Notification Filters – Twitter has a “quality” filter you can turn on which tries to deal with automated replies. You also have various options to mute replies from people you don’t follow, or who don’t follow you. I don’t personally use those, but I do turn the mute notifications from new accounts, accounts with a default profile photo, who haven’t confirmed their email, or haven’t confirmed with phone number, as these restrict a lot of low-quality and troll activity.

Conversation Settings – When you tweet, you can set who can reply – everyone, only people you follow, or only people you mention. You can also change this after you share a tweet. You can mute a conversation if you’re tired of receiving notifications about it. And you can hide replies from people when you find them unhelpful (or worse).

Security Settings – Here you can see and change the accounts you’ve blocked and muted as well as the words and phrases you’ve muted. Also, you can report tweets for a variety of reasons including abuse, or the threat of harm or self-harm. Unfortunately, false and misleading information is not available on this list.

Spaces – This is a new feature many users haven’t explored yet. Twitter has a social audio service called Spaces (I’ve written about social audio here and here).

Turn Off Retweets – Following someone who’s prone to hit the retweet button too often? You can turn off their retweets. The topic of retweets is one Twitter users disagree on. For me, I don’t like retweets without comment and wish there was a setting to turn them off for everyone. But for now, I frequently turn off retweets per user.

A Brief Word About Anonymity

When I think of the accounts that have directed attacks and insults my way over the years, many of them have one thing in common: anonymity. It’s not surprising. These trolls choose to not risk tying their real-world identity to the hateful things they say online.

Of course, not every troll is anonymous, and not every anonymous account is a troll. Some people have valid reasons for anonymity, such as personal or political circumstances.

But many of the benefits of being on Twitter are attenuated by choosing to be anonymous. Connections and conversations flourish because of trust. Online, as in real life, we make things better by having a visible commitment to being civil, kind, and respectful.

This is in sharp contrast to trolls, who have no skin in the game of maintaining good human interactions, and no interest in making room for people to flourish.

Being your authentic self online maximises the chances of meeting like minded people. Authenticity fosters trust.

Most Important Of All

If I can leave you with just one piece of advice, it’s this: use Twitter less often. Enjoy it, then get on with your life. In a recent Atlantic essay, Caitlin Flanagan wrote about feeling addicted to Twitter and feeling like it was corroding her ability to think and read deeply.

“Twitter is a parasite that burrows deep into your brain, training you to respond to the constant social feedback of likes and retweets.”
– Caitlin Flanagan

Don’t live on Twitter. Or have it open all day. Turn off all notifications so you aren’t tempted to open Twitter every time you pick up a device or return to your computer. If you find yourself thinking about Twitter when you’re not on there, then it’s time to take a rest. Take twice as long as you think you need.

Twitter can make your life better. It’s helped me get work, make friends, and understand places I’ve lived. But I’ve also taken long sabbaticals over the years. And although I post regularly on Twitter, the amount of time I spend there each day is tiny compared to how much time goes into reading, listening to podcasts, taking courses, or watching documentaries.

Twitter can play a small positive role in your life – if you use it wisely and customize your experience to suit what you want from the service.

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