How I use Twitter

26 April 2022

A couple of recent conversations about Twitter were nudging me into writing about how I use Twitter even before The Muskover developed. Twitter has become an important part of my online life, and my online life is a big part of what I do. But like any tool, Twitter can be used in many different ways, and how you use it affects how useful it can be.

As a platform, Twitter's strength is its small character limit. It forces people to be brief, although threads somewhat undermines that constraint. Small posts are quick to skim, so I don't waste much time if there isn't much there.

Small posts aren't good for conversations, but that's ok with me since one of the big lessons I learned about the internet in the 90's was that conversations online were rarely worthwhile. 90's newsgroups had all the toxic behavior we see on online platforms now, for much the same reasons. Twitter makes it easy for me to avoid them if I don't bother reading (or making) replies.

(I say this as someone who is lucky not to be the target of online bullies. Twitter has long-lacked the tools to prevent harassment - I'd say that is Twitter's biggest failing. It's easy for me to underweight the importance of a problem I don't have to deal with, but I know good people who avoid online spaces entirely because of a fear of harassment, often a fear born of bitter experience.)

Where I find Twitter most useful is that it allows me to precisely follow individual accounts who tweet things I like to hear about. So I'm very careful with who I follow. Some people tweet a lot of good stuff, but too much - those I don't follow reckoning that anything particularly good will be retweeted by those that I do follow. What I mostly like is announcements of interesting articles, which I can then save in my Instapaper feed to read later. A good short thread is also useful, but I'm wary of those since they can easily spiral out - and are more trouble to save. During the pandemic, I've found curating a list of reliable twitter accounts has been hugely helpful in understanding what's going on. Similarly I've recently started following some handy feeds to keep up with events in Ukraine. [1]

As a writer I mostly post links to articles that I think those who follow me would enjoy, either on or elsewhere. I try to avoid getting into arguments, and am mostly successful at that. (I strongly recommend following Charles' Rules of Argument.) I find it harder to resist attempting catchy soundbites. [2]

If Twitter were to ask me which part of their product they should improve, I'd ask for more attention to lists. I find lists really handy because I can pop people who mostly tweet on a topic into a list that I'll read when I'm ready to spend time on that topic. I keep an eye on the people I follow during the day, but have a few lists that I catch up during the evening. While they work well, I'm irritated that lists don't collapse threads the way they are collapsed in my main feed. I'm also frustrated by the lack of tools to manage my lists. I'd like a way to move all of my follows into lists and then set some lists up so that I automatically follow anyone on that list.

I only set my following to chronological order. I used to have to reset Twitter to not use its algorithm on me every few weeks, but thankfully they've let it alone for many months now. I never look at "explore" or "top articles" and very rarely look at hashtags. I rarely use DMs, as I prefer to route my communications into email where I can keep track of things more easily. I use the default web interface on my real computer and the app on my iPhone/Pad. I haven't found a third-party site or app that's done enough to make me want to use it over Twitter's default offering.

I'm not a fan of Musk's public interactions, but it's too early to judge what effect the takeover will have on Twitter. From what he says, he seems to be naive about the problems of online content moderation [3]. I'll continue as I have for now and see how things develop. As ever, I'm happy that I have my own internet domain.


1: I made a couple of these lists public For those who might find them handy.

2: A quick classification of my last 50 tweets (over 48 days) had 36 as pointers to articles or threads of interest, 6 announcements of events I'm involved in, and 8 attempts at a catchy quote. In that same time I made 28 replies, none of which were conversations.

3: I regularly listen to Arbiters of Truth, which explores many interesting aspects of content management and online information. This has helped me understand the limits of free-speech absolutism. As an introduction, it's worth reading Evelyn Douek's recent Atlantic article.