How I use Twitter and (not) get insane
Disclaimer: Since October 2022 I winded down my Twitter activity and moved to Mastodon, effectively rendering this article irrelevant. Leaving it intact for archival purposes.
I’ve been using Twitter with various breaks since 2008. Until mid 2010s using it outside of the US made very little sense, but it was steadily gaining popularity while suffocating locally available alternatives until it became the only player in the field. My approach to Twitter evolved a lot and it took me a few years to figure out how to use it in a sane way.
Not gonna lie though, I like Twitter. But it’s a very complicated relationship. As of 2020 I treat it like a fun, zero-commitment medium to communicate with a close circle of people outside of my usual filter bubbles.
It wasn’t always that way. I’ve tried different approaches, including using Twitter in a professional context, tweeting stuff related to web development, meeting mutuals in real life and so on. I eventually decided I need some breathing space between Twitter and my ‘offline’ life so that I have some control over what my followers know about me.
Twitter as a medium is broken and the world is broken due to its existence. But I can’t spend my life being an old man yelling at clouds. To make Twitter fun and useful for myself, I developed some non-obvious personal strategies. It is by no means a magical recipe to make Twitter perfect again, but it works for me.
So, here’s how I Twitter.
Since 2016 Twitter presents tweets in algorithmic fashion and lets users switch back to chronological timeline. This wouldn’t have been an issue if Twitter had made the setting permanent, but no. Having to switch back to chronological order is annoying as hell, as it’s clearly Twitter’s ill will rather than technological limitation.
Algorithmic timeline presents tweets out of order, out of context, based on opaque criteria I can’t customize in any way. Additionally, it often presents tweets and interactions between people I don’t follow, which effectively renders the whole notion of ‘following / follower’ useless. I can make educated guesses about which of my followers uses algorithmic timeline based on their response time and certain behaviors, such as engaging in conversations they weren’t invited to or late reactions to time-sensitive content.
But most importantly, by treating reactions as a useful metric, algorithmic timeline is prone to muting people whose tweets get little to no attention. This is exactly the opposite of what I want for two reasons. First, noisy tweets aren’t always the ones I want or need to see in my timeline. Second, I want those faint voices of people who post one tweet a month to be visible in my timeline. When they bother to wake up and speak, they probably want to be heard.
Chronological timeline puts the responsibility for content quality back on me. I want to see everything that has been posted by people I follow and nothing else. Of course I will still see a lot of irrelevant content or miss a lot of stuff I may have been interested in, but I can work around that or catch up whenever I want. No algorithm will spend my attention budget better than me.
TweetDeck and non-official clients
At the time of writing, I use TweetDeck on desktop and Fenix 2 on Android devices. Except TweetDeck, I avoid using default Twitter clients whenever I can. The web version of Twitter on desktop, apart from failing to remember my timeline settings and pushing lots of unwanted content into my timeline, is very confusing and too distracting to use daily. It’s slightly better on mobile and I sometimes use it to vote in polls or check communities.
TweetDeck is the last officially supported tool that makes Twitter experience widely customizable so that I can see content I want to see and nothing else.
Unofficial Twitter apps on Android have one major flaw: due to Twitter being hostile to third-party API consumers those apps miss some features. In Fenix 2 I can’t see options in polls or people who liked a particular tweet due to stupid restrictions on Twitter’s end. But I still prefer using crippled, but more usable version of Twitter interface rather than touching their official apps.
Mute words and phrases first, people second
I rarely block people. I block bots disguised as people for stupid marketing practices or bots auto-retweeting my content. Blocking actual humans for whatever they said or did is usually pointless, since it doesn’t block content visibility or ability to interact (it’s easy to evade with a different account anyway). People tend to use blocking in very childish ways, treating it as a statement rather than actual moderation tool. Being able to block people we don’t agree with ranks high among Twitter’s worst gifts to humanity. I didn’t sign up for this.
I do, however, mute words and phrases. Thanks to English language having very limited declension compared to my native language, I can block a single word rather than a whole array of variations to achieve the same effect.
My list of muted words contains phrases used by automated spammy tools like Affinitweet, hashtags related to other social media sites (with Instagram and TikTok being among the top offenders), some specific emoji, as well as phrases related to giveaways, retweeting, following or liking tweets (if your content is attention-worthy you won’t have to beg for it), and a lot of other stuff I don’t want to care about for my own reasons.
Sadly, Twitter’s mechanism of muting is lackluster. It’s impossible to mute everything I don’t want to see without collateral damage. I’m aware of the fact muting some critical phrases will yield dozens of false positives. But the ultimate game is about my own comfort of using the platform first and foremost. All the sacrifice here is the kind of sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Under the hood Twitter is a very primitive mechanism with many legacy parts covered by fancy user interface. For example, blocking words like “RT” or “retweet” brought an interesting side effect: I stopped seeing retweets of all people in my timeline. At first it was an accidental discovery, then I loved this cool undocumented feature.
Retweets aren’t bad per se. But they take away from the same attention budget I want to spend on people actually creating content. Writing and publishing a tweet takes time and effort and this is what I want to recognize among people I follow. Retweets are too easy, usually posted impulsively, and rarely meaningful enough to pay attention to them. Nobody in the world is famous for retweeting stuff. Even an ape can be taught to push a button.
Quote-tweets are marginally better, but they introduce problems of their own: people usually abuse them instead of replying to the original poster. But I do quote-tweet myself too, so let’s pretend you didn’t read this paragraph.
Watch who you follow…
That is self-explanatory enough. I try to keep my following list lean so that I can say a sentence or two about each and every person I follow. I don’t have any specific preferences or insights in this regard. Everyone is a DJ on their own dancefloor and can play whatever music they want.
…or use lists
…but there was a time when I followed more people than I had attention budget for and some of them were particularly noisy. For this kind of humans there is a separate place in hell.
I handle noisy but interesting people on Twitter in a following way: I mute them on my timeline and put them on a separate list I check alongside my timeline. That’s it. Problem solved.
As of December 2020 nobody in my following list receives this kind of treatment.
Additionally, Twitter lists are underappreciated tool for following people posting on highly specific topics that would otherwise get lost in my timeline. Obviously, creating a new list effectively adds another feed to check, but customizable tools like TweetDeck make it a less painful than it sounds.
Okay, politics on Twitter is a complicated topic. I see no way to reliably mute or block all of it. I don’t blame people for discussing it. I have evolving political views myself.
But I treat being on Twitter as a very personal game and it’s about my own comfort first. And I want to keep my part of Twitter free of politics for as long as possible. It’s not exactly easy living in a country where politics has always been a heated topic. But I ultimately want my Twitter ‘bubble’ to be a safe enclave, free of pointless discussions nobody ever wins.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want divisive topics or heated discussions on my timeline. But I demand quality topics to argue about. You are always fine to bring the greatest hits like pineapple on pizza or Polish language sounding gibberish.
I eventually figured out the following rule of thumb: no political commentary on my timeline if it doesn’t personally concern me or the person posting it.
I support political activism with clear calls-to-action that could benefit from attention on social media, like fundaisers, petitions or other forms of helping a group of people in need. Politics matters as long as being involved in it has potential to change reality. If not, it’s just cheap online slacktivism. And no, I don’t believe in ‘spreading awareness’ if you don’t put money where your mouth is.
Commenting on a presidential election in a country you don’t even live in or discussing some controversial law change that has no effect on you is effectively a waste of time, both yours as a commenter and mine as a reader.
Yes, exceptions do happen from time to time. I break these rules myself once or twice a year.
Build your own bubble in a conscious way. And pop it sometimes
There’s this popular concept of ‘filter bubbles’ formulated by Eli Pariser in early 2010s. I’m aware of it and it definitely made my online life better and worse at the same time. Some of the strategies I discussed earlier harden my bubble even further.
At first I thought I should beware of bubbles at all cost, but this is not a fun way of living. I can’t spend all of my online time gaming algorithms and dealing with constant stream of randomness.
On Twitter I often follow people of diverse backgrounds. We may share some common interests, but the ultimate power of diversity is that I get to see content I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It’s those people who bring interesting perspectives to thought-provoking topics and give visibility to issues I wouldn’t have spotted myself. They bring this element of randomness to the usual curated stream of content.
One more thing that deserves a dishonorable mention: threads. Sadly, I don’t know what to do with them, so I’ll just rant.
Threads on Twitter are an interesting feature for series of tweets on common topics. However, people abuse them to publish essays, which completely misses the point. Twitter threads make them very incovenient to read. External tools like Threader App work around this problem but they don’t solve it completely.
Besides, there’s no difference in visibility between a threaded essay and a short tweet, which I believe is unfair given that they aren’t equal to each other. I’ll put it this way: writing an essay on Twitter is an equivalent of writing an essay on toilet paper. Yes, as a reader I think Twitter sucks this much as a blogging platform. Even Medium.com, which I hate for different reasons, is miles better as a home for your essays.
If you value your readers’ time, write long pieces, but give them readability and discoverability they deserve rather than opting for a lazy option. Even posting them on external services like TwitLonger and linking them is better if you don’t want to start your own blog.
In the end it doesn’t even matter
And that’s what I wanted to say about Twitter. It sometimes frustrates the heck out of me. I genuinely believe its management team has no clear product vision. I believe alternative takes on social media, such as Mastodon, deserve more mainstream attention if we want to live in a healthy society.
But I do keep coming back to Twitter because, well, it’s there and I can’t help that. Sheesh.