Getting the most out of twitter
How to filter the signals from the noise; build a following; and protect yourself from trolls
Twitter gets a lot of stick, especially from those who have to use it professionally. It’s regularly referred to by users as “this hellsite” or worse. And it can, of course, lead to horrible experiences, particularly for women and those from minority groups with large numbers of followers. Those who get vile abuse often then find that twitter support is too slow to react.
Overall though I think it’s one of the most valuable free things the internet has given us, along with Wikipedia. Through it we can get immediate information about any breaking news story in the world, seek out, and speak to, leading experts in any field, and get links to any number of useful articles and books. I can’t envisage life without it anymore: it would feel so much more insular.
No doubt part of my love for twitter is that it has opened up professional opportunities that I would otherwise never have had. So I have written a starting guide to getting the most out of it. The first section will focus on getting useful information – how can you maximise the signals and minimise the noise. The second looks at how to build a following, something I get asked a lot, particularly by people who think it would be useful professionally to have a more prominent profile but can’t get their head round how to do it. The final section offers advice to those who have sizeable followings about filtering out the abuse that can make it feel like a “hellsite”.
One of the biggest flaws with twitter is its high barrier to entry. You can sign up for an account easily enough but then what? Unless you’re already well known for something you won’t be able to get lots of followers, and the suggestions about who to follow largely consist of corporate accounts and celebrities. It’s not surprisingly that a lot of people never get much further. We’ll come on to getting followers in the next section. Here we’ll look at deciding who to follow.
First tip: if you want to use twitter regularly get tweetdeck rather than relying on the app. It allows you to have multiple columns of tweets on your screen thus making it much easier to quickly scan large amounts of information. Tweetdeck also opens up the list function in the way the app does not. Lists might be the single most useful and underused tool on twitter (apologies if this sounds obvious but many users, in my experience, aren’t even aware they exist).
My tweetdeck screen includes my mentions column, my main timeline, and the three main lists I’m interested in at any particular time - at the moment, UK politics, education, and Ukraine. During, say, a national election in another country I might move my list for that country to the main screen. A ten second scan of those columns gives me a lot more information than scrolling my timeline on the phone.
The other great thing about lists is that you don’t have to build them yourself, you can nick other people’s if they’re open. I keep some of mine private but the three I mentioned above are all public. You can use those lists yourself, or use a few different lists to build your own. When the Russo-Ukraine War started I built my list initially from those set up by a few experts I trusted, and then added more accounts over the following days.
Second, as you’re building your timeline and lists, focus on what information you want to be aware of and not follower numbers, blue ticks, or off-twitter fame. A lot of high-follower accounts are either really dull (pretty much all celebrities + corporate accounts) or just make the same partisan talking points over and over. It’s particularly important to avoid low information partisans as you will spend many pointless hours being wound up for no benefit. You will gain nothing from following people like Piers Morgan who are feeding off your anger.
Focus instead on people who provide new information, whether it’s links to articles, stats, analysis, insider knowledge of an institution, or expertise on a topic that’s suddenly of interest. This should include people who you regularly disagree with. One of the great benefits of twitter is finding people who effectively challenge your ideas. One of my earliest substack posts was on how I did this with my covid list. I came up with four rules:
1. Formal qualifications/job status tells you little. A fair few epidemiologists and public health specialists went low-information partisan very fast and spent their free time during the pandemic engaging in flame wars.
“A better test was whether the expert was providing added value. Were they pointing to relevant studies I hadn’t seen elsewhere? Were they doing their own modelling that helped explain trends better or offered a new way of viewing information? Or giving insights into the biology of the virus I hadn’t seen elsewhere?”
2. Numerical competency is a valuable skill on almost any issue. Many of the most useful accounts came from (and still are) people like James Ward and John Burn-Murdoch who had no prior medical expertise but are just good at analysing the data.
3. Look for scouts not soldiers. I wrote about Julia Galef’s Scout Mindset in my very first post. Her terminology seems to have taken off more widely in the past few months, which is good to see. Here were some of the common features of the covid scouts.
“[they were] far more adaptive to the actual situation – sometimes urging concern and caution and at other times being more optimistic. They never took definitive positions for or against certain measures and, critically, were reflective about their own biases and mistakes. All good signs of a scout mindset. Because of the way social media works absolutely no one managed to avoid getting dragged into unproductive spats, or ever making a mistake, but scouts tend to try and extricate themselves and move on, as opposed to bearing long-term grudges. They are also much better at acknowledging trade-offs.”
4. Follow networks.
“One of the best things about Twitter is that is allows you to see what sources of information other people value – either because they explicitly cite it or because they are regularly engaging with that person. This offers a great mechanism to build out a series of trusted sources from a single one.”
I’ve tried to apply these rules more generally since and I think they work well on pretty much any topic from the current economic situation through to Ukraine. For instance one of my favourite UK politics follows is @JMagosh, who offers insights into polling data that I don’t see anywhere else. As per rule 1 I have no idea who he is and he gives no professional qualifications in his bio, or even a surname, but he meets rules 2 and 3 exceptionally well, and I found him via rule 4.
Building a following
Most people on twitter have no desire to do this, having managed to avoid whatever personality disorder makes me want to share my every waking thought with strangers. They are consumers of news and info. But there are others who do, either because they just want to get more engagement for their ideas or, more often, because it would help them professionally. And it’s really not easy, unless you’re already well known for something else or have a celebrity friend who can ask people to follow you. It took me a couple of years to get to 2,000 followers and six years to get to 25k. It does get faster over time though - moving from 50k to 100k only took two years.
The problem at the start is that almost no one sees your tweets so even if you’re tweeting out incredibly valuable content it won’t go further than the small group of people (and even if they RT it the likelihood is they don’t have many followers either). There’s no overnight shortcut but some tips to get started:
1. Have a proper name, photo and bio. It’s possible to get followers as an anonymous account with no info but it’s much harder. People want to know who they’re engaging with. In the bio say what you’ll be tweeting about and why so they can make a call on whether you might be someone worth a follow.
2. Make your tweets as high information as possible. People won’t engage with your opinions until they know who you are but if you link to a really useful article or post an illuminating chart it’s more likely to get picked up. The quickest route to more followers is becoming seen as a go-to expert on a topic (or tweeting out relentless partisan bilge, but I’m guessing if you’re here you don’t want to do that).
3. Use threads to build up a set of info, links, or analysis on a topic over time. If you keep pushing the thread back into people’s timelines it’s more likely people will eventually see it, and a good thread is more likely to get quote tweeted than a one off tweet.
4. Reply to interesting tweets from high follower accounts with some additional stats or material that build on their point (or undermine it). Lots of people will see their tweet and will often look at the replies.
5. You can also mention larger accounts in tweets that might be of interest to them but do this judiciously! For me if it’s a genuinely interesting new report or analysis of something I’ve been tweeting about then it’s always welcome.
6. You need to tweet a lot. In my experience the biggest mistake people trying to build a following make is to spend ages working on small numbers of tweets and hoping that will do it. You never know quite what is going to catch people’s attention (my first successful tweet was about Gladstone’s budget deficit) and often you’ll only get followed when people have seen a succession of interesting tweets from you RT’d into their timeline. You obviously don’t want to spam people as that will get you unfollowed, but tweeting has to be regular.
7. Twitter is ultimately a conversational medium even if written down. I’m much more colloquial there than in longer form writing, using jokes and (probably too much) sarcasm to generate interest in stories or issues I think are important. The more your real voice and personality come over the better, though there’s no need to go into any personal or family stuff unless you want to.
As you start to develop a following it’s worth having a deliberate process to avoid unintentionally passing on misinformation, given how much there is out there. If I see some shocking stat or piece of news from someone that isn’t from a trusted source I always now double check to see if it’s true before amplifying. If I do accidentally pass on something that turns out to be wrong I always delete and then do a new tweet saying I deleted it and why. Simply adding a second tweet clarifying your first doesn’t work, as many won’t see it. But just deleting it without comment means others don’t learn from your mistake.
Beating the trolls
Having a lot of followers is an enormous privilege. I can get immediate help on any question I have, from fixing my boiler to putting together a reading list on Chinese history, or finding an obscure policy stat. I can road test my half-baked thoughts with people who know far more about a topic than I do. I have an audience for longer form writing that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise.
It can also, though, be overwhelming, especially if you don’t have any filters and engage with every response and mention. Once you get to 10k-20k followers you start to get a heavier volume of replies, and even if you say nothing particularly contentious, you’ll get some nutters sending you abuse and insults. At first it didn’t bother me much: I’m 5ft 2, bespectacled, and went to an all-boys school. I’ve developed a thick skin.
But then a few years ago I felt that, as a British Jew, I had a duty to raise the widespread concerns about the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s links with various antisemites and autocratic regimes around the world. After a while the abuse from a minority of his supporters became relentless and started to get really upsetting. I also kept finding myself in the same pointless argument with people who were never going to be convinced by anything I had to say, and were goading me (or sealioning).
So then I did a couple of things that were transformational to my experience which I would strongly recommend for anyone with 20k+ followers. If you go to the app and choose settings/notifications/muted notifications you can mute replies from anyone who doesn’t follow you. The moment I did this the abuse almost completely disappeared from view. Occasionally someone gets through but it’s less than 5% of what it was. And if I don’t see it I don’t care. It almost never comes from anyone with a serious following or reputation themselves, and if does someone will tell me. You can also mute people with a “default profile photo” which I do as well because it catches bots that follow you and tweet crap in your replies.
Filtering like this has largely stopped me from engaging in completely pointless spats with people whose only interest is in winding me up (unless I’m really procrastinating). I’ve now taken this a step further and try to ignore any negative reply, even from those who follow me, that doesn’t offer a substantive critique of my opinion/point. I also block and mute liberally. I give leeway to people I know and have engaged with but if someone I don’t know insults me they get blocked. If they walked up to me in a pub and started yelling abuse at me I’d walk away. There’s no reason why social media should be any different.
By keeping these quite heavy filters on my twitter experience I can keep it enjoyable nearly all the time. And if I say something genuinely daft, offensive or just factually wrong, someone who follows will always politely tell me.
Hopefully there has been something useful in all that for users at every level. If there are any topics or questions that you’d like to hear more about I’m very happy to answer any further questions in the comments. Or indeed on twitter.
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There is a lot of pleasure to be had following art, architecture, photography etc accounts: there is something for everyone out there - indeed a lot more than something.
Next, please, a guide to staying off Twitter to maintain productivity! Or at least how to balance the two...