I was talking to a buddy a few days ago about Twitter, and he remarked that he needs to post more of his original thoughts rather than just commenting on others’, to which I responded “sure,” but added that it could literally be the stuff he says in comments but as posts. The truth is that I have not thought of the starting ground of Twitter - the very beginnings of posting - in some time, and can’t imagine getting going today. I also get asked occasionally by young PR folk how exactly to use Twitter, and how to use it “properly” as if I have the machine from Person of Interest, but it spits out topics instead of social security numbers of potential victims I must save.
I wrote about how to actually enjoy Twitter last week in a moment of alarming clarity, but didn’t really touch on the why of me being on Twitter all the time, and indeed how to “do” Twitter properly, because thinking about it is hard for something I do all the time without really thinking about it.
What Twitter Actually Is
Twitter, as it stands, is more akin to ham radio than it is to Facebook. You can follow people and topics that interest you, but ultimately you have to curate your feed, the people on it and the things you want on it in such a way that the main flow of information isn’t so overwhelming and repetitive that it makes you want to shut off the app forever.
The unique problem Twitter creates is that anyone can tweet, and tweets have some of the qualities of ephemeral posts (they are quickly pushed into irrelevance by a surge of other posts) without the benefits (these tweets, unless they are deleted, live forever). As a result, information can hang around for hours, or days, and get pushed back into your feed and make you anxious or scared and freak out, all without the context of time or, in many cases, actual informational context.
The result is that approaching it like any other form of media is a great way to create a lot of panic and sadness and confusion. Part of the reason is that Twitter defaults to a non-chronological timeline - which you can change easily so that you can see the newest posts first - meaning that users can get a tweet that pops up from hours ago that has them reacting to the beginning of an event that potentially has ended, or a bad thing that has happened that they’re reacting to without any explanation that has both ended and been explained. It is a product that is so fundamentally built to cause confusion that I am shocked that Twitter even has an algorithm to show you posts.
So, at its purest form, Twitter is a firehose of information - you choose who to follow, and you get their information, and others’ information, dropped in front of you. You can choose to share it (retweet), like it (like) or quote-tweet it with your own thoughts onto your feed, or respond to their tweet with your comment.
It is, for better or for worse, the comments section on the universe.
How To Use It
I have said it once and I’ll say it again - do not force yourself to tweet. Do not feel like you have to do it or you’ll die. Also, do not feel as if you have to address every single subject in the universe, and do not think you have to address every single tweet that you see on your feed.
I will make this reminder a few times: everything you tweet exists forever. There are easy ways to delete your old tweets and I recommend them. This means if at 4am on a Tuesday you respond to the official FBI account with “Chud Bungo Fuck,” that is now something that, until deleted, can be searched by anyone.
Follow the people you find truly interesting, then people you find kind of interesting, then people you need to keep tabs on, and then people you know and like in real life. Start small - reply to them, talk to them. Reply to stuff you find interesting, but realize that a big account is likely to not respond to you (for example, a sports fan is rarely gonna get a response from Adam Schefter, who’s got 8 million followers), and because you are replying to someone with so many followers, you’ll show them your reply and that may not be super pleasant.
Either way, you want to engage with people about stuff in a way you would a normal conversation. So, if someone you know is talking about sports, perhaps you respond with your thoughts about sports. If you want to post on your own feed, just talk about whatever you’re doing or share links you find interesting.
Twitter, to me, is somewhere between an endless wall of people saying “what’s the deal with STUFF?” and a giant watercooler conversation, with millions of smaller, weirder watercoolers to crowd around. You basically post what you think and, in an ideal feed, get people who agree with you who have a conversation with it, or you make a statement they agree with enough to share on their feed. When people follow you, they can see both your posts and your replies to people they also follow, which is good and bad:
- It’s good because your friends can enjoy conversations you are in with your other friends.
- It’s bad because anyone who follows both of you can see you talk and interrupt your conversation by saying something irrelevant to it.
But back to actually using Twitter…
Here’re some good ground rules:
- Write like a normal human being. I see a lot of PR people on Twitter who talk like a press release, which is a PR person problem, but it’s fine to just talk normal. Nobody cares.
- Act like a normal human being. Don’t just reply to someone’s post that you disagree with in a violent and crazy way.
- You don’t need to have an opinion and comment on everything, which I will dedicated a whole bit to shortly.
- If you find someone annoying, block them, or unfollow them. If you find them annoying or offensive but need to follow them for diplomatic reasons (friend of a friend, friend of yours who’s cool in real life but weird online, they’re me) just mute them.
- Don’t be weird and thirsty. Don’t constantly reply to every single thing that someone tweets, and when you do it’s fine to keep it short. Hell, hit that retweet button if you want to reply but feel you’re replying too much.
- Don’t beg people for follows.
- If you’re using Twitter with your real name, remember that your real name is now attached to everything you say and everything you do. That means if you follow questionable people, or post questionable stuff, you’re gonna get called up on it. If you are a creep online, people know, and Twitter has it saved.
A lot of these rules can be summarized with a phrase that my friend Kasey uses: play stupid games, win stupid prizes. If you really want your whole political identity to be online, and, say, list at length why you think the pandemic lockdown is a bad idea and that COVID is a myth, well, that’s all online for people to see. And yes, you can delete it, but people can also screenshot whatever you say and use it against you.
Note: you may see this and think “ah yes, that, my friend, is cancel culture.” Cancel culture is known by another word - consequences - and if you are going online and making posts that hurt people, yes, there are consequences, and expecting there not to be is stupid.
Act Natural, And Don’t Try And Fit In
I do recommend you read my post about enjoying Twitter, because it has several quality of life adjustments (like making it so that you don’t see every random asshole reply to you), and also teaches you the overall thing that you are in control of your feed.
I follow a lot of reporters, subject matter experts and people in my industry. I liberally mute people rather than block so I don’t make waves, don’t feel tempted to lash out at them, and don’t offend them with a block (people on Twitter get offended by being blocked). I respond where I think I have a thought about something, or generally something funny, but I also know these people and their general ways, and do a lot more reading than I do posting, which is terrifying considering how often I post.
More importantly, I am “me.” I do not try and do things to try and hide that (other than not posting every thought I have). I talk about whatever I feel interested in at that time, and slowly people follow and unfollow me. I talk about the Matt Stafford To The Rams Trade, I talk about music, I talk about cooking. I talk about real stuff I do.
One thing I see a lot of people mess up - particularly PR people, but actual human beings too - is forcing themselves to try and talk about stuff that they think other people will find interesting.
Let’s be blunt: nobody cares if you drink wine or coffee, but if you really love them that’s great. But what you’re probably doing when you say you love drinking wine or coffee is saying “I love doing things that you regular humans like doing too!” and it adds precisely nothing to the overall conversation. I can’t teach you to be interesting, but know that just liking stuff on a puddle deep level isn’t going to do shit for you. Nobody cares!
The Intoxicating Feeling Of Going Viral
A problem that people have on Twitter is when they get some level of popularity, even for a few hours or days. People can retweet your stuff, and you’ll get a bunch of likes, follows and other retweets, and for a moment you may think that you’re famous, or popular.
You are neither of these things. You are not the next viral star. You are not going to be the next Catch Me Outside Girl. You are not going to be famous from a post getting 100,000 likes, and this is not going to mean you’ve “hit it big.” It’s also not a great opportunity for you to convert your Twitter presence into that of an “influencer.” You are not going to do that.
I realize there are exceptions here, but 99% of the time I am correct, so stick with me.
A natural thing that people do when they get a big viral tweet like this is attempt to recreate the effect again, because of the dopamine rush of everyone liking a post of yours. The truth is that these viral moments are hard to quantify and mostly come down to “the right combination of people retweeted my post” and aren’t, really, indicative of any greater ability you have.
Now, you can be aware of things that are going on in the world and tweet on them and these things are popular. It’s hard to say whether something will definitely be popular or not, but generally the longer you have to sit there parsing out whether something will land well or be funny, the less likely it will be to succeed. Just post what makes you laugh or interests you. Don’t think too much about it.
The Unbearable Temptation Of Being Popular
When you reach a certain level of followers on Twitter - the level where what you say actually seems to travel and gets responses - it becomes far more interesting, addictive and dangerous. When people of note regularly read your stuff and respond to it, when you can regularly get people to talk to you who would not otherwise because you have a Twitter following…well, you can get the feeling that you are The Big Shit In Town, and that anything you say is important.
What’s dangerous is that this temptation can make you think everything you say is important. And that you, by proxy, are too.
The temptation begins that you suddenly think you have to weigh in on every subject in the news, and every other subject too. The thought is that because enough people follow you, you’re clearly a thought leader, and you must give the people what they want: more posts. And your posts have to address everything, because you’re a thought leader.
They become this tweet:
Despite being followed by a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand people and have read posts from many subject experts you are not, I’m afraid, an actual expert in everything. And that’s fine. But there is an intoxicating attraction at a certain level of popularity to believe that you can simply read enough posts to be an expert in something, or because you’re smart in one thing you’re smart in all things.
Balaji Srinivasan is a great example - a guy who I cannot honestly tell you the job of, but I do know he’s done a lot of tech and crypto stuff - who inexplicably believes he’s also an epidemiologist and knows how to fix the pandemic. Another is, well, just about any VC that has decided they know how to fix inequality - 99% of the time, if someone’s super rich they have no direct connection to inequality and, at best, a tenuous grasp on the memory of their own, let alone the empathy to think why, say, people would want a $15 an hour minimum wage.
And, more importantly, nobody is forcing them to get into these debates or discuss these things. Twitter is a carousel of unforced errors for many people - conversations that they willingly choose to drag themselves into or entirely create themselves out of boredom or self-importance.
The easiest way for you to not be part of a conversation or subject is to not participate in it. Twitter induces an incredibly specific brain madness in that people talk a lot about a subject, and you, as a person, feel as if you MUST comment, because if you don’t you’ll seem out of the loop.
Hell, nobody cares even if someone in your mentions is asking you about it. You don’t need to tweet about anything, ever. You aren’t required to. You don’t need to address everything. As you get more followers and more people retweeting and liking your stuff, you may think that this means that they need you to, and that by virtue of such a big following you are now qualified to. Wrong! Completely wrong! You can keep posting about your lunch! That’s fine!
You’re not doing anyone a service by forming a half-assed opinion on something that you barely know about, and you’re probably hurting yourself in the process. It’s totally fine to stick to safe subjects. You can put yourself out there - be vulnerable about your failings and your shortcomings - without endangering yourself. There is no requirement on how many times a year you have to post, or indeed whether you have to post at all. Just log on and read. That’s also fine.
To Conclude: Do Whatever
Twitter is at its best when you try and avoid the argument vortexes and subjects that involve people getting incredibly emotional (other than sports). It’s totally fine to completely ignore entire subjects, to not read the feed, to not post on the feed, to only post about lunch, to mostly just use Twitter as a place to hang out and talk to people you like, and not talk to people you don’t like. You can adjust it so that you don’t even see people’s posts you don’t like, and live a totally fun, fine, inoffensive Twitter existence. You don’t have to do anything. Just hang out. It’s fine!