Don’t Stop Tweeting On My Account

Context is everything; while some ideas can be whispered, others deserve a shout.

Shortly after my previous post, my good friend David Reid not-so-subtly subtweeted me for apparently yelling at everyone using a twitter thread to be quiet and stop expressing themselves. He pointed out:

This is the truth. There are, indeed, important, substantial essays being written on Twitter, in the form of threads. If I could direct your attention to one that’s probably a better use of your time than what I have to say here, this is a great example:

Moreover, although the twitter character limit can inhibit the expression of nuance, just having a blog is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for clumsy, hot takes:

I screwed this one up. I’m sorry.

The point I was trying to primarily focus on in that post is that a twitter thread demands a lot of attention, and that publishers exploiting that aspect of the medium in order to direct more attention to themselves1 are leveraging a limited resource2 and thereby externalizing their marketing costs3. Further, this idiom was invented by4, and has extensively been used by people who don’t really need any more attention than they already have.

If you’re an activist trying to draw attention to an important cause, or a writer trying to find your voice, and social media (or twitter threads specifically) has helped you do that, I am not trying to scold you for growing an audience on - and deriving creative energy from - your platform of choice. If you’re leveraging the focus-stealing power of twitter threads to draw attention to serious social issues, maybe you deserve that attention. Maybe in the face of such issues my convenience and comfort and focus are not paramount. And for people who really don’t want that distraction, the ‘unfollow’ button is, obviously, only a click away.

That’s not to say I think that relying on social media exclusively is a good idea for activists; far from it. I think recent political events have shown that a social media platform is often a knife that will turn in your hand. So I would encourage pretty much anyone trying to cultivate an audience to consider getting an independent web presence where you can host more durable and substantive collections of your thoughts, not because I don’t want you to annoy me, but because it gives you a measure of independence, and avoids a potentially destructive monoculture of social media. Given the mechanics of the technology, this is true even if you use a big hosted service for your long-form stuff, like Medium or Blogger; it’s not just about a big company having a hold on your stuff, but about how your work is presented based on the goals of the product presenting it.

However, the exact specifics of such a recommendation are an extremely complex set of topics, and not topics that I’m confident I’ve thought all the way through. There are dozens more problems with twitter threads for following long-form discussions and unintentionally misrepresenting complex points. Maybe they’re really serious, maybe not.

As far as where the long-form stuff should go, there are very good reasons to want to self-host things, and very good reasons why self-hosting is incredibly dangerous, especially for high-profile activists and intellectuals. There are really good reasons to engage with social media platforms and really good reasons to withdraw.

This is why I didn’t want to address this sort of usage of twitter threading; I didn’t want to dive into the sociopolitical implications of the social media ecosystem. At some point, you can expect a far longer post from me about the dynamics of social media, but it is going to take a serious effort to do it justice.

A final thought before I hopefully stop social-media-ing about social media for a while:

One of the criticisms that I received during this conversation, from David as well as others who contacted me privately, is that I’m criticizing Twitter from a level of remove; implying that since I’m not fully engaged with the medium I don’t really have the right (or perhaps the expertise) to be critical of it. I object to that.

In addition to my previously stated reasons for my reduced engagement - which mostly have to do with personal productivity and creative energy - I also have serious reservations about the political structure of social media. There’s a lot that’s good about it, but I think the incentive structures around it may mean that it is, ultimately, a fundamentally corrosive and corrupting force in society. At the very least, a social media platform is a tool which can be corrosive and corrupting and therefore needs to be used thoughtfully and intentionally to minimize the harm that it can do while retaining as many of its benefits as possible.

I don’t have time to fully explore the problems that I’m alluding to now5 but at this point if I wrote something like “social media platforms are slowly destroying liberal democracy”, I’m not even sure if I’d be exaggerating.

When I explain that I have these concerns, I’m often asked the obvious follow-up: if social media is so bad why don’t I just stop using it entirely?

The problem is, social media companies effectively control access to an enormous audience, which is now difficult to reach without their intermediation. I have friends, as we all probably do, that are hard for me to contact via other channels. An individual cannot effectively boycott a communication tool, and I am not even sure yet that “stop using it” is the right way to combat its problems.

So, I’m not going to stop communicating with my friends because I have concerns about the medium they prefer, and I’m also not going to stop thinking or writing about how to articulate and address those concerns. I think I have as much a right as anyone to do that.

  1. ... even if they’re not doing it on purpose ... 

  2. the reader’s attention 

  3. interrupting the reader repeatedly to get them to pay attention rather than posting stuff as a finished work, allowing the reader to make efficient use of their attention 

  4. I’m aware that many people outside of the white male tech nerd demographic - particularly women of color and the LGBTQ community - have made extensive use of the twitter thread for discussing substantive issues. But, as far as my limited research has shown (although the difficulty of doing such research is one of the problems with Twitter), Marc Andreessen was by far the earliest pioneer of the technique and by far its most prominent advocate. I’d be happy for a correction on this point, however. 

  5. The draft in progress, which I've been working on for a month, is already one of the longest posts I’ve ever written and it’s barely half done, if that. 

A Blowhard At Large

Pre-chewing thoughts into a hundred bite-sized morsels for someone is just about as appetizing as doing the same thing with food.

Update: I've written a brief follow-up to this post to clarify my feelings about other uses of the tweetstorm, or twitter thread, publishing idiom. This post is intended to be specifically critical of its usage as a self-promotional or commercial tool.

I don’t like Tweetstorms™1, or, to turn to a neologism, “manthreading”. They actively annoy me. Stop it. People who do this are almost always blowhards.

Blogs are free. Put your ideas on your blog.

As Eevee rightfully points out, however, if you’re a massive blowhard in your Tweetstorms, you’re likely a massive blowhard on your blog, too. So why care about the usage of Twitter threads vs. Medium posts vs. anything else for expressions of mediocre ideas?

Here’s the difference, and here’s why my problem with them does have something to do with the medium: if you put your dull, obvious thoughts in a blog2, it’s a single entity. I can skim the introduction and then skip it if it’s tedious, plodding, derivative nonsense.3

Tweetstorms™, as with all social media innovations, however, increase engagement. Affordances to read little bits of the storm abound. Ding. Ding. Ding. Little bits of an essay dribble in, interrupting me at suspiciously precisely calibrated 90-second intervals, reminding me that an Important Thought Leader has Something New To Say.

The conceit of a Tweetstorm™ is that they’re in this format because they’re spontaneous. The hottest of hot takes. The supposed reason that it’s valid to interrupt me at 30-second intervals to keep me up to date on tweet 84 of 216 of some irrelevant commentator’s opinion on the recent trend in chamfer widths on aluminum bezels is that they’re thinking those thoughts in real time! It’s an opportunity to engage with the conversation!

But of course, this is a pretense; transparently so, unless you imagine someone could divine the number after the slash without typing it out first.

The “storm” is scripted in advance, edited, and rehearsed like any other media release. It’s interrupting people repeatedly merely to increase their chances of clicking on it, or reading it. And no Tweetstorm author is meaningfully going to “engage” with their readers; they just want to maximize their view metrics.

Even if I cared a tremendous amount about the geopolitics of aluminum chamfer calibration, this is a terrible format to consume those thoughts in. Twitter’s UI is just atrocious for meaningful consideration of ideas. It’s great for pointers to things (like a link to this post!) but actively interferes with trying to follow a thought to its conclusion.

There’s a whole separate blog in there about just how gross pretty much all social-media UI is, and how much it goes out of its way to show you “what you might have missed”, or things that are “relevant to you” or “people you should follow”, instead of just giving you the actual content you requested from their platform. It’s dark patterns all the way down, betraying the user’s intent for those of the advertisers.

My tone here probably implies that I think everyone doing this is being cynically manipulative. That’s possibly the worst part - I don’t think they are. I think everyone involved is just being slightly thoughtless, trying to do the best that they can in their perceived role. Blowhards are blowing, social media is making you be more social and consume more media. All optimizing for our little niche in society. So unfortunately it’s up to us, as readers, to refuse to consume this disrespectful trash, and pipe up about the destructive aspects of communicating that way.

Personally I’m not much affected by this, because I follow hardly anyone4, I don’t have push enabled, and I would definitely unfollow (or possibly block) someone who managed to get retweeted at such great length into my feed. But a lot of people who are a lot worse than I am about managing the demands on their attention get sucked into the vortex that Tweetstorms™ (and related social-media communication habits) generate.

Attention is a precious resource; in many ways it is the only resource that matters for producing creative work.

But of course, there’s a delicate balance - we must use up that same resource to consume those same works. I don’t think anyone should stop talking. But they should mindfully speak in places and ways that are not abusive of their audience.

This post itself might be a waste of your time. Not everything I write is worth reading. Because I respect my readers, I want to give them the opportunity to ignore it.

And that’s why I don’t use Tweetstorms™5.

  1. ™ 

  2. Hi Ned. 

  3. Like, for example, you can do with this blog! 

  4. I subscribe to more RSS feeds than Twitter people by about an order of magnitude, and I heartily suggest you do the same. 

  5. ™ 

Sorry I Unfollowed You

I unfollowed everyone else, too.

Since Alex Gaynor wrote his seminal thinkpiece on the subject, “I Hope Twitter Goes Away”, I’ve been wrestling to define my relationship to this often problematic product.

On the one hand, Twitter has provided me with delightful interactions with human beings who I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet or interact with. If you are the sort of person who likes following people, four suggestions I’d make on that front are Melissa 🔔, Gary Bernhardt, Eevee and Matt Blaze, all of whom have blogs but none of whom I would have discovered without Twitter.

Twitter has also allowed me to reach a larger audience with my writing than I otherwise would have been able to. Lots of people click on links to this blog from Twitter either from following me directly or from a retweet. (Thank you, retweeters, one and all.)

On the other hand, the effect of using Twitter on my productivity is like having a constant, low-grade headache. While Twitter has never been a particularly bad distraction as measured by hours spent on it (I keep metrics on that, and it’s rarely even in the top 10), I feel like consulting Twitter is something I do when I am stuck, or having to think about something hard. “I’ll just check Twitter” is an easy way to “take a break” right at the moment that I ought to be thinking harder, eliminating distractions, mustering my will to focus.

This has been particularly stark for me as I’ve been trying to get some real writing done over the last couple of weeks and have been consistently drawing a blank. Given that I have a deadline coming up on Wednesday and another next Monday, something had to give.

Or, as Joss Whedon put it, when he quit Twitter:

If I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place, and this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life.

I’m an introvert, and using Twitter is more like being at a gigantic, awkward party all the time than any other online space I’ve ever been in.

There’s an irony here. Mostly what people like that I put on Twitter (and yes, I’ve checked) are announcements that link to other things, accomplishments in other areas, like a blog post, or a feature in Twisted, but using Twitter itself is inimical to completing those things.

I’m loath to abandon the positive aspects of Twitter. Some people also use Twitter as a replacement for RSS, and I don’t want to break the way they choose to pay attention to the stuff that I do. And a few of my friends communicate exclusively through direct messages.

The really “good” thing about Twitter is discovery. It enables you to discover people, content, and, eugh, “brands” that appeal to you. I have discovered things that I enjoy many times. The fundamental problem I am facing, which is a little bit hard to admit to oneself, is that I have discovered enough. I have enough games to play, enough books and articles to read, enough podcasts to listen to, enough movies to watch, enough code to write, enough open source libraries to investigate, that I will be busy for years based on what I already know.

For me, using Twitter’s timeline at this point to “discover” more things is like being at a delicious buffet, being so full I’m nauseous, and stuffing my pockets with shrimp “just in case” I’m hungry “when I get home” - and then, of course, not going home.

Even disregarding my desire to produce useful content, if I just want to enjoy consuming content more deeply, I have to take the time to engage with it properly.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  1. I am turning on the “anyone can direct message me” feature. We’ll see how that goes; I may have to turn it off again later. As always, I’d prefer you send email (or text me, if it’s time-critical).
  2. I am unfollowing literally everyone, and will not follow people in the future. Checking my timeline was the main information junk-food I want to avoid.
  3. Since my timeline, rather than mentions and replies, was my main source of distraction, I’ll continue paying attention to mentions and replies (at least for now; I’ll have to see if that becomes a problem in the absence of a timeline).
  4. In order to avoid producing such information junk-food myself, I’m going to try to directly tweet less, and put more things into brief blog posts so I have enough room to express them. I won’t say “not at all”, but most of the things that I put on Twitter would really be better as longer, more thoughtful articles.

Please note that there’s nothing prescriptive here. I’m outlining what I’m doing in the hopes that others might recognize similar problems with themselves - if everyone used Twitter this way, there would hardly be a point to the site.

Also, if I’ve unfollowed you, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what you have to say. I already have a way of keeping in touch with people’s more fully-formed ideas: I use Blogtrottr to deliver relevant blog articles to my email. If I previously followed you and you think I might not be reading your blog already (in most cases I believe I already am), please feel free to drop me a line with an RSS link.