I've been using Twitter since late 2022, and it's been the highest-value information source I've added to my life in years.
This was surprising to me, because I'd only heard about Twitter from the news or Reddit, so it usually came off as a cesspool.
Twitter has a lot of subcultures and scenes, and some of them are definitely cesspools. But the parts of Twitter I hang out in — the clump of the social graph centered around startups, tech, AI/ML, and the LW/SSX/TPOT orb — are really great.
This page contains my thoughts about Twitter as a platform, how I use it, and how you might use it.
If you don't use Twitter, it has a few core features:
There are other features not mentioned here (e.g. long-form tweets, spaces, lists, and groupchats) but those aren't central.
Twitter is much more of a diffuse mesh than other sites.
Facebook is a graph of close connections: friends and family. Instagram is similar, but adds distant connections: celebrities and influencers.
The core Twitter experience is in the middle-distance connections. You're mainly interacting with people who aren't your close friends, but also aren't celebrities. They're people in a your field, friends-of-friends-of-friends.
This middle-distance is great. People are accessible. If you offer a thoughtful question to them, you'll often get an earnest answer. But at the same time, they're not your best friends, so they won't accept mediocrity. If you want to interact with quality people, you have to bring something to the table.
The main difference between Twitter and sites like Hacker News is that user creates their own experience. You decide who to follow and who to block. You can create your own heaven or hell.
A lot of non-Twitter users have gotten an impression of Twitter as a cesspool from people who have created their own hell. But the recipe to create your own heaven is simple! Follow people who post things you're interested in, block people who mess up those vibes.
Blocking is a powerful mechanic because it prevents the blocked user from even seeing the conversations you start. This protects your own sanity, but also the sanity of others who join your conversation. In turn, you are protected by the block lists of the people you follow.
This distributed filter creates a surprisingly strong effect. Bad actors will find themselves seeing fewer conversations from your region of the social graph, and even if they do get into one, will have trouble traversing the social graph to see more.
Short-form tweets make the nature of discourse more conversational.
And the tweets starting and forming the conversations are the content. Contrast with Hacker News where the comments are directed at the posted article.
On Twitter, people can and do just post their shower-thoughts to the void. And then people join in and talk about it! In this, Twitter is much more like a Third Place than any other website.
The short, conversational nature is key here. On Reddit or HN, it's not uncommon to see commenters write essays to try to win arguments. On Twitter, being able to convey a point in a few sentences is the greatest virtue.
This does mean you lose a certain nuance, and bad actors will interpret your words in the worst light without this nuance. But just block those people, they are not acting in good faith. You'll be left with high-quality people who know what you mean (or will ask for clarification).
Having created this curated region of the social graph, the people in that cluster all have a motivation that's something like "interact with and get to know the most interesting people".
This creates a really well-aligned set of incentives and flywheel effect:
Twitter makes it really easy to expand your social graph while maintaining a high quality bar.
If I have a positive interaction with someone, I can mouseover their username and see if people I respect follow them. That's a near-guarantee that they are worth following.
If I don't know anyone who follows them, but they follow me and I keep having good interactions with them, I'll check their last 10 or so posts and follow if they're interesting.
If I follow some random person who seems to post good stuff, people in my circle who follow the same strategy will be more inclined to follow them, and they will get pulled in.
This "pulling in" effect is central to what makes this part of Twitter so magical. If you post something good enough for someone to retweet, they've effectively vouched for you, and you'll find yourself followed by yet more people who you'll probably get along with.
There's another flywheel here:
While Twitter is interesting and compelling for its own sake, I had no idea how valuable having a high-quality network on Twitter is.
If you post cool work, you will get job offers. I've gotten more interesting job offers in a year on Twitter than a decade on LinkedIn.
If you become Twitter friends with people who find you interesting, they'll want to hang out in real life too. I've been invited to trips, parties, and conferences all via Twitter.
It's also a great networking tool due to the inbuilt quality signal. It's easy to DM people who are a hop or two from you in the social graph, because they can see people they know follow you.
The first half of this essay is mostly an analysis of my experience on Twitter.
If you're not on Twitter, or you are but your experience isn't as rosy as the one I've described, this next half illustrates how I've used Twitter to have that experience.
This is a path that worked, but there are other paths, so don't feel like this is the only way.
Select a profile photo that is identifiable in peripheral vision. If you use a photo of yourself, don't use one with a solid color (e.g. a wall) as the background. You want some distinctive and varied background colors, and maybe a distinctive article of clothing.
You want people to view you as a (hopefully welcome) fixture of their social graph. This requires remembering you and being able to identify you at a glance. You don't want to be "some white guy's face in front of a white wall". You want to be "Oh that guy in the bright red jacket on the beach, I've seen him before".
The ideal bio contains something recognizable you have done. For example, "I'm the guy who built the unsend feature in Gmail" or "Maintainer of xyz open source library". You should also link to a personal site if it has interesting work you've done.
Follow all the top people in the field you're interested in. My particular cluster is startups, tech, AI/ML, and the LW/SSX/TPOT orb. Here's a few random top accounts I find interesting and follow:
Patrick McKenzie, Samo Burja, Roon, Paul Graham, Emmett Shear, Byrne Hobart, Michael Nielsen, Bryan Johnson, Nat Friedman, Georgi Gerganov, John Carmack, Devon Zuegel, Gwern, George Hotz, Andrej Karpathy, and Sam Altman.
Once you find ~20 top people, start browsing your feed. As you encounter other accounts that are followed by a few of those top people, that's a quality signal and you should probably follow those accounts too.
Repeat this until you're following at least 200 people. Feel free to unfollow people if they post annoying stuff.
Twitter is not fun until you have a few hundred followers — enough to get a conversation going whenever. So this is your first task.
When you have less than 200 followers or so, not a lot of people will see things you Tweet, so you'll want to spend most of your time joining other conversations. You should still Tweet a little so people see something when they visit your page.
Don't use cliched meme phrases, every reply should be insightful. If you don't have something insightful to say, don't say anything. You want people to think "Damn, this guy always says thoughtful stuff, what kind of stuff does he post?" and visit your page and maybe follow.
There are a lot of types of mediocre replies, but the most common is unoriginality. Read through the replies of any of those big accounts you followed earlier. Loads of people all saying the same thing. Check replies before you reply to make sure you aren't redundant.
If your goal is to get to the fun part of Twitter faster, it's not time-efficient to join giant conversations. Your weak quality signal will make you get lost in the noise.
While you're building some initial reputation, you're better off spending most of your time replying to people with low-hundreds number of followers. At this follower count, you'll get way more 2-way interaction, because those people have time to reply to a nobody like you.
Some of these people will be cool. You'll interact more with these people, and if you are also cool, they'll follow you.
Once you get a couple hundred of these followers, you're getting interesting replies to your tweets, you're joining interesting conversations, you're probably having a good time.
Once you get a few hundred followers, a few of them probably have a few thousand followers. If you write interesting stuff, some of these people will retweet your work and you'll get a lot more exposure. At this point, most new followers will come from your original work being seen rather than from you replying to other people's work.
Nabeel made an excellent comment in his post about Twitter:
Do cool shit first, then tweet about it as ‘exhaust’; not the other way round. Some people become "Twitter personalities" and I think this is a trap. By this I mean: they live on Twitter first and foremost, and spend most of their time tweeting, but they don't do interesting things in real life. The best ordering is the reverse: do interesting and valuable things, or learn interesting things, and then tweet about them. Think of the tweets as exhaust from the interesting things you do; don't think of tweets as the primary product.
Doing interesting stuff comes first. As a nobody, interesting work should be the backbone of your contributions to Twitter. You want people to think of you as "the person who does xyz".
It's also fine to post observations or thoughts you think people in your sphere might find interesting. My most popular tweet of all time was this thought I had about aluminum foil while at the grocery store.
We don't talk enough about how insane aluminum foil is— Grant Slatton (@GrantSlatton) December 26, 2023
Imagine telling some ancient person we have so much abundance in our time that we use very thin metal as a disposable paper-like wrapping and it costs essentially nothing
Keep a note on your phone. Every time you have an interesting thought, write it down. You'll be surprised how many interesting thoughts would have just slipped by before.
Every day, I look at my note and pick a couple to turn into tweets. It's a challenge to try to compress the essence of what you found interesting into 280 characters. My strategy is to type everything first, exceed the character limit, then start deleting and simplifying while still retaining the core message until it fits.
As Nabeel mentions in the quote above, it's possible to get pretty far by only posting these types of observations, but if you really want to get to know people who do cool things, you also probably need to occasionally post about stuff you do.
If a post has photos, make sure they aren't landscape mode. Square or portrait mode photos only. This is due to how thumbnails render.
Don't retweet too much. People are interested in you, your work, and your thoughts. A rule of thumb is no more than 1 retweet per 10 of your own posts.
You can gauge how a post is doing by the views-to-like ratio. The Twitter algorithm tries to keep this number at about 100. If you have 100 views and 5 likes, you're overperforming 5x and the algorithm will show the tweet to more people. If you have 200 views and 0 likes, the tweet might have been a dud (but if you think it has potential, put the idea back on the list and workshop it).
Be generous with the 'like' button. Think of it more as a read-receipt and a little courtesy in one.
Post at least once per day. I shoot for 3 times per day — before work, lunch, after work, just pulling from my list of tweet ideas. You'll be surprised how many people want to talk about this stuff, but it's because you've been attracting like-minded people.
Don't be negative. Don't follow negative people. You're aiming to create your own heaven. You must be an angel.
If you post enough high-quality stuff, a post will eventually 'go viral'. One of your higher-follower-count followers will retweet your post, then their followers start to retweet it, etc. Soon, most of the activity on the post will come from people outside your circle. The post has reached escape velocity.
It'll continue getting a steady stream of activity for the next one or two days before quieting down. Unless you want your attention completely demolished for the day, you should mute notifications on these posts.
Feel free to engage with people for an hour or two, but then mute. Feel free to revisit the post every few hours to respond to legitimately interesting responses, but it's really bad for your attention span to see that illuminated notification icon every time you open the app.
In addition to being bad for your attention, it's also bad for your sanity. Posts that go viral have broken out of the curated heaven you've made for yourself. You'll get a lot of low-quality, dumb, or aggressive comments. Don't even waste too much time trying to block all these people. You'll probably never encounter them again.
Do all that for a few months. Do interesting work, post about it, write down all your ideas, share the interesting ones. It's pretty likely you'll wind up with a thousand or so followers, and among those, a few dozen really high-quality people.
These few dozen high-quality people are who you're really here for. You don't need tens of thousands of followers to get inside the inner cabal of really interesting people you respect. You just need a few dozen high-quality people, and the rest of the high-quality network will eventually follow.
Enjoy your time, make friends, do cool work, talk about it, learn, be happy.
Thanks to my wife Jessica, Devon Zuegel, Nabeel Qureshi, Riley T, and Tommy M for reading drafts of this post.