How to Use Twitter
You can still take advantage of the serendipity of the network
I love Twitter—or I guess I should call it X now. There’s been a lot of talk about its downfall since Elon took over, and the algorithm changes have noticeably affected my experience. But it’s still my most-used social network, so I was glad to see Nabeel write about how to use it well. He said that his thoughts haven’t really changed in the past year-plus, so these tips have clearly stood the test of time. —Dan
Twitter is one of my favorite software tools in the world. (I know it’s called “X” now, but it’ll always be Twitter to me.)
Before Twitter, I did not know what a jhana was (it’s a meditative state). I made various COVID-related decisions in January 2020 after reading a few threads from trusted sources. I’ve met more than 100 people through the site, many of whom are now good friends. Random famous people have invited me to dark smoky rooms full of interesting people and parties I would never have gone to otherwise—all because I tweeted something.
And if you’re curious about practically any topic, you can immediately get a sense for what’s being discussed at its edges by following 10-20 experts. Twitter is a serendipity machine.
However, onboarding is challenging. For most people, it's not a rewarding experience; your posts barely get any engagement until you have at least a few hundred followers, and the process to get there can be punishing. It takes a lot of time to curate a good Twitter feed; the median content on the site is often trash.
But it’s not just about a well-curated Twitter feed. Writing tweets is also a good practice, especially if you're a curious person who wants to make friends and meet people in your niche. I think of each tweet as an option with uncapped upside and little downside; in finance speak, each tweet is thus a “free option.”
I’ll outline some rules I try to follow on Twitter. Maybe they’ll also be helpful to you.
On reading tweets
Follow people who post insightful, interesting, or amusing things.
You can seed this list by browsing the following list of a few “index” accounts who have well-curated Twitter feeds. I suggest starting with Tyler Cowen or Paul Graham, but your starting point can vary depending on your interests. From there, start pruning and hit “follow” on new accounts if you like the look of their tweets. Don't follow accounts just because they're official or prominent; I’ve found that the best accounts often have ~5,000 followers or even less. I think the sweet spot is following around 500-1,000 people. Too few and you don’t get interesting stuff; too many, and you start missing things and drowning in noise.
For some accounts, it helps to disable their retweets, especially if they have good insights but retweet a lot of stuff that’s irrelevant to you.
Ignore and aggressively mute any content that does not make you feel good.
In particular, don't get sucked into culture wars. The algorithm can be your friend if you train it, but it's not your friend by default. On the For You feed, you can tell the algorithm to down-rank tweets you don’t like. This works OK. Some people prefer using lists or only using the “following” tab. Find what works for you, but aggressively remove anything that’s designed to make you feel angry.
Replying on Twitter is an art, and most people are terrible at it. Practice “good reply game.”
You can think of this as using a “yes, and” mentality rather than a “but.” Contribute novel and interesting observations. Be cautious about getting into arguments. It's not a great medium for them; you can push back on people who you've built some trust with, but I otherwise find that disagreements tend to go poorly.
Twitter search is incredibly under-used. Use it.
For whatever you're currently interested in, try using the Twitter search bar and scrolling. You'll often find something delightful related to it. It’s higher variance than Google, but that goes in both directions.
Some specific tips for search:
- Use filters. For example, if you add "min_faves:10," only tweets with >10 likes will show up, which filters out dross. If you want to find a user’s most popular tweets, do “from:username min_faves:250”.
- If you find a particular user whose thoughts you love, try “from:username [keyword]” for various values of ‘keyword’ and see what comes up.
- You can combine these two. For example, here are Andrej Karpathy’s tweets on LLMs, with a popularity filter included.
- Adding "filter:follows" is insanely powerful once you've built up a good following feed. For example, let’s say I’m organizing an unconference and I want to get tips for it. I search “filter:follows unconference” and might find tweets from people whose thoughts I value. (This works best when you follow the right people.)
- Search through various Twitter niches—film Twitter, Shakespeare Twitter, Rust Twitter, econ Twitter—and enjoy the rich content.
- Twitter can sometimes beat Google if you’re clever about it. For example, if you're trying to cook a great steak, you can sometimes get better advice in Twitter threads than on recipe websites.
On writing tweets
It can be scary to tweet. You might feel pressure to play a certain character or tweet for engagement. I got over this by thinking of tweets as a public timestamped journal—an index of what I was thinking about at the time. Over time, this index builds up and can be a powerful creative tool. You’re best off just letting go of all self-consciousness—which happens by tweeting a lot—and treating it as a creative exercise for yourself.
I do think most people should tweet more, as long as they can stop themselves from getting too distracted by the whole thing.
Tweet for the kinds of followers you want.
Over time you build up a sense of what types of tweets “do well” and which don’t. Be suspicious of this instinct. It's fine to occasionally tweet for engagement, but I suggest taking the “journal” idea seriously and tweeting for the kinds of followers you want. In practice, you'll find that viral tweets don't get you high-quality followers—the kind of people you’ll get along with and develop friendships with. Tweet thoughts that attract those people, and don’t focus on virality.
If you want to write more, tweeting regularly can help generate essay ideas.
Tweeting spawns a mental process of the type "generate things to tweet." This serves as a wick for ideas—and you’ll sometimes find that these ideas don't fit cleanly into Twitter or are interesting enough that you want to pursue them in longer form.
You will sometimes be surprised by what tweets get popular.
These tweets are often the seeds of great essay ideas, too.
You can think of tweeting as summoning a virtual conference on any topic, at will.
I owe this idea to Michael Nielsen’s essay on creative contexts. If you get it right, asking questions on Twitter can elicit a staggering variety of interesting answers. Two recent examples: (a) why don't education startups work out? (b) why don't more people use spaced repetition? I don't know how I would have gotten so many interesting answers without Twitter.
Early on, replying > tweeting, especially if you want to gain followers and make friends.
A lot of low-follower accounts try tweeting and get discouraged when nobody engages. The correct way to gain more followers is to tweet insightful stuff, but also reply to high-follower accounts and make friends using a good reply game for a long time. This will help you get far more impressions than just by tweeting. As a bonus, if you're cool, you will make friends and get embedded in a niche.
Twitter can be a big time-sink, so figure out ways to limit your time on it to the right kind of engagement.
This will vary for everyone. For example, some people don’t use the mobile app.
If you want to build a professional following, you can go a long way by building cool stuff and tweeting about it.
Post a demo video or a Github link. Talk about the process of building it. There are tons of accounts that do this super well (e.g., Sharif Shameem, Linus Lee); go copy them. It's a cheat code for the ambitious.
Do cool shit first, then tweet about it as “exhaust,” not the other way round.
Some people become "Twitter personalities.” I think this is a trap. 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 order is the reverse: Do interesting and valuable things or learn interesting and valuable things. 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.
A simple example: Many of my favorite accounts read a lot of books or papers, and tweet out interesting paragraphs or summaries or things they learned.
Don't be sarcastic or mean, don't dunk on people, and minimize negativity.
Be careful quote-tweeting people. It’s easy to be perceived as passive-aggressive or hostile. Don’t take Twitter too seriously. Treat it like a fun game, and take a break if you find yourself getting upset by anything.
Bookmark tweets that are especially wise so you can find them again later.
Build common knowledge
“I will say, I’m an enormous fan of Twitter. I think it is actually descriptively one of the most important products that exists on the internet because it has not solved, but ameliorated a lot of cross-organization coordination problems that happen in very important places. [laughs].
It is broadly under-appreciated how Twitter is the message bus, the sub rosa coordination mechanism for the United States federal government, for every counterparty that the United States federal government or any agency or individual faces, for the media, for everything. People see Twitter, and they see celebrities posting and the phenomenon that is shitposting, et cetera, et cetera. To a very real degree, it is an integrated part of the operating system that is the world...”
There is a deeper point here: Twitter is one of the few places in the world you can, if you want, create common knowledge about important and neglected things. This can make it a powerful lever for action, if you use it correctly.
What a wonderful place! A gem of the internet.
Thanks to Tyler Cowen, Rohit Krishnan, and Matt Clifford—all of whom I met or became closer to via Twitter, and all of whom have great Twitter accounts that you should follow—for reading a draft of this piece.
Nabeel S. Qureshi is a software engineer and writer currently focused on AI, supported by Emergent Ventures. He is also a visiting scholar with the Program on Artificial Intelligence and Progress at the Mercatus Center. This piece was originally published on his website.