How I use Twitter

It would be fair to say that Twitter is the most valuable online service I use by a wide measure; certainly the best social media platform. I get a lot of my news from Twitter, meet a lot of interesting people, discover ideas and (yes) products that I wasn’t aware of before, and much more. I have a Facebook account that I rarely look at these days and LinkedIn for networking, but Twitter is really the locus of my online identity.

Even now, over a decade after its founding, Twitter struggles with adding and retaining users because so many people just don’t get it. I think a lot of this comes down to the format of engagement. Many, many people use Facebook as a portal for funny videos and other forms of passive content consumption. Indeed, a primary use case of Facebook is as an endless scroll of lols, highly optimized for mobile. That does not really describe Twitter, which is more of an onslaught of unpredictable human-ness. What I tell friends of mine experimenting with the platform is that you have to invest some time into making it work for you – and this is likely what keeps Twitter a relatively niche platform.

The two most important tools I use to make Twitter valuable are Lists and Tweetdeck. I keep my central timeline pared down and sane enough to follow by aggressively moving most people I want to see into separate topical lists: global affairs/international development, finance/VCs, product managers and developers, southern politics and my “most interesting” list. In Tweetdeck, I can set up multiple columns to see all these lists in one glance. Since I spend most days in front of a computer at work, this model works great. On mobile, my ability to consume is mostly limited to reviewing and replying to my mentions/DMs. Consuming Twitter content on mobile is still pretty basic. “Moments” is embarrassingly bad and causes me to wonder what, exactly, Twitter does with three quarters of a billion in R&D.

Twitter is mostly good for clever quips and “hooks” to get people to pay attention to/read your stuff. Research has shown that most power-user tweets have an average life (TTL, if you will) of 15-18 minutes, though for most people it’s probably a lot less. In that small window, you have access to a relatively large audience, due to Twitter’s realtime stream and, when the algorithms favor you, the “What you missed” feature, but most tweets die an undistinguished death. This is why I often use Twitter as a hook to link to my blog:

A lot of people try to game this dynamic with tweetstorms. I do so occasionally, when the appropriate thought strikes. The problem with ‘storming is that it quickly gets old and few people are really going to click through to read the whole thing. My basic rule of thumb is that if your tweetstorm is >12 tweets long, it should really be a blog. Brevity is the soul of wit, etc.

Most of my blog traffic still comes from Twitter:

Honestly, I’m not thrilled. Twitter is a big place and an open platform, but realistically, it’s not the best place to develop a big audience. The way I see it, there are basically four ways to build your audience on Twitter:

  • Create good original content and promote it relentlessly. Hope someone decides to share it.
  • Tweet a lot and @ lots of people with large audiences, hoping that they will @ tag you or, better, RT you.
  • Use some other platform to develop an audience and then hope or ask them to follow you on Twitter as well. (This is why Bieber, media and tech celebrity types have big follower counts)
  • Hashtags. (Protip: no one uses hashtags anymore)

Because organic discoverability isn’t really a thing, those of us with relatively smaller follower accounts basically rely on the first two to get any traction. Even exposure from high-follower-count accounts have a mixed record. RTs from accounts like Matt Yglesias or Marc Andreessen (when he was still on Twitter) typically netted me no new followers and a bunch of annoying “well actually” replies. That said, when Steven Sinofsky shared my “Product Management for the Enterprise” Medium piece, it went pretty big, and has since remained very popular; and Nicole Cliffe’s hoisting of my “Birthing Babies” post translated into a bunch of new follows and email signups, and is still one of my most-viewed ever.

So the lesson for me is that creating good content is a necessary but not sufficient step. The next is finding someone with an audience that will care. That second part is extremely hit-or-miss. Many people with large audiences (though far from all) are frequently and actively looking for great stuff to share, and if you create some, they may be eager to promote it. But there’s just no way I’ve found to plan for that. So, given a lack of distribution alternatives, the best strategy is to do your own thing, make it good, and see if anyone with a big audience likes it enough to share.

Analyzing and hustling your follower count does feel uncomfortably egotistical. I really hate it. Yet I also like to write interesting stuff on the internet, and the reality today is that without very deliberately building your audience, no one is ever going to read your work or care. There are bigger reasons for developing your own audience that many people have discussed before (ex. professional advantage), but essentially, I’m convinced that working quietly and hoping someone will eventually notice all the good stuff you’ve done is a recipe for failure. So promotion is the alternative. I try not to be obnoxious about it.


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