Reclaiming Twitter

Approximately six months ago, I was at a crossroad with Twitter. Unfiltered, it has become too toxic and negative to continue to allow into my life. My dilemma is that, after 11 years on the platform, there are a host of people I’ve never met “IRL” whom I consider friends or with whom I want to maintain a connection. Twitter has always been that connection.

What originally drew me to Twitter was an ease of interacting with a community of technologists and geographers, who shared tools, techniques, and knowledge. Over the years, as Twitter has “grown up” and captured the wider public imagination, in addition to changes in the behavior of the platform itself, the content of my feed has skewed more to the political and the negative – especially after the 2016 election.

This trend seems to apply regardless of ideology. People with opinions that span the political spectrum seem to take to Twitter to leave bite-sized and brash statements that bolster whatever position or candidate they support. In some ways, the structure of Twitter encourages this, even with the advent of longer tweets and threads as first-class citizens.

In the three years since the last election, I’ve become incredibly familiar (more than I ever wanted to be) with the political and social positions of a lot of people I follow, and not a single position has changed or evolved in that time. It has become a digital Forum Romanum, with countless self-styled tribunes shouting speeches into the passing crowd.

I didn’t need to continue to allow this in my life.

I had become somewhat guilty of turning into a “default” user of Twitter, meaning that I pretty much accepted the initial application defaults and never looked back. This means that I had to accept a lot of blame for what I was getting out of the platform. Twitter has added a lot of features to help control the content that’s delivered into your feed. I decided to explore these before completely giving up on the platform.

After six months I have arrived at a not-quite-perfect, but acceptable, combination of settings that has given be back something similar to the Twitter I had at the beginning. Here is what I’ve done:

  1. Muted words – This is a great feature of Twitter. Most of the people I follow tweet a mix of technology, geography, and politics. I don’t necessarily want to mute or unfollow the accounts completely, so muted words provide a way to hide the tweets I don’t want to see. Examples of my muted words are “Trump,” “Sanders” (double-duty for Bernie and Sarah), “#MAGA,” “M4A.” This is one of those features that doesn’t seem to be quite perfect as I know I occasionally see tweets that have muted words in them, but it still goes a long way toward filtering content I don’t want to see from people I otherwise want to keep following.
  2. Blocking verified accounts – There are a great many people I follow who are chronic retweeters of verified source accounts. Blocking those source accounts makes most of the retweet clutter disappear. For example, I have blocked the accounts of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. This not because I see some equivalence between the people themselves but rather that both have very active supporters who are fond of the retweet button. Blocking them cut down noise drastically. I should note that these two accounts are examples. I have blocked dozens of verified accounts at this point, other than people I know personally whose accounts have become verified. Blocking accounts works flawlessly for normal retweets. If a person retweets with comment, I will see their comment tweet, with a notation that the original tweet is unavailable. I can live with that.
  3. Unfollow and list – I started unfollowing a lot of accounts and moving them into lists. These are generally accounts that occasionally tweet content I find interesting, but that I don’t feel the need to follow and have in my feed. By keeping them in lists, I can go read their content when I choose to.
  4. – This is related to “unfollow and list.” I’ve had a love-hate relationship with, but I have reached a detente with it. I now use it to produce a daily digest of the lists that I mentioned above. Every morning, I get a “paper” that summarizes the pervious day’s activity in the paper’s source list. This helps me stay in touch with accounts that I keep in a high orbit.
  5. Stalking horses – This is related to “blocking verified accounts.” I have intentionally kept a couple of chronic retweeters in my timeline to use as stalking horses. These are accounts who pretty much only retweet dodgy political content from both extremes of the political spectrum. I block whatever accounts they retweet (verified or otherwise) without further examination. In this way, I am able to keep my block list up to date as new accounts pop up. As we get closer to the next election, more such accounts will pop up and these stalking horses keep me from having to play whack-a-mole. The stalking horses almost never tweet original content themselves, so keeping them around is fairly harmless.
  6. The top 20 – This is a private list I maintain of the my top 20 follows. I tweak the membership from time to time, but this list is those accounts whose tweets I find most valuable. I start there before I go to my regular timeline.
  7. Tweetdeck – I now pretty much exclusively use Tweetdeck (or Tweeten on my Mac), so that I can get maximum value out of the steps described above, especially lists. The default Twitter UI is inscrutable, probably by design.
  8. Sharpening the saw (with apologies to Stephen Covey) – Twitter is constantly tweaking their settings, so I have to periodically review the settings above to make sure they are still working as I want them to.

I was no longer getting much of any value out of Twitter, because any signal was being greatly drowned out by the increasing noise, but I wanted to get back to some semblance of what I used to get out of Twitter because there are people I follow who tweet interesting and valuable content. I wanted to stay connected to those people and surface their content.

As for staying informed on politics and issues, there are still these things called newspapers (and their associated sites), television and radio, blogs, and other long-form content. I am able to choose trusted sources and read/listen to/watch them. I haven’t missed getting the highly-filtered and interpreted versions of this information breathlessly pushed to me on Twitter.

I wish I could say that I had some nifty automated tools to streamline the tasks listed above, but I don’t. It took time and consideration to get things configured the way I wanted them to be. I’m now enjoying a Twitter experience that’s mostly centered on geography and technology, running, and other subjects that interest me.