Getting Twitter: A Follow-Up
A long time ago in May, I published my story of finally "getting Twitter" after a decade of not really understanding it. It got to the Hacker News front page, sparked a little discussion, and brought 11,000 people to my website in just two days - about 367 times as many as the week before. Neat!
Ironically, I went on a Twitter semi-hiatus soon thereafter due to a mix of burnout, writer's block, and a project I got involved in. I stopped scheduling tweets and chatting in replies, my previously steady follower growth stopped at around 600, and I kinda left it at that, only checking in occasionally throughout the summer.
A few weeks ago, in late October, I figured I finally had the capacity to be on Twitter again - just in time to witness Elon Musk's Twitter takeover that many prophesy will be the end of it. Today, I'd like to share a few thoughts on Hacker News, value vs engagement, and how I see Twitter today and tomorrow.
A word on Hacker News
Please allow me to indulge in my fleeting moment of fame for just a second.
Getting to the Hacker News front page felt great. Watching real-time analytics and seeing 600 people read my article at once was thrilling. At one point, Rand Fishkin himself retweeted my story. So, yes - being slightly famous feels good.
And just a bit terrifying. I'm still in the process of growing a thick skin. Skydiving is less scary than being criticized. Isn't the brain weird sometimes? Had to hype myself up a bit before checking out the ~100 comments. Surely they all say I suck.
But they didn't. The comment section was mostly respectfully neutral, with people sharing their own thoughts on using (or not using) Twitter, such as:
- How to make Twitter more useful? Tweak your feed.
- How (not) to use Twitter for marketing? Provide value first.
- How to make friends on Twitter? Treat it as a giant cocktail party.
A few comments about how I'm wrong, but way fewer than I expected. I'll have to write a more controversial article next time if I'm serious about growing that skin.
It took about a month for the traffic to my website to return back to normal near-zero levels, and other than the extra eyeballs I haven't really capitalized on it. But it felt good and didn't cost me anything, so why not? Easy come, easy go!
Anyway, people liked my Twitter strategy. So why did I abandon it myself?
You won't believe what happens next
There are two things that suck about Twitter the most when you're new to it:
- Seeing irrelevant stuff. Fortunately, this one's easily fixable.
- Being irrelevant yourself and tweeting into the void. This one's harder.
If you want to be heard, you need followers and engagement.
How do you get that?
One way to get engagement is to be yourself, share valuable thoughts, be helpful, and build genuine connections. I spent four months doing it daily, and it works. Yes, 500 followers ain't much, but it's honest work.
But it's slow.
What if there was a faster way?
A faster way to get engagement is to tweet often, analyze, and optimize for it. Schedule 100s of tweets weeks in advance. Automate, automate, automate. Grow, grow, grow. This spring has seen a crazy explosion in Twitter growth courses, automation tools, and people trying to play the algorithm to grow big fast.
An unfortunate consequence of this engagement-chasing has been the proliferation of popular, but low-quality content. The dreaded threadbois with clickbaity formulaic threads are perhaps the most annoying example of this:
- A thread of websites, apps, services so insanely useful they feel illegal to know. You'll literally get put in jail for life for reading this thread!
- A thread of sales, marketing, business hacks that will grow your business to seven (eleven) figures OVERNIGHT. Drop everything and read!
- A thread of habits that will make you happy, energized, and perform better than literally 98.2% of people on planet Earth. Is it a bird? A plane? It's a dude who just read this Twitter thread!
Yuck. At one point, it got so bad my feed was at least 20% schlock. Every fifth tweet was a garbage thread. I went on a crusade against them. I publicly disagreed with their unsubstantiated 98.2% stats! Who cares lol it's just extra engagement for them. I was muting threads left and right, but the algorithm didn't care.
Then it somehow got worse. You know what's better than a massively popular dumb thread? A massively popular dumb AI-written thread. Fortunately, the latest GPT-3 updates have brought us a whole new crop of AI-powered writing tools for all your engagement-chasing needs.
Here's Nat asking AI to write a dumb business thread:
Not clickbaity enough for the algorithm to make it viral - but pretty good!
Speaking about the algorithm...
You vs the algorithm
Obviously, this isn't just about Twitter. As a creator, you want exposure and engagement. The algorithm gives you exposure and engagement, so you feed it. If the algorithm agrees with your idea of good content - awesome! If not, you'll have to do things you don't enjoy, or linger in obscurity.
Also obviously, this isn't black and white. I'm not yet an old man yelling at algorithms. It's a scale, and it goes from something like "utter bullshit garbage clickbait trash" to something like "unique quality content created with zero regards for the algorithm". But if you care about anyone discovering you and are being realistic about it, the right-most end of the scale is no good. You gotta balance.
There's also the question of being objective about content quality. Something that seems obvious to you can still be life-changing to someone on the other side of the world at a different stage in life. You never know.
So are formulaic Twitter threads inherently dumb, or is it just me thinking they're dumb? Is the massive engagement purely algorithm-driven, or do people just like the content? And if they do like it, is it because they find it valuable, or because they were misled by the algorithm into thinking it's valuable? (Just like how they were misled by the algorithm into believing misinformation, for example.)
And if you're a creator willing to make the world a better place, isn't it your duty to reach as many people as you can with what you consider valuable content?
I've always had a hard time dealing with this challenge. I enjoy being myself and being genuine. I also believe in fighting the good cause and changing people's minds. And I like being popular and liked. Doing something for the sake of getting engagement often feels wrong. But not doing it feels like I'm not using the tools I have at my disposal. It's like choosing the hard way for no good reason.
What I'm saying is, it's complicated, and it gets worse the more you overthink it. My inability to balance value with engagement was one of my reasons for taking a break from Twitter earlier this summer. I still don't have it fully figured out, but I'm a little more chill about it for now.
Elon's Twitter 2.0
On April 25, Elon Musk signed the $44bn deal to buy Twitter. A week later, I published my Twitter article, and finally reached my milestone of 500 followers.
I wasn't sold on the idea of Elon owning Twitter. Yes, the platform felt a little stale, but just a little. The threadbois were annoying, but surely Twitter would tweak the algorithm eventually. Other than that, Twitter was... alright. It wasn't in dire need of getting "saved" by the world's richest (the most controversial? certainly up there) billionaire under the pretense of making it "a platform for free speech" that's "a societal imperative for a functioning democracy". This ain't it, chief.
And it didn't go anywhere back then. Elon started trying to back out of the deal, and I got distracted by life and mostly dropped off Twitter. Months later, I returned just in time for the showdown.
On October 27, Musk completed his deal, let that sink in, and immediately fired some of the top execs. The next few weeks were decidedly crazy. The code printouts. The layoffs. Ligma and Johnson. VCs falling over each other to praise Elon's decisive leadership style and the hustle culture. Managers sleeping on the floor and being proud of it.
The new hastily built $8 paid verification subscription getting rolled back almost immediately due to the trolls impersonating big brands, celebrities, and Elon himself. Elon banning parody accounts. Elon arguing with his employees via Twitter and firing them - also via Twitter.
Donald Trump getting unbanned, but deliberating over whether to come back.
This being a real Elon Musk tweet:
What a world to live in.
None of this is great for Twitter itself, of course, no matter what DAUs say today.
Being gutted and turned into a circus in such a public manner can't be good for any company, let alone for one that heavily depends on its users and advertiser dollars. Especially since social media moderation is more like rocket science than like "freeing the bird".
It's also not great for those of us who aren't fans of fake news, misinformation, and the overall divisiveness of the past way too many years. Way too many.
And it's obviously terrible for those laid off, although getting fired by Elon Musk via Twitter due to an argument about Twitter that you've had with him on Twitter is one of the more fun ways of getting fired.
But I have to admit - it's the most fun Twitter has been in a while. Elon opened the floodgates of chaos and made himself the main target. It probably won't last long, so let's enjoy it while it does.
What's next for Twitter? Who knows.
I also don't believe a platform of this size and influence can disappear completely due to mismanagement alone. Indiscriminately laying off half of the staff and antagonizing a good chunk of the remaining ones won't make it more resilient, but kill it outright? Press X to doubt.
Will Twitter get replaced by something else? Perhaps, but no great candidates on the horizon so far. The traditional big ones like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn are too different. The smaller ones that are being touted as Twitter replacements aren't up to the task either. Polywork isn't social media. Mastodon is too nerdy to be mainstream. Although I did sign up for Bluesky, Jack Dorsey's new social media protocol that's reportedly in the works. What if THAT'S the future?
For now, my money's on the shitstorm settling down and leaving us with a different version of Twitter. Elon is going to get bored and either hand over the reins to a more stable CEO, or sell the whole thing further. And it looks like the former scenario might be in the plans already.
So, I don't think Twitter's going anywhere. I'm not going anywhere, either. And you should stay, too. Why miss out on all the fun? Why lose the opportunity to speak out? Let's stick around and see what happens. Keep making friends. Fight the good fight. Bring value and engagement.
And maybe, just maybe, I'll finally put my high horse aside for a change and ask AI to help me write a dumb viral Twitter thread.
For the good cause!
(There's at least a 75.4% chance of this happening.)