The Serendipity Machine (Notes on Using Twitter)

Published: 2024.01.20 (Substack link)

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.)

I did not know what a "jhana" was before Twitter. I made various COVID-related decisions in January 2020 because of threads on Twitter. I met 100+ people through Twitter, 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 -- because I tweeted something. It’s a serendipity machine.

But most importantly, it's just plain fun. If you’re curious about practically any topic, you can follow 10-20 experts in it, and immediately get a felt sense of some of the ‘live issues’ on the edge of that field. That’s amazing!

Onboarding to Twitter is challenging. It's not a rewarding experience for most people; your posts barely get any engagement at all until you have a few hundred followers at least, and the process to get there is punishing. It takes a lot of time to curate a good Twitter feed; the median content on there is trash.

But a well-curated Twitter feed is worth a lot of IQ points -- so I think it's worth doing. 

Although you can use Twitter in read-only mode and get value out of it, if you're a curious person who wants to make friends and meet people in your niche, writing tweets is also a good practice. I think of each tweet as an option with uncapped upside and little downside; each tweet is thus a ‘free option’, in finance-speak. So I think you should tweet more! (More on this below).

Here are some rules I try and follow. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you:

On reading tweets

Follow people who post insightful or interesting or amusing things. You can seed this list by just going through the list of a few 'index' accounts who have well-curated Twitter feeds and following the people they follow to start with (I suggest browsing Tyler Cowen or Paul Graham, but it depends on your interests), and then pruning from there + hitting 'follow' on new accounts if you like the look of their tweets. Don't follow accounts just because they're official or prominent on some way; often the best accounts have ~5,000 followers or even less. I think the sweet spot is following around 500-1,000 people; too few and I find you don’t get enough interesting stuff, too many and you start missing things and drowning in noise.

For some accounts, it helps to disable their retweets, especially they retweet a lot of stuff that’s irrelevant to you but otherwise have good insights.

Ignore and aggressively mute any content designed to make you angry or that does not make you feel good. Especially don't get sucked into culture wars. The algorithm can be your friend of you train it, but it's not your friend by default. On the ‘For You’ feed, you can tell the algorithm to downrank tweets you don’t like. This works ok. Some people prefer using lists or just using the ‘following’ tab; whatever works for you.

Replying on Twitter is an art, and most people are terrible at it. Practice 'good reply game'. You can think of this as applying a 'yes and' mentality to the whole thing: 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 otherwise I find disagreements tend to go poorly.

Twitter search is incredibly under-used. For whatever you're currently interested in, try using the Twitter search bar and scrolling; often you'll find something delightful related to it. It’s higher-variance than Google, but that ways in both directions.

Some specific tips for search:
  • Use filters in your search, e.g. adding "min_faves:10" means 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; often it leads you to delightful places.
  • You can combine these two. For example, here are 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, say I’m organizing an unconference and I want to get tips for it; I search “filter:follows unconference” and magic happens. (This works best when you follow the right people, obviously.)
  • Search through various Twitter niches -- film Twitter, Shakespeare Twitter, Rust Twitter, econ Twitter -- and enjoy the rich content. 
  • For specific things, it can beat Google if you’re clever about it; for example, if you're trying to cook a great steak, you can often get better advice in Twitter threads than on recipe websites. 

On writing tweets

It can be scary to tweet, and you may feel pressure to play a certain character or tweet for engagement. I personally got over this by thinking of tweets as a type of public timestamped journal of notes to myself; an index of what I was thinking about at the time. Over time, this builds up and can be a powerful creative tool. You’re best off just letting go of all self-consciousness -- which happens by doing it a lot -- and then treating it as a creative exercise for yourself.

I do think most people who have read this far 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 kinds of tweets 'do well' and what doesn't. Be suspicious of this! It's fine to tweet for engagement occasionally, 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 anyway. The real “game” is meeting the kind of people you’ll get along with and making friends with them; tweet the kinds of thoughts that attract those people, which are usually not the type of tweets that go viral.

If you're the type of person who wants to write more, having a practice of tweeting regularly can be a great way of generating essay ideas. Tweeting spawns a mental process of the type "generate things to tweet" -- it serves as a wick for ideas -- and sometimes 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 seed of great essay ideas, too.

You can think of tweeting as summoning up a virtual conference on a topic, at will. I owe this idea to Michael Nielsen’s essay on creative contexts. It's an art, but you can ask questions on Twitter and get a staggering variety of interesting answers to questions if you do it right. Two recent examples of mine: (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 to these questions without Twitter. 

Early on, replying > tweeting, 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 a lot of insightful stuff, yes, but you should also be replying to high-follower accounts and making friends via good reply game for a long time; you will get way more impressions this way than just via 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 -- e.g. 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, etc. 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" 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.

A simple example: many of my favorite accounts read a lot of books or papers, and just tweet out interesting paragraphs or summaries or things they learned. This is a great way to use Twitter: tweet screenshots of books you’re reading.

Don't be sarcastic or mean, don't dunk on people, minimize negativity. Be careful quote-tweeting people, it's easy to be perceived as passive-aggressive or hostile. Generally just don’t take Twitter too seriously; treat it like a fun game, and take a break if you find yourself getting upset by anything on it.

Bookmark tweets that are especially wise, so you can find them again later. I love Karpathy’s best tweets, for example. Michael Nielsen on spaced repetition. Emmett Shear on burnout. There are too many to list here.

Twitter is of great (and underrated) societal importance. Patrick McKenzie articulates it well:
“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...” (Link)
There is a deep 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 for reading a draft of this, all of whom I met or became closer to via Twitter, and all of whom have great Twitter accounts that you should follow.

Grant Slatton wrote a great response essay, which you should also read. 

This piece was syndicated at Every.