Getting Started on Twitter the Right Way

17 June 2014

Twitter is one of those products that I've tried to "get into" a few times now. There's definitely interesting and useful content being generated on Twitter, but I've never been able to turn it into a source of media that I check often. Inevitably, after a few days of trying to become a frequent Twitter user, I've given up.

I think I figured out why, and as a consequence I think I figured out how to restart my Twitter life to make it interesting and fun for a longer time.

The problem, for me at least, was twofold:

  1. I wasn't sure what I was using Twitter for (or, in UX speak, I was trying to awkwardly take on two different user "personas")
  2. I kept trying to build myself too strong a firehose of content

The first time I signed up for Twitter, I immediately started following all of my friends, anybody who was famous, and everybody who sounded vaguely interesting. Within a couple of hours, I was getting innundated with tweets, and it was hard to find interesting content in my mess of a feed. After a few attempts at catching up with my feed, I gave up, completely overwhelmed by the world's content.

Many months later, I decided to give Twitter another try, and I thought I knew how to make it more useful for me. I determined that I would make Twitter only a source of news, both more breaking news and interesting articles that don't make big headlines. Content about specific interests would come from blogs instead, and social updates from Facebook. I wiped out all my follows from before, and began following major news sources. This also quickly became a mess. When news happened, every single organiation would tweet the same thing at the same time. Other tweets were mostly self-promotional. This was not useful.

The third time, I tried to use lists to organize my content. There was a list for tech, one for food, one for pop culture, and a couple others, each with around 10 sources to start off with. I also had a list for my dozen or so Twitter-savvy friends. Setting up lists was actually a painful process; the feature was not a prioritized one at the time, and the UX was clunky (it has since gotten slightly better, and is also helped by a couple of third-party apps). Moreover, in my attempt to not overwhelm myself, I overreacted and instead followed too few people: some of my lists didn't generate that much new content. I had limited the number of follows too strictly, without curating the sources of my content carefully enough (or perhaps I didn't know how to, at that point).

Throughout all of these attempts, I did not tweet myself. I was too intimidated to do so! What if I tweeted something at a serious person, but my tweet was actually stupid? What if I wanted to tweet something funny at my friends, but it was not only not funny, but was then forever on my account page, for any serious person to see? The hesitation to create content did not help my overall engagement problem.


When I wanted to try Twitter again a few months ago, I reflected on what went wrong previously.

The first thing I realized was that I wasn't sure what kind of user I was. From a product design point of view, we think about different user "personas", or archetypal buckets of different kinds of users. For example, on Amazon you might have the "college student" persona, the "stay-at-home mom" persona, the "deal hunter" persona, etc. These different personas usually have different usage patterns and different needs.

As a Twitter user, I was probably caught between a couple of different personas. I wanted to use Twitter casually to connect with my friends, but also in somewhat-"serious" ways to learn about specific interest areas, and keep up with the news. (Perhaps there's even a "works-in-tech" persona.) I had some urge to create content in my interest areas, but I also wanted to use it as a way to socialize with my friends.

Realizing this source of confusion, I decided to try a few things in my new attempt at Twitter:

Following these rules has led to two really notable benefits. One is that I now have a list of sources who pretty consistently tweet out interesting, funny, and/or relevant content. By pruning out organizations, celebrities, and consistent self-promoters, I was left with more interesting content in bite-sized form. Contrasted with longer-form writing like blog posts, the advantage of seeing these people tweet is that I feel like I get a sense of the writer's personality and sense of humor, a personal touch which makes me want to come back to Twitter.

The second major benefit is that it completely alleviates the pressure on me to produce content of my own. I don't have to worry about being funny or insightful, and I can just consume content in peace. This has allowed me to learn about the non-trivial Twitter conventions and cultural norms (e.g. how and when to use hashtags, how re-tweeting works).

To address the second major problem from before, this time I have consciously tried to not build too strong of a firehose. On Twitter, that "follow" button on every account is incredibly tempting, and the idea of creating a strong feed is integral to the experience. But, for a new user, it's easy to forget that there's a balance between quantity and quality of tweets.

A friend of mine more into Twitter said that he maintains a cap of 100 for the number of people he follows. I think this is a great size to aim for in the long-term, but I wanted to ease myself into the Twitter experience, so I aimed for a short-term cap of 50 people, which includes personal friends.

The idea of a cap instilled the idea that I had to be more active about curating the people I follow. If I'm beginning to find a source uninteresting (e.g. too many self-promotional tweets), I'll unfollow them. I've also gone through my entire follows list to "prune out" sources. To date, I've been able to stay under the cap, which has kept my Twitter stream to a very manageable level.

My current attempt at Twitter is going fairly well. It has only been a couple of months so far, but I finally look forward to checking Twitter a few times a day, and I'm happy with the signal-to-noise ratio of the tweets I see. I'm probably not the superuser that Twitter would like me to be (especially since I produce little content of my own), but I'm having a great experience with their product now.

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