Art that spoke to me when I was a full-time tech blogger in San Francisco

Why I Burned My Twitter Account to the Ground

People who follow me on Twitter — if they’re even active on Twitter anymore and give half of a damn whom they’re following — may be slightly annoyed to learn that I’ve monkeyed with my accounts again, changing the terms of that sacred deal they made when they clicked that baby blue ‘Follow’ button. I’ve split my streams into multiple accounts (and decided for my followers which one they were following), and anyone who doesn’t like it is gonna have to click a couple buttons today.

And I would just tell them that, and I would tell them there, but I’ve started to feel like The Internet might be able to enjoy something about my Twitter paroxysms, to see something of Itself in them.

Maybe It has also been perplexed by Its ongoing relationship with Twitter, unrecognizable from the one It had six or eight years ago, so much dimmer and weirder now. Perhaps It, too, wants to pull the relationship up by the roots and start again, and perhaps I can inspire that. Or perhaps not, and I’m shouting into the void again, in which case it doesn’t matter that I’m spending my coffee time typing this, and who hasn’t wasted a little coffee time typing something to post on the Internet to be ignored?

The selfish personal internet history part of the Medium post

I joined Twitter against my will in 2009, urged on by @ruby_beth and @tilgovi, two of my best friends. I thought the 140-character format sounded inane, as did everybody who waited until all the cool user names were gone before joining Twitter, so I refused on principle. But one can’t very well ignore something one’s best friends are doing for fun, a lot, every day, so I gave in. I became @jonathan_isaac.

This was about three months before the Internet became my job.

As evidenced by the handle I chose — my full first and middle names, signaling Jewish identity: spiritual, vulnerable, above the terse and fleeting chatter — I assumed the position of myself. I was me-before-some-imagined-public for the first time. I amused myself in plain view like a little boy does, talking to myself and saying “Look at this!”, and if someone was paying attention and responded, that was nice.

@tilgovi introduced me to the kind of churn it takes to build a valuable Twitter timeline, and I quickly figured out how to bootstrap it. I went through my friends’ Following lists and followed every entity who intrigued me. Then I watched my timeline to see which of those were most interesting and followed all the interesting people/things they followed, pruning out the feeds I didn’t like. Occasionally I would pluck someone from Twitter’s own recommendations. It was a fair amount of work, sure, but it was great fun. Like gardening.

Soon my timeline was thriving, and I had plenty of fruits to pluck and share with my friends, some of whom I met right there on Twitter, just by following them. Okay, y’all. I get it now. This is pretty wonderful.

This was entirely on a desktop computer, mind you.

I spent about two years using Twitter in this small, happy way. My career grew gradually alongside my Twitter use, and there was clearly a connection. As I got better at Twitter gardening, I got more people listening, and I got better work. This energy flowed in both directions, building on itself. When it flowed back into the garden, the people in my Twitter sphere got more amazing, wiser, had better links, more incisive commentary, were more famous. They could amplify me more, and sometimes they did. When it flowed out into my work, it became better than any résumé could ever be. Interesting people paid attention to my views. That got me hired to publish stuff and bring those people to websites — some of them kinda big — whose other followers then found me. That’s when my follower count reached four digits, and I realized that I had to be cool on Twitter now. I had to be an Internet Person. So I changed my handle to @JonMwords — professional bloggeur — and parked my old name.

@tayhatmaker and me at Twitter, Inc.’s 2012 Christmas party

Another year or so of full-time tech bloggering, and then I started to figure out the real Media Twitter™ tricks.

I used the Mysterious Rites to liberate @ablaze — the ultimate user name, if you ask me — from whatever squatter had tweeted from it three times in 2008 and then abandoned it. I created @NextTechBlog, which became the paragon of tech blogger auto-schadenfreude for a while, and then I parlayed that into more Twitterati followers. They even gave me the keys to @rww, and you can imagine the incredible ways that helped me in terms of the numbers that only matter on Twitter. And then I realized I could quit my job and bring all those people with me!

So I did that, and I tweeted exultantly about it. I converted another account I had made as an RSS firehose of my blog posts into @ablaze_co, a company account for my new consulting agency. There was so much self-interest and glory going on here, I didn’t realize what was happening until I was no longer a bloggeur and the attention ran out.

My garden had withered. I was factory farming.

The part of the Medium post where I extrapolate my own internet neuroses into universal design problems

Twitter is obviously a bastion of solipsism, but I couldn’t help the feeling that this shift was happening to all of Twitter, not just to me. The company had made the product itself unrecognizably different, shiny and complicated and intensely commercialized. They squashed their third-party developers, an essential source of the joy of early Twitter. And the users had changed, too. There were lots more of them now, and there were hashtags in TV commercials — I mean, hell, people started using hashtags in SMS messages — and having a Social Media Strategy™ was a thing for pretty much every computer-based job, not just Content Creation™ ones. I guess what happened is that the people who were good at Twitter got drawn into using it professionally as that became broadly possible. Totally understandable! But it drained the available energy for using it for much else. Twitter’s product decisions helped.

This had an inevitable effect, and Twitter the Place became kind of miserable, and now everyone’s all worried about its future as a business. I, for one, had no idea how to use it anymore. I hated reading it, I felt selfish for tweeting anything, and — best of all — once I started working for Burning Man (which also happened because of Twitter many years earlier), it no longer really mattered how much I used my own Twitter accounts. I could just hide behind @burningman, a nameless, faceless entity whose voice I much preferred to my own. My Twitter presence became meaningless, and that was fine, because it had started to sicken me. I even took some months off here and there.

But I missed it! I missed the fun part, meeting people, introducing my friends to them, learning and talking about stuff that interested us. I missed being able to nerd out about Apple stuff, but it was an unseemly combination with Burning Man stuff, and vice versa. I didn’t know where to just share stuff I liked anymore and see if anyone wanted to discuss it. And what I missed most of all was a timeline I enjoyed reading. My following list had gotten so clogged up with media and tech stuff I had to know about — and people I “had to” follow for professional courtesy/politics/ass-kissing — that I couldn’t garden anymore.

With nothing left to lose, I started tearing out roots and trying things.

A few weeks ago, I split myself in two. Based on my barely substantiated beliefs about the nature of their followings, I decided @ablaze was for Burning Man stuff and @ablaze_co was for techy stuff (and decided that for their followers). I knew many people on both sides of that divide didn’t want to hear about the other, and I figured those who did could follow both. That also helped me focus my timelines. I could follow hardcore Burning Man people from @ablaze and hardcore tech people from @ablaze_co. That way, I could decide which world to be in at a given time and do a better job of being there.

That didn’t help me at all with my friends, though. It’s difficult to enjoy following friends on Twitter if they tweet about work stuff — and they do — unless you’re fascinated by their work. Suffice it to say that most of my internet-only friends are not fascinated by the inner workings of Burning Man. So how could I subject them to that? How could I feed them the exhaust of a Twitter account that had started following Regional Burns and art cars and other Burning Man weirdos instead of well-rounded stuff? And — let’s be real — how could I waste @ablaze, the best Twitter handle of all time, on an account that was now tailored for a specific job?

So I changed my first Twitter account’s name to @GoForArgus — Argus being my playa name, Black Rock City radio handle, and burningman.org email address — and I burned @ablaze to the ground.

Now my Twitter cells are dividing even further, and it involves every Twitter user’s least favorite transformation: a user name change. Suddenly, the 4,900-odd people following @GoForArgus will have no idea who it is, because Twitter is about barely paying attention to tons of people at once, so you really can’t be expected to know people there. Not by this late date in the service’s life, anyway.

As if “Followers: 4,927” has any relation to 4,927 human beings actually checking Twitter and seeing your tweets, what with all the inactive accounts, spam bots, meaningless marketing accounts, and muting-while-following-for-political-reasons going on. So since I’m not Verified™ — verification on Twitter being a Mysterious Rite for #blessed media people and not a usable means of verifying one’s own identity — I’m just going to use that follower number to indicate to people who are looking for the Burning Man guy that, yes, this is the Burning Man guy.

When I go follow my friends from the new @ablaze account after I’m done with this post, the ones who are actually my friends — if they still use Twitter — will hopefully follow me back.

The part where I armchair quarterback for Twitter, Inc. ($twtr)

This whole process is definitely as annoying as it sounds, but the fact is, Twitter use is already a state of perpetual minor inconvenience. The reason I had to do all this crap is because Twitter, Inc. has overlooked what seems to me like the most obvious thing about the service that needs fixing.

All of the Facebook-chasing changes they’ve made have just taken Twitter further from the only new feature we’ve needed (besides URLs not counting against the character limit): manual filters. That is not a sexy product name, I understand. That’s their job, not mine. But I can’t help the feeling that, if enough of Twitter’s product people had used their product in normal ways for enough time, they would have realized this: Lists (remember those?) were an upside-down attempt to solve the noise problem. It’s a fine feature, but it only gets halfway there. Twitter users could proactively help each other not be annoyed when they tweet about football or Burning Man by filtering their own tweets, and then people could pick which aspect of someone or something actually interests them.

Since Twitter does not allow that kind of publishing control, all we can do is have multiple accounts, which I bet most Twitter users of moderate seriousness have, and which all Twitter clients (except the web one where it all started) treat as a primary feature of the service. It works okay, but when it comes to followers, they’re hosed, and that’s a kinda important part of the Twitter service, isn’t it? Now they have to deal with accounts they follow shifting around, they have to hunt around for additional streams of info from one source, and they have no idea which account to mention when they want to talk to someone about something, which also annoys the followee.

So here I am with a personal account, a Burning Man account, an Apple geek account, AND a firehose reading bot account, AND an account for tweeting about my book, and that doesn’t count the defunct ones. You might think that’s obnoxious, and so do I. But I’m doing it anyway to see if it’s still possible to have fun on Twitter while benefiting on the side from its estimable if nauseating professional networking capabilities. If I care about you following @ablaze, you’re probably going to, and if you don’t think you want to, neither do I. I’m just going to use it to discover interesting things in the world and discuss them with smart people, like in the Relatively Old Days, and we’ll see if it still works. And if it’s just me sitting in the sandbox with my action figures talking to myself, like in the Actually Old Days, fine. I’ll use my imagination.

I’m not giving up on Twitter yet. @dickc (c.f. #dickbar) is out, @jack is back, somewhat interesting new products are launching, there’s even a new version of Tweetbot, which means delightful third-party apps are not dead. The magic of the idea of Twitter — totally obscure until one starts to really use it — seems like it should endure. Twitter is the cutesy name of a company that makes a product that represents the world of information as it really is now: flowing and changing in streams without end. I hope it will water my garden for a long time.