How I stay out of the Twitter cesspool and use it to find good stuff

Howard B. Owens
Oct 21, 2017 · 4 min read

I forgot who wrote this tweet, but it passed through my feed a few weeks ago and stuck with me: “Twitter used to be a place to learn.”

The lament, as I took it, was that Twitter is no longer a space to share knowledge. That it’s a cesspool of hate, bigotry, and the raving of a mad president. In part, I arrived at that conclusion because the tweet linked to this essay by Mike Monteiro.

While Twitter may have bigger problems and its leadership may need to grabble with bigger social responsibility issues, as a personal matter here’s what I want to say: Twitter is what you make it.

I’ll let somebody else worry about Twitter’s global impact. I want to make sure Twitter doesn’t waste my time and delivers results for the time I put into it.

Here’s how I avoid the worse of twitter and curate the best of it.

  1. I set guidelines for myself. I’ve found that it’s best not to reply to people whom I don’t follow or don’t follow me when they dispute some point I’ve made, especially if it’s political. I sometimes still fall into the trap of violating this rule, but this is the best way to avoid arguments. Arguments are time sucks and that’s not why I’m on Twitter. I don’t mind a substantive conversation, even if in disagreement, but that happens more often with people where some sort of prior relationship exists. (Twitter also allows you to mute replies from people who you don’t follow and/or don’t follow you. This works imperfectly with Tweetbot.)
  2. A more recent guideline: Just try to not comment on politics. Let’s face it, for most of us, nobody really cares what we think of Donald Trump’s latest counter-factual tweet or how we would deal with North Korea or whether Congress eliminates state and local tax deductions. My opinions on these matters don’t really matter. I’m not going to change anybody’s mind or sway any vote in the Senate. I’m too small of a voice in the political world.
  3. So, related, I try to stay in my lane, which is mostly media. For the most part I share opinions on media business issues. Occasionally, I dabble in economics, and so I might venture an opinion on economic topics here and there. I like testing my ideas against real economists. Call it a hobby.
  4. Mostly I tweet links or retweet tweets I like, which more often tend to be factual in nature and contain links (but I’m rather loose on that guideline).

Increasingly, I’ve been doing a better job of staying out of arguments by following my own guidelines.

I’ve even made some new friends, I think, on Twitter. Professionally, it’s also served as a potentially valuable networking tool over the past few months.

I also get more out of Twitter through lists.

Instead of starting with the main firehose stream, I usually start with my media list. This helps me stay focused on why I’m using Twitter — to find news and information related to my industry. I also have a list for mobile and one for general business. As I mentioned, I’ve taken up economics as a hobby, so I also have a list for economics, where I spend a lot of time. (I’ve also reduced the size of the firehose stream by culling who I follow and moving more people to lists without following them.)

Not all of my time is spent on the lists I’ve created. Jason Steinhauer curated a great History on Twitter list I find useful. As a photographer, I also like to check out Newspaper Photo Depts list occasionally.

The other thing I’ve done is to make sure to follow (or list) a diverse group of people. While my politics lean libertarian/right, being in media, most people I know fall to the left side of the spectrum, so I purposefully sought out right-leaning publications and people to follow. On both the left and the right, though, I try to avoid people who are too strident or hyper-partisan. My goal is to minimize confirmation bias and avoid the echo chamber.

Twitter provides users the tools that if properly used can help anybody make Twitter more useful and less stressful.

So when I see people lament the downfall of Twitter, my only thought is, “that’s just not my experience.”

For the most part, I get more out of Twitter than ever. There’s hardly a session of Twitter time that doesn’t include a link or wise observation that contributes something to my understanding of the world or my industry.

Often, I retweet those links, so if you think I might share something you can learn from, feel free to follow me.

My one complaint about Twitter: Even though I meet the published guidelines for a verified account, Twitter tells me I’m not qualified. Aggravating.

Howard B. Owens

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Journalist. Photographer. Coder. Publisher, The Batavian. Founder, Album Corp. Batavia by way of San Diego, Ventura, Bakersfield. Online news since 1995.