A Take on Twitter
Published: 2023-09-12 . Back to ≈

Twitter has a strong value proposition for me, but also serious pitfalls. Without proper intentionality, I can’t take for granted that it will have a net positive impact on my life. The aim of this document is to reflect on the positives and negatives of Twitter usage, and to distill out some basic guiding principles designed to curb negative impacts and encourage positive ones.

Alignment problems and memetic traps

Let’s talk about the memetics of Twitter: We can think of these as the filters or selection effects that mediate propagation of content along Twitter’s social graph, determining what kinds of content propagate well and which kinds face strong impedance. For a platform like Twitter, this is equivalent to talking about what kinds of content are likely to receive engagement in the form of likes, retweets, or comments, since content receiving engagement will be amplified by the platform.

We’ll start off with a rather pessimistic take, which is the following: At one level it doesn’t really matter what the selection effects are. The most important point is that in a platform as large as Twitter and even within local parts of twitter like this part, there will be people whose mode of interacting with the platform is to directly optimize their content with respect to these selection effects. Some will do this intentionally; others will be pulled into it as a result of unreflectively pursuing validation. This means that the content most prolifically featured on the network will often be that of people who are engagement hacking—and generally not that of people who are sharing content for literally any other reason (Naturally, there are qualifications and caveats to this, otherwise I wouldn’t bother to be here writing this.)

What this essentially means is that at the heart of Twitter there is an alignment problem, with all of its nefariousness: how aligned are the memetics of Twitter with the values of a given set of participants? Solving alignment problems is difficult for a multiplicity of reasons, and no part of Twitter is probably perfectly well-aligned with anyone’s tastes. Empirically, even for TPOT the selection biases appear to somewhat heavily favor quick takes and shitposts, as well as an array of signaling behaviors. We all know roughly what these are and I don’t really want to taxonomize them, though that could be interesting.

There’s nothing wrong with superficial takes and shitposts per se, but I can easily find myself scrolling Twitter and wondering why I’m allowing this particular type of content command of my mind. When I’m less reflective, I can do the opposite: after seeing enough empty takes, my mind starts to automatically regurgitate its own. It thinks this is what we are here to do. Since neither consuming nor creating shitposts or hot takes is what I’m on Twitter to do, this is all a bit problematic for me.

But it’s important not to stop here. If we dig a little deeper into this ugly side of Twitter, we’ll find something useful. A more optimistic take.

First, what is a take?

Let’s think of a take as a bit of distilled sense-making: A take frames an issue in an enlightening way or furnishes a simple principle which explains its dynamics. Sense-making itself can have immense utility and is something that humans naturally seek. And, importantly, encountering a take which allows us to make sense of the world or our lives can feel immensely satisfying, even cathartic if it is an issue that has caused me confusion or consternation in the past. When people encounter a take which supplies these feelings, they will engage with it—like it, repost it, comment on it, riff on it—all things that facilitate its spread throughout the network.

Compared to something like blogging, Twitter created new norms around the generation of takes: The microblogging format of Twitter encourages the compression of takes into a highly distilled format with the very minimal amount of accompanying fluff.

This does two very important things:

  • Makes it easier to generate takes satisfying the accepted norms: I don’t have to put in the work to introduce the topic, provide context, etc. We can cut straight to the chase.
  • Makes it much easier to consume and evaluate takes: Not everyone is going to bother to read a two-thousand word blog post; many more people will skim over a tweet over a thread that crosses their screen.

If we couple these two features of Twitter—the reduced effort of generating and evaluating takes—with the memetic mechanics of the network by which resonant content quickly spreads through the network, what we get is something like an engine for the crowdsourced sense making or processing via the distributed production and filtering of highly resonant takes. This can apply to events, information, or even personal experiences, and it’s the part of TPOT that I find the most amazing.

This framing implies that the parts of Twitter that I intuitively identify as valuable to me and the parts that I’ve experienced as traps exist simply at different extremes of the same spectrum.

Indeed, there’s a sort of cycle or flow to the way that TPOT metabolizes things, for which these two parts serve as bookends. It starts when the leaders of a community introduce some new topic or theme. They help frame it, clarify how the community’s values apply to it, create a paradigm of analysis… essentially doing the heavy lifting needed to induct the subject into public discourse. From here, the other workers of the community will continue to refine fine points. Shitposters and hot takers help to define the absurdity boundary of the discourse, or simply continue to the processing and reshashing ad nauseum. TPOT chewing the cud, as it were.

What this sort of rosy picture leaves out is the simple fact that writing shitposts and hot takes requires a lot less work than forming and distilling deep insights. Whatever advantage truly insightful takes have over the more superficial ones isn’t enough to counter this difference in required effort. So if I’m just interested in maximizing engagement per unit of effort, I’ll probably be doing a lot of shitposting.

I think a good way of summarizing this take is by invoking Daniel Schmachtenberger’s tenet that technology is not value-neutral. The social technology of having an open social network and limiting the size of the messages transmitted throughout this network is

  1. Very good for catalyzing the formation of a network
  2. Good at promoting vapid takes and shitposts
  3. Also good at supporting collective, crowdsourced processing

Since both of these modes are supported, we have to be very intentional about how we participate in the network.

Before continuing, I think it’s worth mentioning another of Twitter’s traps which interacts strongly with the memetic trap we’ve discussed above, for me. Positive feedback on Twitter gives me a strong positive stimulus of social validation. This could be a good thing in itself, but I wouldn’t reflectively identify it as something I’ve seeking from Twitter. The problem is that I do unreflectively burn time and effort trying to seek this stimulus; and moreover, if that effort fails to achieve the desired effect, the backlash can feel painful.

Principles for alignment

Over the course of my own interactions on Twitter, I’ve noticed my tendency to fall into its traps: Tweeting for validation or tweeting a take which I hoped might gain traction, though I wasn’t personally invested in it. I think it’s actually for the best that I’ve never received much positive feedback from doing any of these, because in the time waiting for the validation or traction that doesn’t materialize, I’ve always had to quickly square up to the motivation for what I’ve been doing.

In reflecting on this, the following principle easily suggests itself: I shouldn’t tweet something if I wouldn’t feel generally positively about it no matter what the reception was. Worrying about the reception of things is a good sign that I’m trying to game the memetics of twitter in order to get validation rather than using twitter as a way of exploiting its primary value proposition (for me).

On the other side of things, I think it makes sense to be a bit guarded about the kinds of content that I’m inviting into my feed by being intentional about who I follow (and subsequently sticking mostly to the “Following” feed).

Personally, I want to follow people who are on Twitter for the Processing and Sense-making: people who are sharing parts of their personal journey that are relevant or interesting to me, giving me new tools and perspectives for understanding things about the world, or just as often giving me tools for understanding and living with myself.

Examples:

Also people whose own posts encourage me to show up to Twitter in the way that I want to show up. People who ask questions that don’t just pose a brief distraction to my day, but people who ask questions whose answers will contribute real value to my life.

Examples:

And also if their takes are really just shit hot… but I won’t tell on those of you who are my guilty pleasures.