Tuesday, July 25, 2017

What I Like About Twitter

Twitter has been around for a while now but I only started using it over the last couple of months. It seemed really pointless to me until I created my own startup as a side project and had a need to promote the site on social media. The business account became a useful way to spread information about the site. I also began using my personal account more as well, mostly just to talk politics and science with random people online.

I discovered that Twitter could actually serve as a really powerful curated stream of news and opinion. I use the term 'curated' because you do have to be careful about who you follow. It is very easy to have it become an echo chamber much like Facebook. You start by following a few people you like. Then Twitter recommends people similar to them. You follow those people and before you know it, you have one hundred different news sites and writers all telling you the same thing. For many people, this is precisely the value they seek from Twitter; the reassurance of dozens of people all affirming their opinions in subtly different ways.

I took a different approach. I went out of my way to carefully follow a diverse range of sources. I have conservative sources and liberal ones. I follow libertarians, socialists, moderates, alt-right white nationalists, progressives, anarchists, and everything in between. I follow Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, President Trump, and Rand Paul.

Whenever a major story breaks - the sort where everyone feels a need to comment on it - I get to hear a million different spins. Trump makes a speech, and in one place I can see the opinions of Richard Dawkins, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Julian Assange. That to me is the really simple and cool thing about Twitter. Sure, I could hack together something similar with other content feed systems. But thanks to its user base, Twitter has done a pretty neat job of aggregating things for me.

I don't claim that this more broad set of viewpoints makes me automatically better informed. Reality is partisan after all. On a science topic often the opinion of one good expert is worth far more than a that of a hundred different pundits. The useful thing about have a wide range of views in your stream is that it helps you to avoid ideological gang membership. It undermines the tendency to premise all of your political views with an us-vs-them filter that inevitably leads to a complete inability to empathize with people who disagree with you. I might disagree with conservatives on a lot of issues, but I would never say that I just cannot understand how any of them believe what they believe.

Twitter has been a pleasant discovery also for following news about science, movies, gaming, and various other odd interests of mine. Suffice to say I have done a complete 180 on the app. Yet still I have my frustrations with it. I sort of understand why they have struggled with monetization. The app has a number of flaws.

There are lots of things they could do to improve the UI. I wish it were easier to follow conversations. I would love to be able to pin or tag people I follow. Also, I would like a way to group the people I follow. I would love to be able to just create a 'Liberal' group, and add all applicable accounts to it. Then in the UI I could just click 'groups' and then 'Liberal' and instantly dive into that world. Does not need to just be political either. I would love to make groups for 'Gaming' and 'Table Top' as well.