Surviving Crisis on Twitter

[This was originally published right before the COVID pandemic hit, with the expectation that it was about the upcoming 2020 campaign and presidential election. In 2022 I revised and renamed it, since much of the advice was still very relevant.]

I’m a political junkie, perhaps in some ways more now than ever. And yet, in late 2019-early 2020 I was posting very little about the 2020 election on Twitter. An old friend with similar political compulsions asked how I was doing it. The answer was ironically too long for Twitter. It also proved deeply relevant after COVID and many other ongoing crises hit. So how does one benefit from — perhaps even enjoy? — Twitter in our extended ongoing crisis? Read on!

Reduce Twitter altogether

Step 0: use Freedom or a similar blocking tool to keep Twitter out of your life when you’re trying to get other stuff done. I generally block Twitter during the entire working day on my work computer, and during the early morning (6-8am), morning (9-12) and afternoon (1-5) on my tablet and phone.

This is occasionally irritating since I do sometimes need Twitter for work but overall is worth it.

(Perhaps worth noting here that after the 2016 election I didn’t just reduce Facebook, I stopped logging in altogether unless I absolutely needed to for some reason. Absolutely zero regrets about that, though from time to time I miss certain people I only connected with there, and am curious to what extent I could effectively replicate the strategy described in this post there. Last I checked you could not firmly block specific words, which I think is critical to healthy engagement with social media—see next section.)

Reduced my Twitter political inputs

Partial list of words I block on twitter, including “president” “omicron” and “Pelosi”.

Step 1: simply reduce the amount of political stuff that I see when I go to Twitter. I see all kinds of other wonderful stuff instead! What I do in this direction:

  • Turn off the algorithmic feed. You want control over what you see; no one else (and certainly not an algorithm designed to suck your eyeballs in) should drive that.
  • Unsubscribe from all ‘news’ feeds on twitter—@nytimes, @cnn, etc. I use other mechanisms (see below) to get them daily at most. More generally, I aggressively turn off all news notifications on my phone. If the missiles launch and I need to hug my loved ones, someone will text me.
  • Unsubscribe from people I don’t know personally. For me, that’s basically all celebrites (except Lin-Manuel) but if that sounds too aggressive, you can Marie Kondo your follows with the help of the Tokimeki Unfollow tool. Two (small) exceptions for me:
    • Have they taught me something I didn’t know, because they’re giving me diverse perspectives not in my personal network? That can be troubling/non-joyful, but still valuable.
    • Have they given me opportunities for real-world action that you can’t get in some other way? For me, this is primarily local organizations — several San Francisco bike, transit, and YIMBY activists. (I find this to almost never be the case from national media, because the opportunities for practical action are too limited.)
  • Turn off all pure retweets with the Turn Off Retweets tool. Yes, even from your friends. In my experience, pure retweets are highly likely to be more angry/emotional, and less informative; if people have something interesting to add they’ll quote-tweet. Yes, there was some FOMO here. I got over it very quickly. If it is important, I see it eventually.
  • Mute (aka filter) political words aggressively. Here are Twitter’s instructions. A sampling of my word list is the highlighted image for this post. Note that I mute the name of politicans I often agree with, not just assholes! You do not need a constant stream of affirmation news either. Turn it off. The world will go on without it.

(optional) Replace with better news sources

I still feel the need for a lot of politics news. A few tips on managing this:

  • I subscribe to news via non-Twitter mechanisms, primarily Feedbin, a feed reader that allows me to follow both old-school RSS feeds and new-school email newsletters.
  • As with Twitter, block whatever your chosen mechanism is most of the day with Freedom. You don’t need to be informed all day long. (If I really had the right willpower, I’d try to keep my non-job-relevant news consumption to weekly, but I don’t (yet) have that willpower.)
  • As much as possible, make this local news. Important national/global news will trickle in as you need it. In my case, key local news sources are Mission Local and the Chronicle.

(dangerous) Use Twitter lists

I call this “dangerous” because in my experience it becomes very tempting to check Twitter lists in the same way you used to check your main feed, defeating the whole point. But you can move political follows to a list and check in on them occasionally. If you must do this, a few thoughts:

  • Make the list as diverse as possible. Ideally don’t follow anyone who your “main” follows are already following or RTing. For me personally, about a decade ago I started unfollowing most high-profile journalists and, in particular, made a deliberate effort to follow then-up-and-coming Black journalists, many of whom have now become high-profile themselves. Hearing them in their more personal voices on Twitter, as opposed to at article-length, has made me a better, more empathetic American. (Sadly, many of the best, like Vann Newkirk, have left Twitter, but I can hardly blame them!)
  • Follow at least some folks who you don’t agree with ideologically, assuming they’re making fairly good-faith efforts to inform and engage. There’s a lot of those on the right post-Trump.
  • Again, even if you must do this, don’t follow @nytimes and @cnn. These accounts are not designed to inform you, they’re designed to hook you. And I say this as a paying NYT and Washington Post subscriber!

(hard, but helpful) come to terms with the world as it is, and act in that framework

At some point in the past few years, I accepted that I’m going to have a baseline level of anger about the state of the world, and that I have to focus on what I can change and let go of what I can’t. (Twitter anger is the latter.) So what can I change? Where is my anger productive?

I’ve found that doing things offline—for me, mostly giving money—really helps. In particular, giving to causes that seek systemic (usually, that means political/government) change like and local activist groups, and giving a lot, and regularly. This, frankly, makes it a lot easier for me to ignore anger online — each new tweet is not likely to make me be more angry, or give more, because I’m already basically giving what I can. Being confident about that really reduced my FOMO when I started filtering aggressively.

I hear from non-parents/non-startup-founders that physical-world activism (door-knocking, phone banking, local gov meeting-attending, etc.) can be great in this way too but sadly I can’t confirm :(

(I also want to acknowledge that, in the current state of the world, ‘letting go’ gets harder the less privilege you have. I have no great response to that, except to say that I empathize and am trying to fight for you where and how I can.)

Improving my outputs

Having done all that, here’s how I try to improve the Twitter environment for others:

  • When in doubt, send it to a group of friends instead. You’ll get the same dopamine hit and no one will call you on it 5-10 years from now.
  • If I must RT or otherwise share politics news, I only quote tweet because that forces me to ask “what am I adding to this? why should I say it? What can I add that others can’t?” If I can’t add something, if I’m just amplifying anger, I try to shut up instead.
  • If I must be angry, I’ve tried to follow a rule that I only express that offline if I am also telling other people who are angry how to constructively address the problem. I don’t just say “I’m so mad about global warming”, say “I’m mad about global warming, here’s what I’m doing to help fix it, you can too“. If I don’t have a ‘here’s what I’m doing’ to add to it … I go back to ‘figure out what I can do’.

This isn’t perfect

Twitter has made me a literally better person, because it has exposed me to viewpoints I don’t have in my daily life that have made me more empathetic to others. It has changed my politics, making me vastly more open to systemic critiques of US center-left politics. So I’m reluctant to say ‘use it less, particularly for politics’. But I feel like it’s the only way to stay mentally well in our current world.