I wrote an overlong reply to a commenter on another blog post about Twitter, and I don’t think I’ve ever written about Twitter on here, so I’m posting it.

In the comment section of a blog by telescoper, a person was stating some of the reasons he has avoided Twitter, and in that comment he paraphrased Stanford professor, renowned computer scientist, and mathematician Don Knuth, writing:

Twitter might be good if you want to stay on top of things, but I want to get to the bottom of things.

I know Twitter can be a cesspool, but it can also be outright amazing. So I wrote back, starting by just quoting some of my reply to the original blog post, the part that was about Twitter:

I’m going to tuck some of my reply to the original post here, as food for thought.

“Overall, though, I find Twitter to be a good in my life, especially as I’ve gotten better at curating my feed. I get to interact with a few excellent journalists, quite a few historians I read and respect, city planners, lawyers, climatologists – I climate model as a hobby – and other scientists. I’m still following too many people, probably, but most of the time I feel like Twitter makes me smarter. Most of the time.”

Then I started writing and kind of got on a roll:

Twitter absolutely has downsides, no question, but I am still regularly surprised at how many interactions with absolutely fascinating people can, and do occur. Just Thursday I had an extended discussion with a senior Carnegie Fellow/former State Department Middle East analyst, as well as a wholly enjoyable exchange – that included trading our writing back and forth – with the senior television critic for the NYT. (I don’t watch much TV, and in the end he was basically advocating the merits of one particular show, based on my interest in Reconstruction history.) My favorite interactions tend to be with historians, people I’ve read and respected, especially because those almost always turn into something like roundtable discussions. Sometimes I marvel at finding myself right in the middle of six or seven of the best Civil War historians in the country, going back and forth for days about some element of congressional Reconstruction or the merits of a complicated figure like Benjamin Butler. I don’t know anywhere else that could happen. I also follow some of the most obscure climatologists and climate modelers in the world, who are constantly pumping out data that would be nearly impossible to amass by other means, if only because one would spend so much time tracking it down, and most of it would still only on Twitter.

I’ll sum up this way: Twitter is exactly what you want it to be. You curate it. You choose who to follow. You choose what you see. You choose what you learn. And it can be a little clunky getting there, I won’t lie. But it can also be fun and wondrous: finding some new source of information that tickles you, and diving down their rabbit hole (who they follow, for a start) to find even more people with deep knowledge about a subject you may have felt very few people cared about in the way you do. You never have to see anything you don’t want to. (In settings, you can choose to have Twitter make suggestions. Choose not to.) Some people rush to what’s trending. I don’t usually care. (But occasionally, I actually do, and that’s fun, too.) Twitter is crammed full of total idiots. That’s true. But it’s also a place where a whole lot of the best minds on earth congregate to broaden their knowledge, try out ideas, and share what they know best. The good news is that if you’re not a wildly famous musician or movie star, avoiding the idiots is pretty easy.

I always think it’s a bad idea – an idea contrary to the process of learning and growing – to board oneself up to something new based mostly on impressions that may not be accurate at all. Especially when the cost of testing the thing out for yourself is so low. I don’t know you, but I liked your Don Knuth paraphrase. I like to get to the bottom of things, too. I’ve spent my whole life digging tunnels that now overlap and interconnect. My mom used to say, “It’s not her fault. She was born genetically over-curious.” She also used to say, “Try it. You just might like it.” (Although I’m pretty sure that second one wasn’t an original.) 😉

You might even start here:


Anyway, that pretty much sums up my thoughts on Twitter that you never asked to know.

You’re welcome.

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