Being on Twitter in 2020 is like being in a famous Parisian café in 1800.
Café Procope in Paris was the center of the literary and philosophic life of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was frequented by La Fontaine, Voltaire and the Encyclopedists: Benjamin Franklin, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Today, Twitter is the global town square, neighborhood hub, networking space, hotel bar, the social pulse of the internet. It is frequented by the smartest people on the planet. People come to share their best ideas. Intellectuals gather to share their most cutting-edge thoughts. It’s a free conference hall where you can choose the speakers and the attendees.
If used to its full potential, a Twitter account could be worth more than a college degree. For my friend David Perell, this is 100% true.
I met David on Twitter in mid-2014. At the time, he was a college student at Elon University with ~300 followers. He thought I was an influencer with ~800 followers. Funny how our perceptions change. We connected over a mutual love of golf, a curiosity about technology and venture capital, and a common belief in the power of the internet. Fast-forward six years, David has amassed a Twitter following well over 50K people. More impressively, he was able to build a business that has taught thousands of students to write online, including myself.
Why is Twitter so powerful? It doesn’t matter where you’re located. Solely based on the quality of your thinking and content, you can build an audience and gain success. Twitter reduces the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Simply by attaching yourself to a community, you can understand how insiders think and speak. A great example of this is within Financial Twitter (FinTwit), where people like Nick Maggiulli and Morgan Housel have become insiders through their fantastic writing and prolific tweeting. Twitter provides amazing and instant feedback, allowing writers to test their ideas to create and further distribute their work. Morgan Housel said, “Twitter is great for writers, investors, and entrepreneurs because when you post your thoughts you get instant feedback that’s more unfiltered than anything you’ll get face to face.”
If Facebook is for people in your past, then Twitter is for people in your future.
Before you’ve built an audience, Twitter can feel like you’re shouting into the void. There is massive reach inequality on the internet. In order to attract an audience, it helps to be known for something. Being different is essentially free marketing. Having a unique set of skills and style helps to stand out. Over time, you become the only person who does what you do. Then, simply stay inside your circle of competence and carpet bomb your niche. You can tell the world about your talents by sharing the best of what you learn. When someone is mindlessly scrolling their feed, your profile will stand out in the crowd.
The best way to build an audience is to provide value. Chances are you won’t be able to send one tweet that will turn you into a billionaire like Uber’s first employee, Ryan Graves. A more sensible approach is what Gary Vaynerchuk calls the One Dollar Strategy, leaving your worthwhile two cents on $50 tweets. Attaching a quality reply to a viral tweet is a great way to stand out and reach a large audience while providing great insight. The way to be discovered is to either put out consistently great content or become part of a community and provide value. Educate others, avoid using “spammy” hashtags, or you’ll just end up hurting yourself in the end.
One way I was able to provide value to Twitter users, even without a large following, was to create a robust list featuring Twitter employees. Twitter used to own and maintain a list of their tweeting employees, but shortly before the company went public, the list was deleted. I was able to create this list myself with more than 1,100 employees at the time, which came in handy when there was news about the company. The list I put together is followed by over 100 people and was featured in this article by CNBC. (Scroll to #103)
An observation about life is the more effort that’s put in, the more fulfilling the outcome. This is true for everything from relationships, education, work, cooking, vacation destinations, or social media. It takes work to get to a place that feels fulfilling. Fred Wilson has written about this idea in No Pain No Gain. On Twitter, that means you should follow individuals instead of publications and ruthlessly unfollow anyone who doesn’t provide you valuable information. As long as you’re following someone, you agree to be brainwashed by their ideas for as long as you follow them. Therefore, it is best to find and follow obscure, interesting people. Then follow the people and ideas they follow. You can surface interesting ideas by seeing the topics the people you follow on Twitter like.
When it comes to sharing information, respect your audience’s time and attention. I’ve been using Twitter for over 12 years. When I started, there was no etiquette to what someone should share. As Twitter became a place where the best and the brightest shared their thoughts, I feared that people would not care what I had to say. I would always think, is what I’m saying valuable to others or self-serving? Will it make someone laugh? Will it be thought-provoking? As the years went on, my engagement with the platform plummeted. It wasn’t until taking Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain and David’s Write of Passage online courses did my mindset shift. I used what I learned to capture, organize, and share what I learned. Write of Passage alumni Joe Wells said, “The amateur hoards his knowledge…He believes that if he shares what he possesses with others, he will lose it.” How silly of me. Feedback is critical for good work and I gave up valuable time by not sharing what I had to say.
Finally, Direct Messages are the single most powerful part of Twitter that no one talks about. Twitter is what LinkedIn has always tried to be. A place to learn, make friends and create opportunities for yourself. It could be the best networking tool in the world. When finding like-minded, interesting people, keep conversations active in DMs to set up meetings in-person or by phone. Try to see if there is a way to work together. As David Perell said, try to structure your life on Twitter for serendipity. The internet rewards people who publish their ideas frequently. Each article, email newsletter or tweet can be the vehicle for personal or career opportunities. The more you can share, the more opportunities you invite into your life.
This quote from Bill Gurley summarizes the power of Twitter so well:
“Twitter is the most amazing networking and learning network ever built. For someone who’s pursuing their dream job, or chasing a group of mentors or peers, it’s remarkable. In any given field, 50-80% of the top experts in that field are on Twitter and they’re sharing ideas, and you can connect to them or follow them in your personal feed. If you get lucky enough and say something they find interesting, they might follow you, and the reason this becomes super interesting is that it unlocks direct message, and now all of a sudden you can communicate directly or electronically with that individual. Very, very powerful.
If you’re not using Twitter, you’re missing out.”
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Acknowledgements: Thanks to David Perell for the Twitter workshop that inspired this post, and to Charlie, Ben, Pranav, Adam, Zach, and Blair for their feedback.