Using Twitter and social media as a force for good

Hello, and happy Monday.

First things first: I’ve decided to get back on the writing grind. From now on, I’ll be sending out a newsletter every Monday at 9:00 AM Eastern Time.

If you want to get my writing in your mailbox every Monday, subscribe to the mailing list here. Much obliged.

If you follow me, you’re NOT going to get ‘just’ #chinalife, or tech analysis, or digressions on running 350 kilometers in a single month. Rather, you’re going to get them all, in small Jamesian doses.

I’m done with trying to put my writing into a tiny little box. I’m done with trying to just be “the tech guy” or “the Magic: The Gathering guy” or “the Shanghai lockdown guy” or “the startup entrepreneur.” I belong to three cultures: Canada, Mainland China and Taiwan. I am all of these things.

Using Twitter and social media as a force for good

There’s a tendency to dismiss things that we’re not familiar with, or we’re not good at, as a waste of time. I think social media—or more specifically, Twitter—falls into this category.

Since we can’t spend time on everything, and everything has an opportunity cost, it’s easier and safer to make snap judgments. To close doors on things rather than open them. Your brain can put Twitter in the ‘dismissal pile’ and it helps you sleep at night.

The standard reputation of Twitter is that it’s a cesspool. The conversations are toxic and the outrage is performative. The political discussions are…the opposite of productive.

I’ve said this on multiple occasions: “Twitter is not real life.”

Today I’ll provide a different perspective: there’s nothing wrong with Twitter. There’s everything wrong with how we use Twitter.

Analogy time: email

Nobody loves email. What started as this incredible connection tool—I can contact, and stay in correspondence with, everyone on the planet!—has become what it is today. Email today is hard to manage, overly noisy, and the source of much stress.

I consider it an incredible honor that you’re even reading my email newsletter. I know that attention is scarce these days. As a content creator, I have to do a consistent job of keeping (and earning) your trust.

The reason why email feels different from Twitter is that email is MANDATORY. Everyone has an email address. We need it for site registration, school, work, you name it. It’s as commonplace as breathing the air.

Twitter feels different because it’s not mandatory. There is typically no work institution that forces you to use it.

Therefore, it’s much easier to dismiss Twitter and vow to never use it (again). Same argument applies for Facebook/Meta, Instant Messenger X, or Social Networking Site Y.

But here’s the thing. If you’re mindlessly scrolling through Twitter 3,841 times a day to get involved in flame wars, then you’re doing it wrong.

We do email wrong and it took decades of institutional theory and literature to make it manageable. And even now, it’s pretty bad. Inbox Zero is a farce because processing email faster just means you can…process more emails.

If you’re not disciplined and boundary-setting with email, it will break you.

Going back to my argument: let’s say that there are ways to constructively use Twitter. Why use Twitter?

Why Twitter?

Everything you do in life has inputs and outputs. Or more directly, a return on investment.

Here’s where my content creator viewpoint comes in. Chances are, if you are creating content of some kind, then Twitter is beneficial to you.

Content creators feel the need to sign up for Twitter. Many content creators don’t LOVE Twitter; my argument is that they’re doing it wrong. Or at least, small-time creators like myself have been doing it wrong.

Content creator and Twitter account is analogous to being a working professional and owning an email address. Can you be a worker and not own an email address? Yes. But it’s harder. You likely needed an email address to apply for that job in the first place. And if your employer wants to create a work email for you and you reject that premise, be prepared to have some interesting conversations.

Follower as connection metric

To be more specific: we tend to view Twitter follower count as an indicator of our influence. The more followers, the better.

Bigger platform, right? Make the number go up, right?

Kanye West has 30.8 million followers. Elon Musk has 96.4 million followers. Don’t we all want to be there?

No. This year, I changed my rules of engagement.

What really convinced me that Twitter is worth participating in is NOT adhering to the follower growth metric, but the CONNECTION metric.

The CONNECTION metric is not measurable on Twitter dot com in any way. The CONNECTION metric is how many genuine connections, or friendships, you have created on the platform.

Let’s say that Jane is a follower of mine. The CONNECTION ideal suggests that it is not enough to simply have Jane follow me, like my tweets, or retweet my tweets. I’m grateful if she does, because she’s creating more impressions for my tweets; the typical content creator goal is impressions or exposure. There’s nothing wrong with that goal.

What’s meaningful, however, is exchanging Direct Messages (DMs) with Jane to find out what she’s into. To start a conversation. To see if Jane needs help with anything with no expectation of return. To learn who Jane is.

That makes Jane a CONNECTION, not a follower.

Twitter “success” is not how many followers or impressions you have. It’s about how many new or existing relationships you can cultivate.

The real value of Twitter is viewing it as a public messaging app, with the ability to discover cool people to connect with.

Do this, and Twitter becomes massively powerful and productive.

Putting it into practice

Let me give an example of how to put this mindset into practice.

I open Twitter. I look at my Twitter account to see who my followers are. Their follow is a strong signal that they are probably interested in what I’m doing, or what content I’m producing. They’re probably OK with me reaching out. Not always, but most of the time.

Now I DM them to say hi and introduce myself. As much as possible, I make the introduction a personalized one. Try to be non-creepy.

Now there’s a high chance they’ll respond. They’ll also be a lot more civil because it’s 1:1 chatting and not public theater on someone else’s Twitter timeline.

To demonstrate the power of DM:

  • I surveyed 200+ of my Twitter followers about their favorite podcast episodes of mine, via DM. I was pleasantly surprised to learn things I’d never learned before. Some followers have been listening to my podcast for more than five years! They also told me their favorite podcast episodes and offered me super-valuable suggestions on how to improve my podcast. On my actual podcast, I asked people to give me feedback for years: crickets. I tweeted an ask for feedback in public: barely received any. I’m so much happier for reaching out because I got some actual feedback! People appreciate it, especially if it’s genuine.
  • I built 15 connections with new followers last month by reaching out via DM and having a conversation. In many cases, I offered to help them with something with no expectation of return. The only expectation is to be friends, and to pay it forward.
  • I DM’d notable content creators in my space to help signal boost one special episode of mine; it was for something that I felt was 100% worth sharing. 80% of them responded. Of the respondents, 90% of them agreed to help signal boost.
  • I scheduled 5+ podcast interviews last month completely through Twitter DM.

But wait…

Here’s the interesting question if you’re reading this and coming from a tech or startup background, like me:

James, this sounds great. But it doesn’t scale!

And that’s when I reply with my #1 principle for building one’s Twitter. Or an early-stage company, for that matter:

It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t scale. The whole point is to do things that don’t scale, early on, to prove that it works.

We’re talking about connections and friendships. We don’t make friends by mass-emailing 1,000 people: “want to be my friend?” We make real connections one by one.

Or as Arvid Kahl says: “You don’t gain 1,000 followers at a time. You gain 1 follower at a time, 1,000 times.”

I’m not Kanye West. I can’t easily tweet something out for maximum clout.

Kanye West honed his craft for decades to build his following. His following is a result of his work away from Twitter. It’s an apples and oranges comparison.

If I have 30.8 million followers, I don’t need to use DMs. But I’m fine to do things that don’t scale, because I’m not at that scale.

From a mindset perspective, what truly paralyzes us in this world is:

  • Dismissing things because we applied the wrong mental model or methodology to them.
  • Not trying thing X because we feel the need to be perfect from the very beginning.
  • Complaining that things don’t go our way and quitting too early.

If you want to make an impact in this world, suck it up and adapt. Be flexible but consistent. Eliminate excuses and limits.

Use Twitter to your advantage. Tune out the noise, avoid doing things “just because everybody’s doing them,” and take control.

My Twitter results in May

Two of my accounts are “james_hsu” (personal) and “humansofmagic” (my podcast).

james_hsu:

humansofmagic:

I’m not so stressed about my follower counts anymore. Success is about making connections with people.

Caveats

  • Most of this advice is relevant if you’re a content creator (vs. a pure consumer of Twitter). If you’re a pure consumer, then managing your time on Twitter is more important because the only thing you can do is scroll through the feed. To be fair, Twitter lets the consumer easily create content via tweets, so the line is blurred.
  • If you’re a content creator, YOU NEED TO START BY MASTERING YOUR CONTENT! No amount of promotion or Twitter mastery will work unless you actually have something valuable to say, so that others recognize your value. What separates a strategy that is shallow vs. deep is your lasting power.
  • You have to be willing to put yourself out there and cold (direct) message people. I have a background in building startups and being public. So talking to strangers, and sharing in general, is not an issue. Just remember: you miss all the shots you don’t take.

Take care of yourself, and be well.

James

If you want to get my writing in your mailbox every Monday, subscribe to the mailing list here. Much obliged.

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