Storm of Tweets: Micro-Essays on Work, Life, the Universe, and Everything

5 min read

I’ve published an ebook of my best tweetstorms from 2016 and 2017, when I was most actively using the format. It’s free from April 6–10 ($5 after that). You can view the Amazon page and download here:

Foreword from the book

I first started using Twitter in the spring of 2012, fresh off the plane from Ukraine, where I served for two years in the Peace Corps. My first job in San Francisco was for a coworking space that also hosted events and classes. My first forays onto the network were to tweet links to our events or announcements, desperately trying to get some traction.

Within a few months, I started getting regular notifications. I was meeting people in the coworking space and at our events, and quickly learned that Twitter was the watercooler for online influencers. I started spending more time there, slowly moving from lurking to reading articles to responding to interacting. The accessibility of high-profile, successful people managing their own accounts blew my impressionable little mind away.

It took me a couple years to begin thinking of Twitter as a place for learning and ideation, not just consumption. I started reading the Ribbonfarm blog, which exposed me to intense intellectual discussions taking place in the social networks connected to it. Gaining followers who were interested in the same things as me, I started to blog more, testing out my ability to create insights for other smart people.

It was around this time that I started using the tweetstorm format specifically. A tweetstorm is simply a series of tweets (short snippets of text that can also contain links or images) with an overarching topic or point that are “threaded” together in a chain. You add tweets to the chain by successively replying to each previous tweet. What a tweetstorm adds versus, say, a blog post, is that each tweet stands as its own statement, with individual controls for others to like, reply to, or share, with or without their own commentary. Instead of a comments section at the very end of a webpage that no one reads, you get a distributed, modular, atomized, non-linear, open-ended conversation among any number of people.

The immediate need I was trying to fulfill was to get ideas out of my head, where they tended to cycle aimlessly until I captured them somewhere. The default place for these ideas was Evernote, but I thought, “Why not make these notes public?” These tweetstorms evolved from random musings shouted into the digital wind, to critical pieces in my process of developing ideas to fruition.

It’s difficult to overstate how important tweetstorms have been for my work and my business. They are the most-cited referral source for customers and collaborators alike. I’ve found thought partners, clients, mentors, and advisors through them. They’ve saved me hours of work, allowing me to simply link to a thread instead of explaining things again and again. By inserting these threads one tweet at a time into the slipstream of online discussions, I’ve found an audience that is hungry for meaningful insights delivered in bite-sized packages.

It’s also difficult to overstate what a remarkable format it is. First, it is a “soft” technology, created in an instant and driven by a practical need. It requires no special technology, no maintenance or updates, beyond the basic functionality of tweeting and replying. Second, it puts the comments and arguments, which are the best part of any piece of online content, on nearly equal footing with the original thread itself. By allowing multiple entry points to start a discussion–at a sentence by sentence level, instead of only at the end–it encourages discussion instead of just allowing it. Third, it enforces succinctness and brevity, both by the strict 140 (now 280) character limit, and also by the short attention spans that people usually bring to social media. Since virtually all writing can be improved by getting more quickly to the point, this has the effect of increasing quality across the board. Fourth, you are always one click away from self-written biographies for every person in a thread, allowing you to put in context what they’re saying. Anonymity is allowed but not required. The more transparent you are about who you are and where you’re coming from, the more credibility your words carry. Fifth, it is a format optimized for learning. As the writer, you can get feedback point by point along multiple dimensions: likes, retweets, and replies. I’ve found that often one seemingly minor point receives most of the attention. Or one tweet in the thread becomes its own parallel discussion, like a self-selecting chat room, telling you what people find interesting. The modularity of tweetstorms–that any given tweet can find its way into any number of feeds, discussions, hashtags, and retweets–allows the thread to appeal to multiple audiences, each tweet part of a great river but carried along its own particular currents. Sixth, it bypasses writer’s block, by keeping expectations low and spelling and grammer even lower. There is no barrier to just getting your ideas out there, because nothing is permanent unless you want it to be. Your inner critic stays asleep because “it’s just social media after all.”

I decided to review these old tweetstorms in preparation for a book I’m writing, based on my course Building a Second Brain. Tweetstorms are often proto-ideas that I found interesting enough to write about, but that aren’t yet complete enough to turn into full articles. They are like free-floating, raw genetic material, waiting to evolve into full organisms.

I discovered that I could export my entire tweet archive in one click, and then do a search for the prefix 1/, which I use to kick off each tweetstorm. By the time I had done that, I realized I was just a few steps away from an ebook. If I was getting so much value from rereading my own tweetstorms, why not bring others into the conversation? The self-publishing service offered by Kindle Direct Publishing has become so dead simple, all you need to do is submit a Word document and they take care of the rest. With some help from Ben Mosior, Marko Kosović, and Jay Dugger, we selected the best storms and put together the manuscript you’re reading now.

I’m a big believer in sharing your work publicly, as early and as often as possible. This book is an experiment to see just how far we can push that practice. My goal is to compress two years of thought experiments into an artifact that can be examined and unpacked in just a few hours. My hope is that readers will see the holes, assumptions, and hidden insights that I can’t see myself.

I’ll end with a few guidelines on how to create your own tweetstorms. I imagine some of you will be inspired to try it out for yourself. But like anything that has the potential to capture people’s attention, there is a sensible and respectful way to go about it.

The first and most important guideline is to add value. Social networks are full of content that is inane, mindless, or actively harmful, and we don’t need another voice to join that chorus. Shed light on something you understand that others don’t. Tell a good story that motivates or inspires people. Create a packet of insight that others can take and use in their own work.

Second, don’t @mention people in the thread itself. This will result in them getting notifications for every reply, potentially far into the future. You don’t want to burn people like that. They know who you are. If you want to bring them into the conversation, quote-retweet the tweet that is most relevant to them, add a question or request and their handle, and allow them to decide whether to jump in.

Third, don’t make the thread more than 15–20 tweets long, since your followers will be flooded with them all. Make sure that every tweet in the thread is necessary and adding value to your point, otherwise you’ll lose followers instead of gaining them.

Fourth, start every tweet with the same number format, to make them easy to identify and search for in the future. Common options include 1/, 1., and 1).

Enjoy your romp through my imagination. Following the hyperlinks in the date for each tweetstorm will take you to the original thread on Twitter, which you can then share or discuss live. And tweet me @fortelabs if you discover anything interesting 😉

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