The Independent Scholar's Guide to Twitter/X
On Algorithmic Publishing with Dignity
Should scholarly writers even bother writing on short-form social media like Twitter/X?
Having built a substantial little community of indie scholars over a few years now—through the course and community—I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. And I’ve seen a lot of data.
When I recently received this question for the 100th time, I figured it was time to put my answer down in writing. Including some specific details about a simple daily process that seems to work for most of us (without colonizing our minds)…
Someone recently asked me:
It definitely seems true: The algorithms seem to like culture war topics, trending topics, truculence, and formulaic copywriting much more than disinterested and erudite material. If you’re a scholarly type and you’ve tried building an audience on Twitter/X, it can definitely feel like an uphill battle.
And you know what? It is.
But does that mean we should quit publishing to such platforms?
I'm the first to admit they can have some insane psychological effects if you’re not careful, they’re generally unwholesome, defined by perverse selection effects, and uphold a tremendous generalized conformism.
But the efficiency with which an independent scholar can get his words across the desk of thousands of intelligent people is just too damn awesome to ignore.
If you’re naturally hermetic, there are private communities like the Other Life community where smart writers pay attention to each other. You can easily build a meaningful private network of interlocutors simply by contributing to such communities. I try not to shill the membership too hard, but if you’re this type of person, it’s a no-brainer.
If you’re called to develop ideas, however, it’s probably because you think the world is wrong about something, and if you think the world is wrong about something, then you probably want to change the way the world thinks, in which case… Yes, you probably should be publishing your words into the public sphere. For better or worse, these platforms are the public sphere. They have been the public sphere for the better part of a decade now. Do you really think the whole thing is a fad and soon your dinner parties will return to discussing the latest New York Times op-eds?
If you work with words and there is a place to put your words in short chunks any time of the day, and have those words possibly seen by millions of people, instantly, with no real risk or cost, you'd probably be crazy to not throw your words up there at least a few times a week, right? Even if the selection effects are terrible and your type of words are severely penalized, it’s still quite a blessing in the historical scheme of things.
For instance, I'm not huge on Twitter/X. Most of my posts "fail" relative to what avid Twitter/X users consider to be a "successful" post. But that’s not the relevant comparison.
I’m friendly with a handful of writers in the 100k to 1M follower range. They’re smart. They know what they’re doing. They know copywriting. They know branding. They know which axes to grind. They know how to do things with words. And they’re good writers in their own way. Compared to them I’m totally failing at this internet writing thing! But we’re not the same. The independent scholar is not better or worse, but we are definitely a different breed. Things take a lot of time. Things take strange paths. One of the reasons I’ve started talking more about these practicalities is because a lot of people don’t realize this. I feel like I need to tell people, show people.
The scholar cannot compare himself to the copywriters or the culture war patriots, for we are playing different games for different purposes on different time horizons. If you compare yourself to Spinoza or Rousseau or Emerson or Nietzsche, a meagre audience of only 500 intelligent readers on Twitter makes you a pretty successful independent scholar! Do you know what any of these people would have given for the ability to publish aphorisms into the pockets of 500 people at any time of day? Be grateful.
Not to mention, even a "failed" tweet may be seen by a few hundred people. That's a small auditorium! We are such greedy, mimetic creatures that we consider an audience of 200 people "too small to be worth it" simply because we see others enjoying audiences in the thousands or millions. It's still dramatically more than any of history's greatest writers ever could have accessed from the palm of their hand.
Many writers who are good at Twitter will find that their work does not cumulate into something meaningful and timeless. I'm certainly not claiming to be especially meaningful or timeless, I'm just saying that's my aspiration, my orientation. This orientation removes from the table many common growth paths. I don't really care if one post is shared widely or not. My goal is only for it to become one brick in a larger structure that may be shared widely later, and remain relevant later, than the rest. Who knows if I’ll fully materialize that structure or get lost and fail. But I know that if I’m too ruthlessly focused on writing viral posts then I will by definition get lost and fail.
So the real question, to my view, is: How can independent scholars use these platforms with dignity, in a way that cumulates meaningfully, and without falling into conformism, addiction, or distraction?
In my experience, the answer always begins with creating the simplest possible system, putting it in the smallest possible time-box, and repeating it over some defined cadence.
40 minutes a day to keep the suicidal isolation away
I try to constrain myself to a roughly 40-minute daily process of putting some words into the agora. I miss days. I am not a productivity influencer role-model. I just try to do a few things that reliably work to grow my audience a little bit, and get my writing out there, and then I put the little can of demons away. If I'm really on a roll, then I might let myself go for an hour or more. But I try to do 40 minutes every day I can.
Interact with the right people
If you want to grow on a platform, you have to play by its rules. Randomly publishing your scholarly ideas, lessons, and teachings will generally not get much traction.
Spend roughly 10 minutes interacting with writers you genuinely respect, who also write and share their work in a style similar to yours. Especially those with more followers than you (though not 10000x more than you). Follow them, leave thoughtful replies to their posts, share their work if you genuinely appreciate it, etc. If you leave a smart and non-obvious reply to a post by a popular account, you will often get more views and more new followers than you would from a new post of your own.
Also you're basically brainwashing the bigger accounts to think of you as a friend. It's crazy, but it works. Many of them will eventually follow you back, or share your work, but more immediately you are just making yourself visible to the types of people who are likely to appreciate you and nudging the algorithm to place you in their cluster. If your post does well among people in your cluster, only then is it sent to the wider world. So it’s important that you define your cluster to complement what/how you write. At least as of right now, given what we know about the now open-source algorithm. You can easily do this with the native Twitter app, or a free tool like Tweetdeck, but the best pro tool for this aspect is TweetHunter.
I maintain a list of Other-Life-adjacent writers and creators called Friendly Writers you may choose to follow and engage with (DM or email me and I’ll add you), but really you should do this in the most personalized way possible. It might take some time to find your exact people, so feel free to start here.
Go where people are looking
Spend roughly 10 minutes bringing your genuine, unique, personal angle to some Current Thing. Yes I know, it's lame to wake up and ask the false social god for your daily writing assignment, but a smart or interesting or pithy take on a trending topic will get your name and perspective out there much better than your musings on Aristotle. You should still muse on Aristotle (see below), but little things like this are actually the subtle keys to getting off the ground. It's not as bad as it sounds: Take it as a challenge! To see how versatile and general your perspective is! To bring something genuinely unique and original to a topic not of your choosing.
Tyler Cowen recently said somewhere that he gauges his fellow economists by asking them about India: It’s a bit random, complicated, and not widely understood, so it’s a good test of one’s education and originality. When you encounter the latest trending topic, test yourself: Can I say something true and non-obvious about this? Quote it or reply to it. Don't ape into the popular refrains, find an oblique angle from your own research and specific knowledge.
Learn from others
It’s not plagiarism or a lack of originality to observe and learn from others what topics and issues are finding great public interest. Try this for about 10 minutes. If someone posts about a topic in your wheelhouse and it goes viral, don't just keep scrolling. Take note. First, reply. Then whip up your own take, with your own twist, and use a free tool like Tweetdeck or a pro tool like Typefully to schedule it for a few weeks later. Put it in your own words 3 different times, with three different angles, and publish it over the next 3 weeks. This might feel a little psychotic, but if you could only see what the growth-hackers and copywriters are doing to grow fast, you’d realize I’m giving you a very modest regiment. If you think this is psychotic, you might just not be ready for the internet. Consider becoming 10% more psycho.
Share your work
Last and least, share your ideas and schedule original posts, for another 10 minutes or so. I say least because for most indie scholars, in the early days, people generally will not care about your work. Some will, and over time they should care more, but for most writers starting out, it’s not your original ideas or long-form writing that’s going to seed your network. To be clear, one excellent piece of long-form writing can absolutely get you a ton of connections and followers, but that might only be your 20th essay. If you start hoping that your ideas are so good that they will naturally travel as soon as you start publishing, you may be disappointed and discouraged.
It’s best to accept, humbly, until you observe evidence to the contrary, that nobody cares about your nerdy personal fascinations and pontifications. Embrace that. All of these other little activities around the water cooler really do work to get your project in front of your future readers and interlocutors, and to get a first handful of people noticing your project. Later, as you find your voice and style and the themes where your genuine interests intersect with public salience, one day you’ll randomly find one of your ideas going viral or one of your essays on the front page of Hacker News or whatever. You’ll get a hundred or even a thousand new subscribers and then you’ll realize: Oh, OK, that’s how this works. But the beauty of the indie scholar system is you’re not striving for these viral hits every day. You’re doing the humble and patient work of tilling your unique terrain, accumulating a body of notes and ideas that reflects one genuine, unique, personal search for the truth.
If your work is worth anything, you will be noticed and followed by some very smart people, but it will take time. Many of your posts (short-form and long-form) will go nowhere.
People love to say things like, “Nietzsche would be great at Twitter/X” but that’s wrong. He said himself, he was untimely. His aphorisms hit hard, but only much later, and only because he was zigging when his generation and its media were zagging. If Nietzsche was on Twitter/X today, he would be one of those megalomaniac incel accounts with 500 followers. I mean, he was literally a megalomaniac incel with a few hundred followers. Of course, if he were alive today, his posts would be slowly amassing into a profound body of work with far greater coherence and heft than all of the other megalomaniac incel accounts (of which there are many), but only a few people would notice. Time and history would notice eventually, but most of his peers would not. Nietzsche was, and would be today, a loser.
No, I am not promising that everyone can be a once-in-a-generation writer through patience and hard work. If your work isn’t worth anything, it will never go anywhere. All I’m promising is that, if you’re called to the scholarly vocation, this is a simple and reliable method to get your work out there, enter a community of peers, and maximize the probability that your work eventually rises to whatever level it deserves. You can’t really hope for anything more than that!
Learn from your data
To tailor your strategy, keep an eye on your analytics. Utilize tools like the Twemex browser extension to quickly explore your best posts. Even better is to use ChatGPT's data analysis tool to explore your entire archive in any number of ways (More > Settings > Privacy > Account > Download archive).
This isn't kowtowing or obsessing over metrics; it's about simple learning and understanding what resonates with your audience. You should only write interesting ideas that you really believe, there’s nothing wrong with learning from the data which subset of your authentic ideas are most interesting to others. Take your best posts and write more: expand on them, paraphrase them, riff off of them, question them, deepen them, and so on. After a few months you can even repost them directly. The overwhelming majority of your followers at any given time never saw it when you first posted it. You only need to review your data once a month or so, don’t do this daily.
Be untimely, but today
I’m no stranger to these platforms’ unsavory aspects, which are substantial, manifold, and obscure. But also, they're a tremendous gift to the public scholar, especially the independent scholar making his own way by his own wits in the marketplace. The solution is to be extra focused, systematic, and efficient. Like a cold bath, in and out. Time-box it, understand the rules, play the game a little, learn from your data, and learn from others. And remember that you're not trying to win the platform in 2023, you're trying to accumulate a body of work that will be read in 3023—you're just throwing some crumbs out there every day because it costs you little and gains you a lot.
In the course and the book, I share a more detailed look at my own little systems for doing all this. How I read and filter Twitter/X for maximum signal, how I flag and save relevant items for later, how I take notes to conveniently facilitate long and short writings, etc. See The Independent Scholar if you’re trying to improve these things.
If you’d like my answer on another question, reply to this email. I’ll only respond at length if I have something to say, but feel free to try me.