Tech Life You've been warned

Doomscrolling at Scale

WARNING: The contents of this article might adversely affect your information consumption habits.

A few weeks back, the sitting President incited domestic terrorists to storm the Capitol, so they did. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, this was a relatively straightforward process for the insurrectionists. It was also an incredibly well-documented events thanks to both journalists who risked their lives documenting the riot, a soon-to-be elected official who – fascinatingly – live-streamed his illegal participation, and, finally, the domestic terrorists themselves who were looking to boost follower counts by posting images of their illegal acts in real-time.

The real-time nature of January 6th lent itself to observation via social media. As it became clear the domestic terrorists were breaching the Capitol, I was glued to Tweetbot, my favorite Twitter client, looking for the latest developments. Years ago, Twitter put limits on their API, effectively lobotomizing third-party clients. This meant within Tweetbot, I had to sit and wait for slow manual refreshes of the latest tweets on the insurrection. And there were a lot of tweets. It was a rapidly developing, incredibly well-documented event, and it was clear I was missing content as I sat there glued to Tweetbot waiting for my horrifically slow insurrection updates.

The obvious answer was to move either Twitter’s mobile client or move to their website. As I was at my desktop during this failed coup, I moved to Twitter’s website and remembered what I learned years ago: their website is hot garbage.

Twitter Aside: I am thankful for Twitter for banning Trump. It was three years late.

If you haven’t been to the Twitter website, go there now and tell me what you see. I’ll tell you what I see: a lack of place. There’s a promoted tweet dominating half my screen. I see some tweets from people I know, but a robot locked in a basement somewhere decided the order of this particular timeline, so I don’t trust it. The order of a timeline is defined by – wait for it – time. Not robots. Yeah, I get Twitter is trying to help by enhancing the quality of my feed. Yeah, I know it’s configurable. Still, I’d prefer if they spent their valuable cycles patrolling the feeds looking for humans actively working on toppling democracy. Thanks.

I poked around a couple of other parts of the website and was similarly baffled and lost. The Explore section is surfacing trending topics but is mostly ads. It says this section is for me, but none of these topics are click-worthy. What about notifications? This is broken into three sections: All, Mentions, and Verified. The All section is an aggregated set of notifications on things I might be interested in. Again, smooshed into time-ignorant irrelevance by the robots in the basement.

LET ME BE CLEAR WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR AT THE TIME OF THIS EVENT:

  1. I wanted to see the tweets of those I followed as quickly as possible.
  2. I was very interested in the tweets of trusted humans who were sifting through all the same stuff I saw to find the most engaging tweets.
  3. Finally, I was interested in a keyword search of ALL tweets, but I needed an effective way to reduce noise to find a signal.

After a few hours of reload misery, I remembered TweetDeck. In the back of my head, my impression of TweetDeck was it was for companies who wanted to slice and dice the Twitter firehose into different useful feeds. For example, I’m assuming that many airlines use TweetDeck to proactively do customer support when a stranded traveler tweet rages. I’ve been that tweet rager. I’ve appreciated it when the airline attempts to be helpful.

Installing TweetDeck immediately improved my information consumption. TweetDeck not only defaults to time-based ordering of my tweets, but it also refreshes automagically as it’s part of Twitter and not subject to the lobotomized 3rd party APIs. TweetDeck also provides a multi-column format where you can look at multiple feeds. I’ve since forgotten the default set-up, but it was something like my friends feed and notifications feed.

Problem solved. Real-time doom. Many columns. This is great. Really great. Except TweetDeck didn’t allow resizing columns, and the maximum width was frustratingly narrow. I’d be able to consume far more tweets if they’ve just let me make… those columns… a bit…. wider.

The question was: why was TweetDeck giving me so much space for more columns? It tortured me, so I decided to make some more columns.

OH
MY
GOD
I SEE IT

Some relevant facts:

  1. There are a lot of humans on Twitter, and they are tweeting a crap ton of both informational, opinions, and uselessness.
  2. There are (or were) talented engineers who know/knew that there are humans like me who would want to build and run advanced queries against the entire Twitter fire hose because THAT’S WHAT THEY WANTED.

They did. The ability to build and run random queries exists. You can do it in Twitter, but in TweetDeck, you can build these queries and have them presented as different columns of constantly refreshing tweets.

It looks like this:

From left to right, the columns are:

  1. My time-based friend-based Twitter feed.
  2. Notifications: likes, retweets, replies, and follows to my Twitter activity
  3. Reporters: this is a Twitter list, which is a collection of Twitter accounts that I’ve curated.
  4. Keyword search on “inauguration”
  5. Keyword search on “#BREAKING”
  6. Keyword search on “youtube.com”

Notes on these columns:

  • The list feature in Twitter has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until I saw it in the TweetDeck context to understand the value. These reporters’ tweets show up in my time-based feed, but I am often missing things in that feed. I don’t want to miss these humans tweets.
  • Simple keyword searches can be problematic because they predictably return a crap ton of results. Shortly after the President committed the impeachable offense of inciting a riot, I started a column for the “25th amendment”. This was full of noise until I discovered I could set engagement filters on the column. Only show me tweets that have at least X retweets, likes, or replies. Setting this to 5 likes immediately decreased the noise. For particular noisy settings, setting a higher engagement threshold helped a ton.
  • The “#BREAKING” search is abused a bit but has revealed some gems in the past weeks. It was that column where I discovered the rumor that the PGA would strip Trump of his PGA championship. Ya’know… because he incited a riot. On the Capitol. As the President of the United States.
  • There is a slew of other filtering options, including location, language, and a bunch of different knobs and dials to allow crisp filtering of your columns. Go explore.

At a time where, well, shit is going down, I am thankful for TweetDeck. A side effect of my newly found doomscrolling at scale are the columns which are not filtered by my friends. The keyword search columns are regularly showing me opinions I disagree with, lies designed to terrify, and other popular tactics of those who are more interested in fear than facts. I mute some. I block others.

However, I am discovering brand new humans. Who are fired up and good to go. I’m in awe of the work of journalists seeking and reporting the truth. There have been some good Bernie memes, too.

My doomscrolling has calmed since the inauguration. Nothing is fixed, but we are heading in the right direction. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve noticed the tone has been uncharacteristically political. That’s not changing. One of the many lessons I’ve learned over the past four years is the seductive power of lies. I’ll be using every tool at my disposal to remind everyone of the power of the truth.

You’ve been warned.

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3 Responses

  1. Joshua 6 months ago

    Now you can update to TweetBot 6 and get push notifications with the subscription

  2. I deeply love Tweetdeck and is the only reason I still use Twitter. I make good use of the Lists feature and filter out a lot of nonsense. Like following gamers and removing every instance of “Twitch.tv” to get what they’re saying, not when they go live.

    It’s so powerful and lovely. I live in fear of the day Twitter remembers they own Tweetdeck and try to ruin it in the same way they have the rest of the ecosystem.

  3. Tweetdeck is definitely a solution for as-it’s-happening-shit-is-going-down noise filtering but for keeping an eye on topics long term I designed a side project which has been quietly filtering the half a billion tweets per day into more manageable digests. Perhaps you’ll find it useful too.

    I promise not to be offended if you feel you should delete this comment as shameless self promotion, but I honestly think it relevant: http://www.theHerdLocker.com