Twitter recommendations

Back in February 2012, when I was still on my prolonged hiatus from this here site, my lovely friend Lisa Parrish posted a list called “Things that are supposedly great that I didn’t like at all.” As a rule, I wasn’t even commenting at that point, but she almost dragged me out of lurker status with her #3:

3. Twitter

People I love and respect insist that there is a way to use Twitter that will enrich my life. But I seriously cannot stand looking at Twitter pages. All those shortened words, hashtags, indecipherable responses to others who have tweeted at peopleā€¦ WHAT-EVER! I hate it.

Which elicited a string of uh-huhs and amens from a lot of smart people I really like and who I’ve often wished were on Twitter. (Some of you are probably reading now, though Lisa, I understand, is under deadline and on hiatus here herself these days.) So, consider this a late entry in the comments section to Lisa’s original post. I’m also offering it in response to Jeremy’s request for a list of my favorite Twitter feeds. I don’t expect to convert anyone, but if you’ve never really given it a try, it’s not too late and here’s my take on why and how it works for me. (See also. And.)

New-York-CityI started using Twitter three or four years ago as part of my collaboration with Cyrus Patell on our New York history and literature courses and publishing projects. We’d been blogging re: those projects and to supplement our Writing New York course since 2007 and at some point Cyrus thought it would be a good idea to attach a Twitter feed to our site. I ended up being the one to drive it, though, using it to network with a bunch of other New York history bloggers and Tweeters. I found it to be a great way to spread the word about things we were doing, a way to cultivate an audience for bigger projects, but also a really convenient way to find out about cool things going on, to filter the Internet according to topic. We followed a bunch of like-minded people, and so we kept ourselves informed and networked when it came to people who did and cared about the same stuff we did.

What really won me over, though, happened more organically, as Twitter started to become more central to our teaching. I noticed that a decent number of our current and past students followed us, allowing our discussions to exceed temporal and geographic boundaries, but also providing a means by which students could talk back to us, even during lecture, either to ask questions, to argue additional points, or to supplement what we were saying with links to related material. I also noticed that I liked the sensibility of those students who chose to interact with us and each other on this additional level. They created a backchannel of conversation about the class that became a very important part of my own connection to the material and to this subset of students. Many of them remain among my favorite Twitter friends, though the course is suspended while we’re both abroad and the blog moribund for the moment.

At some point I rewarded myself for making a writing deadline by opening up my own account, which I’ve tended to use less for my own professional activities (though I’ll occasionally let some early American lit slip through or use it to participate in Twitter conversations at academic conferences) than I use it to track other interests — music and art, especially — but also current events. It wasn’t hard to build a list of music writers and fans and WFMU DJs whose interests I shared and who consistently provided great recommendations, links to cool stuff, or occasional geekouts over something old or new. I intially gathered a great set of art feeds by reading along and occasionally participating in the Twitter conversation about the first season of Work of Art. Twitter was the only thing that made the show bearable. Once I had material from art people coming through my dashboard each day I realized how much this service was keeping me in touch with interests I had just been too busy to track or participate in otherwise. (I also noticed, over time, that I was more and more drawn to those interests professionally than I was to literary studies, which is how I’ve ended up teaching Warhol and getting ready to write a book about late-20c art and culture in New York, but that’s another story.) With enough information coming in, Twitter starting reminding me of the annoying emails you get from that one aunt, linking to something completely mindless, except for the fact that on Twitter you get to choose who sends you those recommendations. If you don’t like the recs, just unfollow. It’s your choice.

Eventually, I noticed that Twitter was changing my relationship to my neighborhood. I followed my favorite bookstores, galleries, shops, and bars and before long found myself drawn more tightly into their orbits, attending and eventually giving readings at McNally, picking up recommended titles, exchanging jokes with their Twitter folks, and, most importantly, establishing personal relationships in the store. Over the last couple years I’ve made a decent number of IRL connections with people I initially encountered on Twitter. It’s another way the platform seems to me to be superior to Facebook, which depends primarily on pre-existing social relations among “friends.”

So how do you make the Twitter machine work, ye unbelievers? A couple tips off the top of my head.

  1. Follow things you care about, starting with people and institutions you already know you like. Don’t follow celebrities unless you like the personality they project on the feed. Don’t be upset if people don’t follow you back, especially at first.
  2. Follow enough feeds that when you open your client (either on your desktop or your phone) it feels like you’ve walked into a noisy room, not a space where any one voice is shouting over everyone else. It takes a while to strike a balance, but I found that I didn’t really get how it worked until I was following around 200 feeds. To find cool accounts to follow, I initially browsed what others were following and just followed a bunch that struck me as interesting.
  3. Regard Twitter’s noisy atmosphere as an ambient field. A student used that metaphor once and it’s always made sense to me. Don’t feel obliged to read everything: you can’t! Just dip in and out. If someone really wants you to see something they’ll tag you in the message, the same way they do on Instagram. Engage with Twitter the way you would email or Facebook — while you’re waiting for an elevator, on the train, taking a stress break from writing or grading — whatever. And just see what your people are talking about. It’s more fun than those things, I promise.
  4. As you get your feet wet, don’t be afraid to engage someone in conversation or to offer a witty reply to something someone says. Maybe warm them up by favoriting or retweeting something particularly neat that they say first. People who get tons of those replies aren’t going to interact with everyone, of course, but you might be surprised. And people appreciate being favorited or retweeted, even if they don’t tell you so. [A note re: conversations. If you begin your tweet by mentioning someone’s Twitter handle — @_waterman, for example — the only people who follow you who will see that tweet are people who also follow the person you’re talking to. This means that most conversations happen in smaller circles than your general tweets and can only be seen by subscribers who follow both parties — unless someone’s specifically browsing your entire feed.]
  5. Don’t go private. Part of the fun is to allow networks to emerge as you realize who you follow who’s connected to someone else and people start to find and follow you. Still, always assume that your parents or siblings or students will find you. If you’re an academic, that means never saying anything disparaging about your students on social media, period.

These aren’t carefully considered or exhaustive rules. I’d love to follow up on them in comments if you have feedback or other experiences. Here’s a useful set of further discussions about how and why academics should use Twitter, which is a topic I’m interested in, but only a small part of why I enjoy the service.

As for the recommendations I promised Jeremy, I’ll group them into categories. I follow over 1000 feeds, and I can’t list everything I love or pay attention to on a daily basis, so I’ll offer a limited number per category in case you care about some of the same things I do. For the most part I’m listing individuals who use Twitter as something more than just providing spillover links to their blogs or other sites. As a rule of thumb, though, I subscribe to Twitter feeds for any blog I regularly read that has a Twitter attached. And individual sections of the Times (but not the main feed, which is just too much traffic). That way I get headlines or notices when new material goes up. Basically, if I don’t encounter it on Twitter first I’m probably not going to read it.

Art and architecture:

@cmonstah – Carolina Miranda, who runs the LA-based art blog C-Monster. Formerly in New York. My favorite all-around art world voice.
@kiangaellis – Self-described art evangelist Kianga Ellis. Organizer, networker, publicist, collector. I like Kianga and most of the stuff she champions.
@bhoggard – We’ve listed Barry Hoggard’s site ArtCat in our blogroll from the beginning of TGW. It’s now on hiatus and Barry, with his partner James Wagner, has launched an online art mag, Idiom. Another collector and art world observer whose eyes I trust.
@starwarsmodern – Sculptor John Powers. Tweets about contemporary art with an art historical emphasis and sense of humor, both of which I appreciate.
@cthon1c – Architecture critic Philip Nobel, who tweets about a lot more than just buildings.

Music (really hard to narrow down):

@alexrossmusic – You know him. The Rest Is Noise.
@robsheff – You know him, too.
@jennpelly – Pitchfork’s go-to person on the Brooklyn scene. One of my favorite young music writers. Keeps me up to date.
@brandonstosuy – Pitchfork elder statesman, formerly Stereogum. Also an authority on the downtown scene.
@dmandl – Host of WFMU’s World of Echo and general all-around goodfella. Freeform commentator.
@jodyrosen – Slate’s music critic. Has better taste than just about anyone.
@mountain_goats – John Darnielle, one of the music world’s nicest guys, one of Twitter’s most enjoyable feeds.
@sfj – Sacha Frere-Jones. In the know.
@slarkpope – A Twitter generalist, really, but so many good music recommendations, generally linked to his Tumblr, that I’m filing him here.
@wfmu – Of course.


@ubuweb – Inroads to the best website on the Internet.
@kg_ubu – Founder of same. MoMA’s current Poet Laureate. Uncreative writer.
@caleb_crain – Not just lit. A great filter for worthy journalism, and a careful observer, too.
@melvillehouse – One of the best feeds from an indie publisher. Mostly due to @theunread‘s sense of humor. Formerly the reason @mcnallyjackson had such a great feed.
@wwnorton – One of the best feeds from a major publisher. Mostly due to @pkay225‘s sense of humor.
@colindickey – Writes about gross, cool stuff. And apparently is now doing phrenology readings in the greater LA area.
@michaelbarthel – Maybe you used to read his blog, Clap Clap. I did. Now he’s a PhD student & one of my favorite general commentators on pop culture.
@rachsyme – Formerly culture editor at Daily Beast, now an F. Scott Fitzgerald obsessive.
@adamgolub – American Studies. And stuff.
@epicharmus – Michael Daddino’s projects are always worth following.
@maxfenton – Tech, culture, cool stuff in general. Online editor for The Believer. I also like his @maxisreading account.
@DearTelevision – If you watch TV, especially Mad Men, you should be reading this feed & their blog at LA Review of Books.


@mikedrucker – Maybe the funniest feed I follow.
@maggieserota – Funny.
@trontFormerly WFMU. Still funny.
@LibyaLiberty – Should probably be filed under politics, but it’s politics with a dose of droll humor, which is how I like my politics.


@WarholLives – Daily bits from The Andy Warhol Diaries.
@johncagebot – The only way this could be better is if Twitter read these aloud to you in Cage’s voice.
@tweetsofgrass – A handful of lines a day from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
@everyword – Exactly what it sounds like.

My New York recommendations, some of which overlap with the above, are listed here. A more comprehensive list of academic lit/history feeds I follow can be found here.

Leave your own suggestions below.

Image: Twitter traffic map of NYC, Jan. 2012, via @AnimalNY.



13 responses to “Twitter recommendations”

  1. Bryan says:

    Afterthought: If you just look at people’s Twitter profile pages, it’s like listening through a wall rather than being in the room. From the inside, with multiple voices coming from all directions, it’s a little more like Narnia. So use those links to profile pages mostly to snowball a list of feeds that also look interesting.

    I’m interested to know if any of the detractors among us ever followed more than 150 feeds or so. I’m not sure how you could get a sense of the energy of it following fewer than that.

  2. Smearcase, Mr. says:

    I am following 87 people and I still just look at it and my eyes glaze over. I think it’s the lack of threading maybe. It’s like being at a party and 87 or 150+ people all walk by and say something while engaged in other conversations. Somehow the threading on facebook mitigates that.

    I don’t know who some of the people I am in a relationship of mutual following with are. Some people I just need to ditch….Mindy Kaling is funny. Her twitter persona has a bad ratio of funny to not. When people tweet a link, I almost never follow. Yes, yes, I grew up with the jump cuts of MTV but I am a lousy multitasker.

    Mostly, though, what I can’t get on board with is the eleven-layer referentiality of everything. My friend D constantly links me to something hilarious on twitter only it turns out you would have to spend about an hour following things back to know why it was funny, and it exhausts me.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean for this to be a “no, I still don’t like twitter.” I could try adding 63 more people, I guess.

  3. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Hey Bryan, this is great. I’ve been waiting several months for you to do this. And I’m going to start following these recs. And I’m going to give Twitter a more fair shake. I still find it such a fascinating concept. Its possibilities are really thrilling. But up until now I’ve just been following a few comedians and music critics and a few friends. Your list is exciting. Thanks! That was a lot of work.

    Like Smearcase, I am a bit skeptical. As much as I want to dip into a pulsing “ambient field,” I generally get a feeling of disorientation and boredom every time I open the app. And then there’s the follow/following ratio on Twitter which seems to create two classes of users among the Twitter population which I find kind of off-putting. Like the popular kids in high school and all the rest of us. I have a lot of prejudice to overcome. But I’m going to try!! (although I don’t think I’ll ever get up to following 200+) Still, I’ll add these for sure and get back to you about my outcome.

  4. Bryan says:

    I get the points you both make about disorientation. It doesn’t work like a comments thread on Unfogged — but you can open up the “conversation” link and see the conversation at one glance if you want to. Also, re disorientation vs ambient field — I think I experience it more, when I open the client and scroll through the last hundred or so tweets that have come through — to think about taking it all in at a glance. Where are the keywords? Is there something going on that cuts across a lot of what’s coming through? Or does a voice I particularly like have something new to say? I often scroll through recent tweets just kind of looking for avatars of someone I’m really interested in hearing from at that moment. I feel no obligation to read everything, and if someone consistently annoys or disappoints me, drop them.

    I don’t follow many celebrities. They have to be very good at it or have lives that actually seem interesting. Most celebrity tweeting (politicians, too) is pretty awful.

    If you’re bored, though, that suggests you’re just not picking enough of the right stuff. It’s opt-in, so you only have to follow things that interest you. It also makes a difference, I’m sure, that I put all my news feeds into Twitter — so the sections I care about from the Times and a couple other papers, some regional stuff here (Al Jazeera English, Al Arabia, etc.) — that means I almost never open up the Times site directly. And it’s been years since I used the Times app on my phone. I never go to Pitchfork directly — I just link to items from writers I like or link through from headlines that seem interesting. If you populate your feed with the things you already check routinely, it really simplifies things. Dave may be right that it’s not quite as efficient as a feed reader, but it’s more social, which to me seems more fun.

    Re: the class comments Farrell brings up — my sense is that people who are active and interact with others with interesting things to say (and especially to recommend) generally pick up followers pretty quickly. It just takes a few solid RTs from someone who has a bunch of followers. I don’t think of it as much of a contest — I have relatively few followers compared to a lot of people I follow — but I get the sentiment. Some of the coolest people I follow, though, have relatively small followings, and in those moments I feel like I’m actually in on something kind of special.

    I did just talk to someone whose feeds I recommended to you all who tells me he doesn’t really like it and feels like he has to do it as work, to keep up a public profile, and to usefully network his projects. But he described Twitter as having a signal to noise ratio that he found annoying. I guess I work well with noise in the background. (In fact, I know I do.)

  5. Bryan says:

    Would it make sense to think about Twitter functionality as having two sides: it’s great for people who like to consume a lot of information, or don’t mind sifting through some noise to find some good stuff, but it also may require a predilection for performance, for putting yourself out there?

  6. Bryan says:

    Also, the idea of balancing your follows with your followers is kind of overrated. It may take a while for one to catch up with the other, but seriously, I don’t see how it *couldn’t* be boring with fewer than 200 feeds. That’s just not enough stuff coming through the pipeline.

  7. jeremy says:

    Hey, BW. Thanks for this. I’m gonna give it a shot, too. I promise!

    But, hold on a sec. Do your students really tweet to you (or whatever it’s called) during your lectures?!

  8. Dave says:

    I currently follow 136 tweeters, and it’s a lot. A few of those are pretty verbose, and some of them are people I know IRL who don’t really tweet much.

    One of several things I enjoy about Twitter is when people tweet links to interesting stuff I wouldn’t have read otherwise. Not everyone’s links are worth following, but you figure out whose are. And then it works like blogs used to, when you could find a good blog that would take you to awesome corners of the internet you never knew existed.

  9. Bryan says:

    Would love to hear if any of you has additional recommendations. Your core crew? The people who, as Dave says, seem to have secret keys to the best, weirdest corners of the Internet? I think I’m going to have to set up a Twitter list that includes the 200 or so people whose tweets I’d prefer not to miss. One thing that sucks about already following 1K+ is that I’m less inclined to follow people back these days. New blood is kind of a necessary thing to keep it fresh.

    p.s. the TGW feed is broken. For some reason it doesn’t tweet when new posts go up.

  10. Dave says:

    It’s worth following @zunguzungu, who is connected to an interesting crowd. For links to odd corners of the intellectual internet, his “Sunday Reading” posts at The New Inquiry are hard to beat.

  11. Bryan says:

    I’ve been following him the whole time I’ve been on. I can’t remember how I found him: was he an Unfogged/EOTAW regular? And you’re right: the whole New Inquiry crew is worth following. Another one I can’t believe I overlooked: @vol1brooklyn and its chief @imjasondiamond — great for lit/music and organizers of great lit events in NYC.

  12. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Hey Bryan,

    Guess what? It HAS been more interesting since I added all of those feeds you listed. Pretty fun! I actually wish you’d posted more suggestions. Also, I wish Dave would mention a few more of his faves. I’m sure there’s more than just @gungugungu. C’mon Dave! And anyone else out there want to add something good? Someone funny?

  13. Bryan says:

    I love that you just added all those. Bless you. I’m sure you’ll find some that don’t interest or work for you and just drop them. I also find that publications with good content are worth a link, especially if you forget to toggle over there otherwise, so I appreciate getting updates from @LAReviewofBooks and places like that. Funny: try @xlorentzen, who’s maybe more droll than funny, but I think you’ll like stuff he writes about. @dankois is the guy who wrote the great expose of our friends’ DC book group. He’s funny and smart. Of course I like getting headlines from @theonion. Music recs with sharp sense of humor: @robhatchmiller.