Choosing Who to Follow

17 minutes, 29 links


Updated January 28, 2020
Using Twitter

I mute the nitpickers, block the outraged, like the kind, follow the insightful.Naval Ravikant (@naval), founder, AngelList and Epinions, investor*

Who you follow matters. The thoughts, likes, and retweets of those you follow will make up nearly the entirety of your timeline. Beyond that, who you follow will determine the recommendations you see, the ads you’re exposed to, the content that percolates into your mind and shapes your opinions and points of view.*

Have Criteria

Have at least loose criteria on who you want to follow. It can be as simple as “people who make me laugh,” “people who help me question my deeply held beliefs,” or “people with insider information and interesting insights.”

Some questions to ponder as you develop the list of people you follow:

  • Who is saying things I agree with?

  • Who is saying things I disagree with?

  • Who is saying things that nobody else is saying?

Always follow people in each category. This will help steel man your own beliefs and expose you to new ideas.

I try to follow people who demonstrate sincere curiosity, willingness to share, have signs that they’re playing a long game, and are open to criticism and admit when they’re wrong.Visakan Veerasamy (@visakanv), co-founder, JIBABOM!*

Favorites and Industry Leaders

If you have favorite authors, podcasters, thinkers, or creators, look them up on Twitter. Often, Twitter is a great space for these people to write short insightful bits in between their long-form work. Following people you admire on Twitter can lead you to other interesting people and ideas. They will often retweet, share, or like the work of other community members, providing you intel about prominent or thoughtful people in your field. This can unveil entire communities you didn’t know existed, and concepts you’ve never pondered.

Following people whose work or career paths you respect can be a form of mentorship. Often they’ll share insights into their process, mistakes they’ve made along the way, how they’ve gone from early career to industry leader. Follow these individuals and pay close attention.

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Following industry leaders—whether or not they are your favorites—is also a good way to stay informed about what’s happening in your field by following some of the figures who are often at the center of industry news. Here are a few examples of people considered community leaders:

  • If you’re a product designer. Charli Marie (@charliprangley), Marketing Design Lead at Convert Kit, has a YouTube Channel about design and belongs to “Design Twitter”

  • If you’re a community builder. David Spinks (@DavidSpinks), Founder of CMX is part of “Community Management Twitter”

  • If you’re interested in cryptocurrency. Jill Carson (@jillruthcarlson), the co-host of the What Grinds My Gears podcast, co-founder of the Open Money Initiative, and a Principal at Slow Ventures, is part of “Crypto Twitter”

By continually honing your own professional skills and taking part in sharing your ideas with the wider community, you’ll reach a point where you’re viewed as a leader both in your wider professional community and its subsection on Twitter. There may come a point where you become someone whose work and expertise is appreciated, and your heroes become your peers.

Now I’m at a more mature stage of my career, and I have a pretty strong community of people around me, including some of the brilliant, well-known people I admired from afar when I was younger. It’s pretty surreal, in a lot of ways.Jackie Luo (@jackiehluo), software engineer, Square*

caution While following industry leaders can give you great perspective and insights into the industry, being a “leader” sometimes means “having a lot of followers.” It’s important to remember that a high follower count can lead to an individual developing a persona and posting what they believe people want to hear. Absorb what you find valuable but take everything with a level of skepticism. Here are a few things that should create doubt:

  • Complex language. The best people to follow have a way of simplifying complex concepts in the style of the Feynman Technique. If you’re following people whose tweets use overly complex language, don’t automatically assume you’re ignorant. Instead, entertain the idea they may not know the subject matter well enough to communicate clearly.

  • Black and white thinking. People who speak in extremes are generally oversimplifying something complex. You would be wise to assume that what they’re discussing actually has many shades of gray. Twitter’s algorithm amplifies extreme rhetoric and these tweets will often have high engagement. Don’t be persuaded by lots of retweets and likes. Exploring nuance on Twitter is less likely to gain the tweeter as much attention as a bunch of hot takes. However, people who speak in a measured manner are often the ones you’ll learn the most from.

  • Fawning praise. Everyone praising and sharing the same article, tweet, or product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good and you should do the same. Be suspicious if you read superlatives like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read on X,” or, “I’ve never seen X this well articulated.” Often this is simply people signaling they belong to a particular community and keep up with the latest developments. In the same vein, it’s important to be cognizant of relationships: close friends of an author will provide high praise of their friend’s book and a venture capitalist will hype up (or defend) a company in their portfolio. Take care to read and investigate things before you share them. Often sharing something, while also highlighting the tensions you see, is more impactful than jumping on a praise bandwagon.

Uncover Interesting People

The first step is following people you find interesting and starting to engage by commenting and replying to tweets—that way you start to find your voice. Pay attention to what kind of tweets you (and others) enjoy reading, and what kind of formats work well.Arianna Simpson (@AriannaSimpson), founder and Managing Partner, Autonomous Partners*

When you first start using Twitter, you’ll often follow people you’re familiar with. Spend enough time on the platform and you’ll find more and more people you’ve never heard of that are worthwhile to follow. Finding interesting people can be done a number of ways:

  1. Look up who the people you follow follow. If there’s a Twitter user whose insights you find valuable, navigate to their profile and click on “X following,” with X being the number of people they follow. If you take the time to investigate this list, you’ll find who they find interesting and can increase the amount of astute people you follow too.

  2. Browse the likes of interesting people. Check the “likes” on the profiles of people whose tweets you enjoy. Often following these chains is what leads to finding communities of people who are all loosely or tightly interlinked in some way or another.

  3. Step outside your bubble. Be careful not to be too submerged in a bubble. If someone you respect names someone they heavily disagree with about something in your field, you might follow that person too. It will help you avoid insular thinking. Professional growth spawns from personal growth, and it’s interesting where you can land with shifts in your thinking.

I follow people who are interesting on Twitter. I think a huge mistake for new Twitter users is following people you think you’re supposed to follow—well-known industry people, famous celebrities, et cetera. None of that means that their tweets will be good! Obviously, that presents its own problem. If you’re new, and you’re supposed to find people to follow, where do you start? My advice is to find one person with excellent tweets (whatever that means to you) and then find people they follow, and go from there.Jackie Luo (@jackiehluo), software engineer, Square*

Companies, Organizations, and News Outlets

While individuals will likely make up the majority of the people you follow, there’s also value in following accounts run by companies, organizations, and news outlets.

  • Following companies. Follow brands and products you admire to stay aware of what they’re doing, get inspired to think bigger about your own work, learn more about their company culture, or find out when they’re hiring. If they provide a service you use, you can also stay up to date with new releases or changes, and even ask questions in your Tweets about specific product features, tagging the company for a response. While you can also follow competitors, it’s best to use a private list for this purpose. Remember that companies use Twitter to sell and convey a positive image of their company. A company’s Twitter account is a highlight reel and most often won’t disclose negative aspects about the company.

    • It’s always a great idea to follow companies you might be interested in working for (and some of the people who already work for them); we’ll talk about that more in Finding Professional Opportunities.
  • Following organizations or projects. A little different from companies, these accounts may be non-profit entities, professional associations, or represent projects or social movements. These accounts will often give you insights into areas you’re interested in professionally or personally.

    • Venkatesh Rao’s (@vgr) account for his newsletter, The Art of the Gig (@artofgig), shares helpful advice for independent consultants.

    • 80,000 Hours (@80000Hours), a non-profit organization researching the world’s most important problems, and encouraging people to address these problems through their careers, shares their content and tangential research.

  • Following news outlets. Following publications like The New York Times or The Atlantic can free you from subscribing to their newsletter and overloading your inbox. You can find interesting stories that pop up in your timeline and save them for later reading. This can also be a good way to find content you can share on Twitter or retweet with added insights. Unfortunately, following news outlets also comes with the risk of having your timeline filled with a lot of gloomy news about the world. Consider if this is the space where you want to learn about or engage with breaking news and politics.

What’s the Magic Number?

Following too few people can reinforce a narrow point of view and keep you stuck in a monoculture. Too many people can have the same result, in which you only see a handful of those people based on engagement. Following over a 1,000 people likely means you’re missing much of the activity on your timeline.

There’s little consensus about exactly how many people you should follow. Much of the advice surrounding follower counts is related to brand and company accounts or influencers, and not particularly relevant for regular individuals.

However, there is consensus about ideal following ratio. It’s desirable to have more followers than people you follow. This is a positive ratio. The larger the ratio, the better. This serves as a signal that many people are interested in hearing from you and you’re worth following.

caution This is something you may eventually work toward, but be careful about intentionally creating or artificially inflating this number. People desperate for a positive ratio may pay for followers—which presents specific dangers to your brand and account—defollow two people for every one who follows them, or follow hundreds of people and then immediately unfollow when they get followed back. Rather, a positive ratio is often just a consequence of fame.

If you’re just getting started on Twitter, don’t try to avoid a negative ratio, in which you follow more people than follow you. In the beginning, your aim should be to hear many interesting perspectives from many people, so use the follow button liberally. As you hone your list and learn the people you want to hear from, you can unfollow people and aim for a positive ratio.

If a person has more followers than they are following, they’re probably a good person to at least consider following. If they are following more than they have followers, the opposite may be true. The greater the discrepancy between the two numbers, the more likely each of those is true.M.G. Siegler (@mgsiegler), General Partner, Google Ventures*

Use Twitter Lists

There’s very little transparency from Twitter regarding exactly how the algorithmic (where you see the top tweets) or chronological (where you see the most recent tweets) timelines on Twitter work. However, if you follow a lot of people, you’re bound to miss tweets from a number of them.

Twitter lists are an underused but powerful way to dip in and out of different Twitter universes (“#cypherpunks,” “#keto,” “#mindfulness”) while maintaining a fairly uncluttered feed. Create new Twitter lists, or follow existing ones, so you can stay up to date with a number of people without directly visiting their pages.

confusion Twitter lists are distinct from the list of people you follow. Tweets from the people on the lists you follow will not show up in your timeline unless you actually follow them.

How to use Twitter lists.

Follow Public Lists

Many interesting people create and maintain Twitter lists that you can follow and subscribe to, which can help you find new people to follow or engage with. These lists may contain people the list creator finds interesting or occupy a certain field or area of interest they want to monitor. Here are examples of lists you can follow if relevant to your professional or personal interests:

Create Public Lists

You can also create your own public lists. This will serve to congregate interesting groups of people together so you can follow their musings closely. Creating a collection of thematically-aligned individuals will also help you see common threads and observable trends. You’ll start to notice patterns like the blogs certain people curate information from, the podcasts they listen to, and crucial details like where there may be disagreements in an industry. Creating public lists also serves as curation for others. You may find people subscribing to your lists—and then following you—because they’re interested in the same kind of content as you.

Create Private Lists

If you’re wary of creating a public list, private lists are also an option. These can be helpful if you want to privately track individuals or entities without following them. For instance, you can use private lists to track competing companies and their leadership teams. Alternately, you can use private lists to track politicians and controversial figures without making that known or letting their tweets interfere with your timeline.

Gaining Your First Followers5 minutes, 5 links

If you’ve just signed up for a Twitter account or dusted off an old one, beginning to tweet can feel like shouting into the abyss. Heads up: it is. If you’re starting from zero with only a few followers, it’s unlikely your tweets will be seen or you’ll get any feedback that will compel you to keep sharing. Posting on Twitter is a positive feedback loop where positive interactions drive you to share more. Instead of starting from scratch, build a small initial following by tapping into your existing networks.

These strategies won’t net you thousands of followers, but they’ll give you an initial boost of viewership so you’re not yelling at the wind. You will hone the people you follow on Twitter over time; this is simply a starting point to get over the mental barrier of tweeting to nobody. Don’t feel bad about eventually pruning your list and deleting people.

How to follow people on Twitter.

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