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How I am using Twitter as a social learning platform

Lorenzo Bernaschina

For nearly a decade, I have seen Twitter as a chaotic place designed for politicians and breaking news. I finally realized that it can be a powerful tool to improve personal thinking and encourage serendipity. Since it is based on the written word, Twitter is the perfect place to share ideas and engage in global conversations about your favorite topics. To make this happen, I started doing 3 simple things:

  1. I only follow people who share value in their tweets. Depending on the profiles you follow, the platform can easily throw dust in your eyes by proposing irrelevant content. It takes an active effort to prevent this from happening, especially at the beginning. I spent a couple of hours to clean up my following list. I unfollowed mainly institutional and brand profiles. A few days later, the Twitter algorithm started recommending quality content albeit with some limitations I will discuss later.
  2. I use the “Advanced search” feature to find new profiles and information instead of waiting for them. “Advanced search” is as powerful as it is underrated. You can filter content for words, accounts, dates, and engagement parameters like the minimum number of retweets. It gives you full control over what to see to escape algorithms' recommendations for a moment.
  3. I look for tweets about timeless ideas and truths rather than daily news and facts. This is the most important thing to do for peace of mind.

Before these changes, I rarely opened the app. I used to do it in the downtime, like waiting on the subway. Now I enjoy harvesting new ideas and inspiration. It's fun to browse a feed full of insights.

Social networks can make us smarter

Social learning theory states that most of our beliefs and behaviors are influenced by those of the people around us. It is particularly difficult for Westerners to accept. Our culture is based on the assumption that human beings are individuals with rationality and free will. For this reason, we believe that independent decision-making handles all good and bad decisions. Although this model worked quite well in the past, in a much less connected and dynamic world, it is no longer enough to explain financial crashes and social and political movements like the Black Lives Matter or the Arab Spring.

Social interactions are as much important as individual thinking at shaping our ideas and behaviors.

Social learning is based on idea flow, that is, the way ideas spread in a social network. Idea flow is made by:

  • an exploration phase when people harvest new ideas and information
  • an engagement phase when the continuous exchanges between people change their behavior

The above techniques focus on the former which requires diversity and independence of sources to produce good results. People with low interaction do not take advantage of the opportunities provided by the network. At the same time, people who interact too much with each other become trapped into echo chambers.

When I feel that all the people in my network are going in the same direction, it's a sign that there is not enough diversity in my sources of information. So I start exploring more to connect with new perspectives. Groupthink is dangerous but it's hard to be aware of it when it happens. Each person can say the same things differently, not making them perceive as repetitions.

Twitter seems to do very little to mitigate this risk. Rather I have noticed that even a slight increase in interaction with some profiles is enough to get notifications when they tweet something new or to find them more frequently in my feed. Again, one way I have found to escape algorithms is to actively search for new profiles and tweets with the “Advanced search” feature.

From a broader perspective, idea flow is determined by these factors:

  • the variables of a social network structure, such as its relationships
  • the strength of social influence between people
  • individual susceptibilities to new ideas

By changing them, the quality of social learning can improve for all members of the network. Through incentives, under-engaged people could interact more with others, and echo chambers could be avoided. This would ensure a positive level of idea flow for everyone. I hope Twitter will invest more in algorithms and features to encourage these kinds of interactions. I would pay for such a service.

Some information is based on “Social Physics” by Alex Pentland which I have read and recommend (no affiliation).

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