Zach's PEN #22: Twitter Threads

2020 Week 52: How an unlikely tool is helping me break the dam.

Dear PENpals,

Last week's weirdness (sorry) wound up being very useful for me, just as I had hoped.

There's a tendency I have to always make things bigger and heavier, never smaller and lighter, and I'm happy to say I noticed this tendency creeping into a thing that I'm intentionally doing in a different spirit, a thing that's working: This PEN.

It's a new year (and kind of a big one) and while I don't believe in New Year's Resolutions, I do believe in Year Themes... My theme for this coming year is "The Year of PRESS PUBLISH." Year themes are helpful for focusing and guiding, and "The Year of PRESS PUBLISH" will be there to remind me, whenever I come to a fork in the road, that the object is to press publish, ship it, and make another one. Repeat. Over and over again. It is not "The Year of Make Brilliance." No. That has been my default theme every year in memory and it has helped me to actually finish a tiny handful of things over 20 years.

The spirit of this theme (in addition to the ALL CAPS-NESS) is that if I make things, I will be someone who makes things. While they are likely to get better over time, that's not the focus, because that focus is not helpful to me. My intention is to honor an innate desire I've had since I was a child, to make and share things, and my focus is to not allow any judge or drill sergeant to get between me and that.

So what's going on with the PEN that led me to my little breakdown last week?

Basically, the problem I'm having is that I have a whole lot of stuff I'd like to talk/write about, it's all over the map, and it's been built up for years. I feel like the River Spirit from Spirited Away, which incidentally Louisa has watched approximately 141 times this year.

If you're not familiar with Spirited Away, it's truly amazing, and there's an oddly satisfying scene where a spirit is able to release all of its pent-up garbage.

When I allow my thinking (writing) to run down any path, it soon forks in dozens of different directions and no matter what I do, I can't seem to get to a place with any one self-contained idea in a neat little package that I can publish. I start judging it and reworking it and before I know it, I've spent more time on it than I wanted to. I start to get the dreaded sense that what I'm doing isn't sustainable and I'll run out of steam soon "like you always do" (that's that mean voice in my head I talked about last week).

So I reached out to my internet pal (and coach) Michael Ashcroft as I do most every Monday and we talked about what's causing the PEN to get heavier when it's something that I want to remain light.

Michael insisted that the PEN was working and asked how we might make it smaller, but also pressed on last week's article that I had already spent way too much time on: Explaining my teleprompter prototype. He asked "How can you 'press publish' on that? How do we get that out the door?"

What we settled on, believe it or not, was a Twitter thread.

Michael has become kind of an expert at Twitter over the past year or so, and it has been transformative for him. He taught me a little bit I needed to know about Twitter (I've had an account for a very long time but done little with it), and even with my great reservations about contributing my writing to a monopolistic walled-garden internet-hating-and-destroying company, I decided to give it a try.

There's a lot that can be said about Twitter threads, but the thing that makes a Twitter thread compelling to me is:

  • It is inherently constrained. Each tweet is 280 characters and you don't want to make an obnoxious, miles-long thread

  • It forces you to think about each point in the thread as its own atomic idea. As someone who uses outlines a lot, this has the effect of really focusing me and skipping over the blank page problem. It's also not a bad guide for writing in general.

  • Because the individual points and ideas are all atomized, there are many "points of entry" into your thread that could resonate with different groups of people.

  • It's sort of a fun game to make the thing work as a whole, unified thread, with each tweet also being able to stand alone.

  • Lastly, it's easy to press publish, get feedback, and refer back to these things later in conversation or when (God willing) I ever want to make something more substantial than a tweet thread. In short, it's kind of the perfect place to play with thoughts and ideas.

Tuesday morning, I got my prototype out the door. I pressed publish. I took all the messy, broken thoughts I had about my little teleprompter (which works and is glorious and is indeed what the world needs) and turned them into a Twitter thread. If you click the tweet below, you can read the whole thread:

By the end of the day, my baby teleprompter thread had been liked more than a hundred times, shared and retweeted more than 25 times, and here's the coolest thing: It got retweeted by both:

  1. My current favorite software developer, Conor White-Sullivan, who I didn't call out at all in the thread, and

  2. One of my favorite filmmakers in the world, Errol Morris (who I totally did call out)

Long story short: It worked. So I've done a thread every day since. Here are the threads from the other days of the week:

Wednesday: On Podcast Compression

Thursday: The Non-Coercive Pomodoro

Friday: Thinking Beyond Instant Obsolescence in Tech

Saturday: Quoteblock, a Spec for the Open Web

The best part of this is that it feels entirely sustainable. I have no shortage of these things to write about, and containing them in a thread keeps them small enough that I can do them every single day. From there, if I want to build further on these ideas, I can turn them into something more.

Twitter provides the community and the (accidental, more on that later) format to create these threads. As soon as I can get them into the system we're building at Markee, I will do that instead. But for now, I'm not going to be precious about it. Because it's working.

Merry Christmas, PENpals,



P. S. The babies got scooters for Christmas (thanks Toto and Boop). They’re very excited about them. Maybe the coolest thing about our home is that we get to have a spectacular sunset pretty much every night (or mid-afternoon, thanks daylight savings):