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How I transformed Twitter from a hell site into something fun again

Twitter needn’t be a horror show – the magic of lists can save it

When you work alone in a home office, it’s all you can do to stop yourself from having entertaining conversations with passing spiders. On that basis, Twitter was a lifeline. Its tendency towards brevity stopped me from getting sucked into lengthy threads on web forums, and yet the ability to directly swap messages with others made it feel like office chat – albeit office chat between people oddly limited to a handful of words per utterance.

But it slowly turned into hell. It wasn’t so much a single switch being flicked as multiple switches being transformed into nails and driven deep inside my skull. Toxic politics combined with Twitter’s engagement-obsessed algorithm morphed the service into doomscroll central. Instead of spending five minutes on it for a refreshing break, the merest glance could send me spiralling to the point I wanted to curl up into a little ball and ignore the world forever.

You might argue Twitter was always awful and that someone has clearly glued rose-tinted spectacles to my face. Nope. Using Twitter’s own search functionality, you can view an approximation of your own timeline from a decade past. Unless you were a pioneer in making Twitter awful yourself, you’ll find it was a very different place – a much better place.

You might alternatively argue the problem is down to Twitter messing with the timeline, like Doctor Who on a bender; but even if your posts were all displayed in strict reverse-chronological order, chances are the experience will still be awful. That’s because it’s about what you’re reading, not when it appears in front of your eyes. Fortunately, a modicum of control can largely eradicate the horror.

I’d experimented with Twitter lists before, but Twitter’s own system doesn’t scale. Once you follow hundreds of accounts, it takes forever to assign them to any lists you make. Enter Twitter List Manager, which you can use to quickly view a list of who you follow and use the magic of checkboxes to assign them to one or more lists. (I’m hoping this isn’t a front for a nefarious type to surreptitiously take over my account and use it to post terrible claims that the Amstrad CPC was better than the ZX Spectrum, but all seems fine so far.)

I decided on three lists. The imaginatively named Work is for accounts I follow that are useful for my writing here on Stuff and elsewhere. Politics is reserved for people posting Very Important Things™, but that need siloing for when I’m feeling masochistic because that side of Twitter is relentless and makes me sad. The final list, Filter, is the good stuff, for accounts and people that bring me joy.

What I didn’t expect is how immediately transformative half an hour of faffing on Twitter List Manager would be. I now live in the Filter list and Twitter has become fun again. If someone posts 500 tweets in a row about Boris Johnson, I remove them from Filter and dump them in Politics. For those rare few accounts where I want to see everything, I follow them in RSS client NetNewsWire, whereupon their posts nestle alongside feeds from news sources I care about.

I thought Twitter was a lost cause, but it’s not. Social networks – and I’d count YouTube among them – are like an angry tree that needs pruning. Hack it back and it can be beautiful again. But let its algorithm dictate everything you see and its roots will blaze their way through your very being while a pointy stick painfully pokes you in the eye until the end of time.