Lifechanging Twitter Hacks

Just about everything you've ever wanted to make better about Twitter: Digging up old tweets, silencing loudmouths, finding better stuff to read, and a bunch of other tweaks is easy like Sunday morning with this guide.

I have endeavoured in this ghostly little article, to raise the ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. I am here today, your digital Jacob Marley, to show you how you’ve been squandering your Twitter life. Bah humbug, you say? Well, we’ll see.

The Ghost of Twitter Past

“Who, and what are you?”
“I am the Ghost of Twitter Past.”
“Long Past?”
“No. Your past.”

I’m sure some consider Twitter’s gnat-like memory a feature rather than a bug but, like Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s a lot to be gained by examining the past. So let us travel back. Back to your earliest tweets that we can find. Three thousand and two hundred tweets ago.

Why 3200 tweets? It’s an artificial limit put in place by the Twitter API. If you want to go back further than that, you’ll have to speak to someone at the Library of Congress.

If you’re just looking for a Twitter search that lets you go back further than a week I suggest SnapBird. It allows you to do quick searches of a person’s timeline without even logging in to Twitter. If you do authenticate your account, you can search across all of your friends’ tweets at once.

Maybe search isn’t enough for you, though, and you want to start taking the archiving of your tweets into your own hands. One great way to do this is to create a robust personal database of all your activity on Twitter, using ThinkUp and PHP Fog. You’ll not only start archiving all of your tweets and favs from this point forward, but your 3.2k most recent tweets as well. It is a bit technical to set up, but there are instructions and a walkthrough vid, as well as an FAQ that should have you up and running inside half an hour.

But, hey, maybe you don’t want to bother archiving all your tweets in a separate database. I know I tend to suffer from Not Another Thing syndrome, and would prefer to leverage my existing applications. The Ghost of Twitter Past suggests you at least archive the tweets that are important to you in a program you already use: Email.

We’ll use a wonderful little application called If This Then That, a service that automates tasks online, to pipe all your important tweets to your email account where they’ll be auto archived. Unlike signing up for PHP Fog and ThinkUp, ifttt is just a behind-the-scenes middle man. Once you’re signed up it works with all your existing accounts (Twitter, email) rather than being a separate repository.

What tweets would you like to archive? Here are some ifttt recipes for archiving all your own tweets, anytime you’re mentioned on Twitter, and anything you favorite on Twitter. Once you have those running, set anything matching this Gmail filter to skip the inbox. There you go. You just rolled your own Twitter archive in less than 5 minutes.

Now with the past taken care of, how do we make our current use of Twitter better?

The Ghost of Twitter Present

“Spirit, tell me if @TinyTim will live.”
“I see a vacant tweet in a poor application, a username without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will be blocked.”

Having too much stuff on Twitter to read is a good problem to have, and an easy one to solve. iOS users have especially good options in Instapaper, Readability, and Read It Later, all of which have their reading list functionality built into popular Twitter clients as well as standalone reading apps. A more independent and operating system agnostic choice is Pinboard which allows you to connect your Twitter account directly to the service rather than having to use a specific, intermediary Twitter app. Once connected, any favorited tweet will automatically have its link added to your reading list.

But, for suffers of Not Another Thing syndrome, the Ghost of Twitter Present directs us back to ifttt. If you use any of the 27 applications that work with Twitter, then it’ll be easy to roll your own read it later task thinger. Otherwise we’ll lean on ye ole reliable email to function as our reading list manager. Here are recipes to have your Twitter favorites sent to your email and any tweet with a link by someone you follow sent to your email. Use this Gmail filter for favs & this Gmail filter for link tweets to wrangle them; having those tweets hit your inbox but be marked as read is probably the way to go. The downside of using ifttt as a read it later service is that, since it doesn’t unroll Twitter’s links, searching can be more difficult and brittle. The upside is that it’s easier to give a hat tip to whoever linked you to the item since their tweet is right along side the link in the email.

The Ghost of Twitter Present Part 2: Oh Shut Up

And for all those annoying tweets filling your feed that you wish you never have to see again?

Enter: muting.

Any third party Twitter client worth its salt has muting. The two Twitter applications I use, Plume for Android and YoruFukurou for Mac, offer 3 flavors of muting: by user, by keyword, and by application.

Muting by application is great for people who auto-post a lot of stuff from other applications but whose tweets otherwise interest you. I’ve never seen an interesting tweet posted from Foursquare — and I’ll never have the chance to either, because that app is muted in both of the Twitter apps I use.

Muting by keyword is great to avoid topics you have no interested in. Linsanity was driving me insane (not linsane, that is not a thing) until I muted it. Any tweets that use muted words or hashtags never appear in my timeline.

The sticky wicket is muting a person entirely. Maybe your friends really love retweeting a mutual friend who you dislike. You could block them, but you might not want to let your disinterest in that person keep them from following you or alert them to how you feel. Or maybe you’re following someone because you’re friends in real life, so you don’t want to unfollow them but the way they use Twitter drives you batty. Either way, muting the person is a great solution.

However, you probably still want to be aware when this person mentions you on Twitter or sends you a direct message. So there are two ways to keep abreast of these interactions: one is, yep, ifttt and the other is Twitter’s native email notifications.

The upside to using Twitter’s email notifications is richer emails with unwrapped links and not having to sign up for a separate service like ifttt if you haven’t already. Though the downside is you may miss a notification here and there, as Twitter can be a bit capricious about sending email notifications for mentions, though all their other notifications appear comprehensive. If having unwrapped links is more important to you, then Twitter’s notifications are the way to go — otherwise ifttt it is.

If you want to go the native notification route, check your Twitter settings and make sure you at least have mentions and direct messages checked. Then use this Gmail filter to have anything that doesn’t mention that person’s username to skip the inbox. Just replace @loudmouth with the person you’ve muted who you want to make sure to get notifications from. That way their tweet emails will hit your inbox.

If you want to go the ifttt route, use this ifttt recipe to get emailed any mention of you & use this Gmail filter to have any emails that match it skip the inbox, same as above.

Do you want just some fav or retweets notifications to hit your inbox like, maybe, those from your Twitter crushes? Make sure those notifications are selected in your Twitter settings then use this Gmail filter for favs and this Gmail filter for retweets to have anything matching that filter skip then inbox so that just those little love notes from your Twitter crushes will hit your inbox.

So-and-so is now following you on Twitter! 95% of these are for bots and SEO spammers who you couldn't care less about. But one in twenty of your new followers is probably someone you would care to be informed is now following you. To be notified of only these interesting people, reselect follower email notifications in your Twitter settings then have everything that matches this Gmail filter skip the inbox. In Twitter’s notification emails, anytime you and a new follower have mutual followers the bottom of the email says “you follow # users who follow @someone, including” so this Gmail filter has anything that doesn’t include that sentence skip the inbox. So now, the only new follower email notifications you’ll get about are for people who you have mutual friends in common with.

And finally: direct messages. I like to have all of my direct messages hit my inbox. Usually they're something that needs quick attention and if I've quit my Twitter app I want to make sure I get these messages in a timely fashion and email is the best way to ensure that. But if you'd prefer not to get direct message email notifications from anyone except the people you've muted, make sure direct message notifications are selected in your Twitter settings or use this ifttt recipe and then use a Gmail filter (native/ifttt) to have any direct message not from the person you’ve muted skip the inbox.

And you’re done! It looks like a lot but these filters take less than 5 minutes to set up. And these tips work for more than just Gmail, Outlook has a powerful rules system that not many users take advantage of (but is not easily linkable like Gmail’s filters hence my not doing it).

Now that your timeline is streamlined and your inbox is informative, using Twitter shouldn’t be troublesome. But what about moving beyond Twitter?

The Ghost of Twitter Future

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Tweets Yet To Come?”
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its cursor.
“You are about to show me shadows of the tweets that have not been tweeted, but will happen in the time before us, is that so, Spirit?”
A new tab opened in his browser. That was the only answer he received.

Twitter is not a website or an application so much as a dumb pipe social network. Twitter doesn’t always seem to know what’s best for itself, as last year it angered both users and developers with the clunky way it’s tried to leverage its platform. But because its API is so extensive and third-party application support is so rich, a host of applications are being created that are, in some cases, only tangentially related to Twitter.

There are a lot of interesting websites and applications doing things with tweets on the edges of the Twitter ecosystem. Sites like Witstream and Favestar, for keeping up with comedian’s best tweets, allow you to consume tweets more efficiently. Buffer, a tweet scheduler, allows you two produce tweets more efficiently. Storify, a WYSIWYG longform tweet builder, combines consumption and creation to let you create a narrative based on a series of tweets. And sites like This Is My Jam, a music sharing service, use your Twitter log-in to bypass creating a new account and to auto-fill follower suggestions.

But my favorite next-gen Twitter application is probably Stellar.

Stellar takes pulls from variety of services including Twitter, Youtube, Vimeo, and Flickr. You can get a lot out of Stellar whether you use all or none of these services. It works by pulling in your favorites from the various services and aggregates them. You follow other people’s favorites in flow, Stellar’s version of a timeline or newsfeed.

Because it’s an easy way to passively share and discover a lot of stuff, Stellar is like the internet’s backchannel. It’s a social service with a lot of serendipity.

Serendipity is too important to be left to chance.

When you retweet something on Twitter that’s active sharing, telling your followers “I want you to see this.” Favoriting something, while public, doesn’t show up in the timeline and isn’t often viewed by others so it ends up being used different ways by different people. Either as bookmarking as we did above, as a kudos to a Twitter crush, or, as in the case of Stellar, sharing on a service outside of Twitter.

Because of this secondary, multi-purpose favoriting on Twitter you get a much bigger mix of items on Stellar. Someone who only tweets about politics on Twitter you might find favorites not only politics but also a lot of cat videos and off-color jokes on Stellar.

Unlike email, RSS readers, and many Twitter clients, Stellar has no unread count. From follower counts to likes of an item, all the totals are kept in vague terms (e.g. few, dozens, bunches), partially due to limits of the API, partially intentionally. As Stellar’s one man dev team Jason Kottke quipped, “You cannot be the mayor of Twitter favoriting.“

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Twitter well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as @TinyTim observed, @jack bless us, everyone!

Image: Improv

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