How tweet threads cured my writer's block: Twitter as a medium for sketching
Twitter is a powerful medium for sketching: a tool for fluidly developing ideas in realtime. What can we learn from its design? I think it shows us the power of 1) the right constraints, 2) low barriers to starting and finishing, and 3) a social context.
Writing is…hard. Like most aspiring bloggers, my folders of drafts and my dreams of future prolificness outweigh my actual output.
I’ve found a curious trick for getting over this hurdle, though: writing tweet threads. I’ve published many little bursts of tweets about topics I’m curious about:
- connections between change in physical architecture and software
- pondering Airtable’s macro system
- the danger of “app-ifying” spreadsheets
- digging into the history of Applescript
These are exactly the kinds of things I’d like to blog about! But somehow, I’ve found it 10 times easier to publish the tweet threads.
I can hear you groaning already. Of course tweeting is easier than writing, you dummy! Our minds are being driven into the meat grinder 280 characters at a time, as we replace deep logical thought with aphorisms and memes. Twitter is PowerPoint thinking on steroids.
But I think this dismissive response misses the point. We can’t really understand Twitter by treating it as a mediocre replacement for essays and research papers. We need to see it as a new medium on its own terms. In particular, Twitter is a medium for sketching—for playing with ideas, on the fly. Twitter is more similar to scribbling on a whiteboard or tossing ideas around at the cafe than writing a book. (By sketching I don’t mean literally just drawing; I mean any lightweight early expression of a thought.)
Why does Twitter work so well for this? Here are some of my theories:
- The right constraints: Good sketching tools provide the right limits on what you can do. Twitter’s constraints go beyond the obvious character count.
- Low barriers: Twitter makes it easy to get started. But, crucially, it also makes it easy to finish!
- A social context: Twitter provides a highly interconnected context for thinking. Should we be worried it takes it too far?
By reflecting on these properties, I think we can gain some insight not just into Twiter specifically, but also the broader landscape of tools for thinking. Let’s dive in.
The right constraints
Thinking about big new things is hard, and our brains are good at finding ways to weasel out of the job by finding something easier to do, but still plausibly productive. Unfortunately, in the early stages of sketching out an idea, such distractions abound: worrying about word choice in the last paragraph instead of writing the next one, futzing with the font size, making a new blog system instead of writing the damn blog post.
We can try to avoid these temptations, but an easier route is to simply find tools that don’t allow have the temptations in the first place. This is a key property of good sketching tools: they provide the right constraints.
Tiny, linear, atomic outlines
Let’s examine a few of Twitter’s valuable constraints.
Start with the obvious one: the 280 character limit. Twitter’s main constraint is encouraging concision. It’s hard to dwell on word choice when you have so little space to work with. Twitter’s conversational tone also helps here—I can just write like I talk, and any fancy words would seem out of place. And of course, I can’t tweak fonts and margins, which cuts off a distraction vector.
But threads complicate the story of character limits a bit. The limit isn’t really that your entire point must fit into one tweet—it’s that each of your individual points must squeeze under the limit. This provides a different useful constraint: each idea has to be wrapped in a little atomic package. I find this helpful for figuring out the boundaries between my thoughts and clarifying the discrete units of an argument.
That constraint sort of resembles the benefits of an outlining tool. But Twitter has another constraint: a thread is linear! No indenting allowed. This forces a brisk straightline through the argument, instead of getting mired in the fine points of the sub-sub-sub-arguments of the first idea. Very limiting, but simultaneously freeing.
Taken together, these constraints frame the pros and cons of the medium, its appropriate range of usage. Obviously, writing a book in a single-level outline would be foolish, but it works for a rough sketch. More interestingly, I think Twitter is useless for persuading a skeptical reader; there’s simply not space for providing enough detail and context. This is a common property of media for sketching: the initial mockup isn’t impressive enough to sway a user, even if it’s a useful tool for the internal team. I prefer to use Twitter as a way to workshop ideas with sympathetic parties who already have enough context to share my excitement about the ideas.
Perhaps there’s a general principle here: Twitter is good for sketching ideas for the same reasons it’s bad for fully developing them. You can’t accidentally start writing a book in Twitter, and that’s kind of the point.
The puzzle of constraints
In general, what are the right constraints for a sketching tool? I think this question is deeper than it seems at first glance.
You might say something like “only offer the minimum fidelity needed to convey the point,” but I think it’s not obvious how to define that minimum level. Sketching with a fat marker can prevent us from getting too detailed with our drawings; Muse, which I’ve been using for iPad sketching recently, intentionally limits your ink choices to just a few colors.
This works great for certain kinds of thinking and mockups. But for designing new interactions with animation and physics, we need a totally different class of tools with more capabilities! The line between essential and spurious depends on the goal.
Providing the right constraints isn’t always a matter of removing. It can require adding advanced capabiliites too, like this typeface design tool that uses fancy machine learning to provide a few simple knobs for controlling things like “bold.” It doesn’t let you move individual vector points, but instead lets you operate at a more natural level of abstraction.
If you’re not careful, constraints can easily damage fluidity—as Engelbart showed, tying a brick to a pencil does not yield a productive tool.
Overall, it seems that we want constraints that help keep us on track with fluid thought, but don’t rule out too many interesting possibilities. Considering both of these criteria together is a subtle balancing act, and I don’t see easy answers.
There’s a low barrier to starting on Twitter. Just click a button, type a thought, no need to spend a minute remembering how to start my blog server. Often, that first minute of friction is enough to prevent me from getting into the flow of writing.
But the more interesting phenomenon is the low barrier to finishing. On Twitter, a single sentence is a completely acceptable unit of publication. Anything beyond that is sort of a bonus. In contrast, most of my blog posts go unpublished because I fear they’re not complete, or not good enough in some dimension. These unpublished drafts are obviously far more complete than a single tweet, but because they’re on a blog, they don’t feel “done,” and it’s hard to overcome the fear of sharing.
This seems like a crucial part of sketching tools: when you make a sketch, it should be understood that your idea is immature, and feel safe to share it in that state. There’s a time and a place for polished, deeply thorough artifacts… and it’s not Twitter! Everyone knows you just did a quick sketch.
I believe that quantity leads to quality. The students who make more pots in ceramics class improve faster than the students who obsess over making a single perfect pot. A tool with a built-in low barrier to finishing makes it easier to overcome the fear, do more work, and share it at an earlier stage.
A social context
In my experience, sketching always requires a delicate dance between individual thought and collaboration. You sketch to clarify something for yourself, but also to communicate with others. I think a good sketching medium should account for both halves of the process.
Writing a blog can feel like a lonely one-way mirror: release something into the world, maybe get a few comments back and some Hacker News snark. In contrast, Twitter is a bazaar, buzzing with activity. The engagement ratio is totally different. You can easily have micro-conversations around individual points in a thread. When the same people start showing up time after time, it starts to feel like seeing acquaintances in a village. On Twitter, I write for my Twitter friends, not for some amorphous crowd.
At its best, this engagement leads to the kind of back-and-forth that characterizes my favorite kinds of sketching sessions. Ideas are in the air, it’s not clear where they came from really, they combine to form new ones in realtime. For me, Twitter does an oddly good job at simulating the thrilling creative energy of a whiteboarding session. People pop in and out of the conversation offering insights; trees and sub-trees form riffing off of earlier points.
Of course, my feeling of safety here presumes healthy engagement from other parties, a privilege not enjoyed by all. I suppose it’s kind of odd that such a globally public medium is suitable at all for sketching—it seems only possible because I’ve found safe, trusting mini-communities, defined by informal and permeable boundaries. Perhaps a more private Twitter would be even better for sketching, although it might cut out new people from entering the conversation?
In an attempt to sketch more in the blog medium, I just whipped up this blog post in a couple hours, so I don’t really have a grand conclusion. And yet I’m still hitting publish!
I’m curious to think more about the constraints/freedoms afforded by different kinds of creative tools, and whether we could get more clever with those constraints to enable new kinds of sketching. I’m especially curious about kinds of sketching which are only possible thanks to computers, and couldn’t have been done with paper and pen. Paper and pen are great tools, but what else is out there?
I guess I’ll try to keep sketching more freely on the blog about ideas like this. Click one of the subscribe links below if you’d like to see my future writing on this sort of thing. And if you have thoughts to share, send me an email or a tweet!
If you enjoyed this post, here are some people who have written/spoken about related topics in much greater depth and eloquence than I have here:
- Drawing dynamic visualizations, by Bret Victor
- How can we develop transformative tools for thought?, by Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen
- Capstone, a tablet for thinking by Ink & Switch