Everything was going swimmingly for me when I registered for Facebook. Old friends found me, and I found them. But then I got my seventh friend request—from an enemy.
Life is baffling enough without having to think about whether to accept an offer of Facebook friendship from somebody who doesn’t like you—and whom you don’t like—so I stopped using my account. I ditched all of my “friends,” except my wife, and nowadays I fire up the account strictly as a universal directory to locate folks who can’t be found any other way.
My relationship with Twitter has never been as fraught, probably because being “followed” as opposed to “friended” is more psychologically neutral. I’m used to being followed by my enemies. The minimalism of Twitter also appeals to me—I fear the day its developers improve it so you can use it for CAD/CAM and to build PowerPoint decks. It gets to the point in 140 characters, out-Hemingwaying Hemingway. Unfollowing somebody who has become an annoyance is a one-click job. Another plus: Folks can’t put their vacation photos directly on Twitter. Yet.
What I like most about Twitter is how it connects me to some of the smartest and funniest people in the world. For me, Twitter is a personalized RSS feed. When working on a breaking story, I always reserve a corner of my two screens for the pertinent tweets of people who follow the news even more closely than I do.
Most of the 349 Twitter accounts I follow have something to do with the media business, although I confess to following a few civilians. I suspect that only around 200 of those accounts tweet more than twice a week, which still makes for a thick stream of bite-size quips. Whenever TweetDeck overflows with messages, I go through and unfollow a dozen people. First on my list are the hashtag half-wits who get off on tweeting “funny” titles in response to prompts like #sitcomnovels and #geriatricnoir. Guys, these gags are as funny as a double acrostic. Then there are the numbnuts who tweet their foursquare locations or think I give a rip about their LGA > LAX > HNL itinerary. Easily deleted!
I watch most closely the guys who beat up on the press: Joe Pompeo, David Carr, Felix Gillette, David Folkenflik, Dan Gillmor, Gabriel Sherman, Adam Penenberg, Staci D. Kramer, Michael Calderone, Robert MacMillan, Craig Silverman, John Koblin, Tom Scocca, Jeff Bercovici, Adrian Monck, Simon Dumenco, Dan Kennedy, and others. (For all these lists, it goes without saying that there are “others” whom I have forgotten because they don’t tweet at Carr-like velocity. Please forgive me. This is a list, not the phone book.) These oxpeckers tend to put time and intelligence into their tweets, whether they’re broadcasting a URL to their latest piece or pointing to great journalism I might otherwise have missed. Scocca also retweets everybody who disparages him on Twitter. I draw strange comfort from knowing more people hate him on Twitter than hate me.
As one who is ecumenically minded, I follow people across the spectrum. On the left, David Corn, Clara Jeffery, Tom Watson, and Josh Marshall. (Hey, Corn, no need to tweet that you’re going to be on Hardball in 15 minutes. Nobody cares but your mother, and she could be jiving you, too.) On the right, John Podhoretz, Mark Hemingway, Stephen Hayes, and Jonathan Strong. If Matt Labash ever starts tweeting, I’ll pave over a dozen of my current favorites to make room for his big butt. To keep current with what the libertarian knuckleheads think (I’m one), I sip from the feeds of Nick Gillespie, Michael C. Moynihan, Jesse Walker, Kerry Howley, Peter Suderman, Tim Cavanaugh, Matt Welch, and Radley Balko.
For news, I follow the usual Twitter feeds from the usual press gangs. But my most reliable finder of news is Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times. Roberts’ feed isn’t about promoting the Times, although he does that. It’s about promoting well-reported news. I don’t know of any news big shot who points to as much competing news as Roberts. His feed following the Japanese tsunami was indispensible. If we all tweeted like Roberts, there would be no war, no hunger, no petty squabbles, no designated hitter, no near beer. We’d need Matt Labash to join Twitter and spoil it for us.
For foreign coverage, I rely on Laura Rozen, Howard French, Borzou Daragahi, Jeffrey Goldberg, and my Slate Group colleagues at Foreign Policy—Blake Hounshell (who has been terrific on the Arab uprisings), David Kenner, and Charles Homans. *
I naturally follow all (but one) of Slate’swriters and editorswho have Twitter feeds. In the selfless spirit of Jim Roberts, I’m not going to list their handles. If you want to follow them, you can look them up. (Who don’t I follow? David Plotz! On principle! I don’t even listen to him. Who but a suck-up follows his editor?) I also don’t follow Dave Winer or @pourmecoffee or Jay Rosen or Jeff Jarvis, not because they’re bad at Twitter but because all of their best tweets are retweeted.
For pure sass, I depend on Heather Havrilesky, Foster Kamer, Kate Aurthur, Michael Wolff, the H.L. Mencken bot, Nancy Franklin, and hashtag recidivist Ben Schwartz. On bile, we’ve got Chris Lehmann, ladies and gentlemen!
For long-form journalism, I consult longform.org.
The most delightful of my Twitter companions are the polymaths. The top polymath is Felix Salmon, who pretends to cover Wall Street and business but whose real beat is the world. My other polymaths are Oliver Morton, Mark Frauenfelder, Virginia Heffernan, Bryan Curtis, Nate Silver, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chris Shea, Brendan I. Koerner, Tim Harford, Kurt Andersen, and James Fallows, who was wrong about Japan and someday will admit it.
I’m leaving many fine Twitter specimens off this list, in part because I’ve gone on too long already but primarily because their voices don’t fit in any of the boxes above. Take, for example, Gene Weingarten. It’s hard to beat Weingarten for excremental wisdom. And he has the best Twitter avatar this side of Human Centipede.
I seek your guidance, but please limit your comments to 140 characters and email to email@example.com. I won’t take it personally if you don’t follow my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a correction from me. For email notification of errors in this specific column, type Twitter in the subject head of an email message, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction, June 17, 2010: This article originally misspelled Laura Rozen’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)