Twitter and the Friends Crisis

Since it launched, I’ve been conflicted about Twitter. It’s an ego distillery, and the signal to noise ratio is ridiculously high (or should that be low?).

Yet, I’m feeling increasingly obligated to engage with the tool for professional purposes (not to mention the book we’re writing). I encourage all of our technology clients to use the service, but there would be obviously be applications for an active personal account as well. A friend recently launched a new project, and announced it on Twitter. He called it something like “a fantastic lens for focusing attention”.

But, man, I just can’t get interested.

Thinking about it, I wondered if it had something to do with an obligation to ‘follow’ a few hundred members of the digerati. Or even the social obligation to follow everybody who’s following me? I more or less bowed to that perceived pressure in Facebook, and now I’ve got 455 friends and rising. How many of them are actual friends or colleagues in any kind of meaningful way? Less than half, I’d guess. As such, it’s a useless tool for monitoring actual friends’ activity. And I’m not even sure if I want to do that.

My New Baseline

So here’s my latest Twitter experiment. I’m only going to follow people who I personally know, and with whom I have an ongoing regular relationship. We see each other at least occasionally, or exchange emails or something. If I met somebody two years ago at a conference, and haven’t seen them since, they’re out. If I read their blog and comment regularly, and send them an email every once and a while, they’re in. That’s my new baseline.

I just culled my Twitter following list down to 33. It will increase, as I haven’t actively sought anybody out to add, but I’m going to try to be disciplined about it.

Hopefully this approach will help me get more excited about the tool. Instead of just another fire hose of geeky news, I’ll be watching my friends and colleagues lives. Which, just as mine would, may turn out to be tremendously dull. But I’m giving it the old college try. Again.

I don’t expect to ‘tweet’ (that is, broadcast messages) very much at this stage. I plan to just watch and reply to others if something tweaks my interest.

UPDATE: I’m so conflicted about Twitter that I failed to include a link to my Twitter stream o’ tweets.


  1. Hehe…I just added you and I completely don’t expect a reciprocal follow. You have far more important things to do than read the pablum I post up on Twitter 🙂

  2. Hey, Darren — first-time commentor here! I hear your concerns around the signal to noise ratio. Quite a while ago I opened a Facebook account, which languished for a long time because I couldn’t bear to populate it with “all the usual suspects” from my blogging world (which I was moving out of anyway). Then I started to see how FB could be useful in terms of pulling together (and acting on) local information — I could post status updates about meetings to attend, places to meet for coffee, etc., and could follow one or two significant other people who were doing the same. Because FB could send someone’s status updates to my phone (and my plan didn’t charge me for receiving messages), this was more helpful to me than keeping up with info on (for example) a local forum, because its software didn’t allow for any kind of mobile application.

    When the information you want is local, it has to be accessible from mobile devices. Now I’m thinking I should switch from Sage (my preferred RSS reader) to Google Reader, because my current plan allows me to access Google, and there are a few blogs I follow that are either important enough to me even though they’re based god-knows-where, or they’re locally-based and I value getting that information quickly. Twitter is another application that has local uses, and lets me filter for that aspect — plus, I can subscribe via my G-Reader to the feed for the page that updates for the relevant postal/zip code I choose.

    In fact, that’s how I found your entry. (Well, ok, it’s noon on a Sunday and I’m in the proverbial — and actual — pyjamas at my desk, so I’m not “mobile” …but still!) I looked through twitterlocal’s feed for V8V 4J4 and saw that dbarefoot was updating in Victoria.

    I didn’t even know you were in Victoria — but I know of you through mutual friends (Julie Leung, Roland Tanglao, others), so of course I had to click through. And I think I saw you at DemoCamp Victoria01, but you had to leave early, or something? Because of today’s twitterlocal update, however, I’m aware that you’re somewhere in the vicinity. And for reasons I’m not really sure about myself, I want to be aware of that.

    What’s my point? It’s a bit fuzzy, but I guess my main thought is that the signal to noise ratio is a problem, but that developers constantly come up with new filters. Right now, filters for finding local information are extremely useful to me; tags obviously have a similar filtering capability. But when you can start filtering with geotags / locality, make it mobile, take it with you… that can get pretty good. It might even be that we need “all the noise all the time” (Chris Locke) so that in response someone comes up with filters to make it useful for various segments.

  3. I perfectly agree with you about following only the people you actually care about. I think you’ll like this experiment that I started this morning.

    An experiment in Twitter carpet following

  4. While I think you may have a point about the “noise” issue — I also think that it’s important to NOT follow a lot of people. I don’t necessarily agree that twitter is an ego distillery as there is a lot of valuable information shared on twitter and it allows for any discussion to grow immensely.

    More importantly for any twitter user is the understanding of how to use the communication tool. It is not meant for people to follow everyone. If you liken it to how we think about our family, friends or colleagues, they act on some level as information filters.

    This is exactly how it works on twitter — the people you decide to follow are the living filter that inadvertently decides what is important and what isn’t.

  5. I would say only follow the people who post things you enjoy following. I don’t have any feeling of obligation to follow someone out of anything but interest in them or what they write, and it’s worked for me well in doing so. By keeping the list of those I follow small and meaningful to me, I find Twitter makes the Facebook newsfeed look like a garbage dump of irrelevancy, with ads.

  6. Also, I found myself thinking that broadcast was the wrong word for twitter, as it tends to start working more like IM over time, only not as isolated.

  7. You’ve got it right – only follow those who you know and want to be in an ongoing IM conversation with.

    But also, ‘track *username*’ so you get anything for you from others.

    Don’t post your ‘status’, just post questions, and see who responds. Or post answers to others questions.

    Treat it like IM… add it to Google Talk/Adium client and treat it like a group chat with your mates.

    You’ll like it. Promise.

  8. Darren,

    I mulled over this for a long time. I am of several minds. On the one hand, I enjoy being on Twitter now, and it has allowed me to reach a public I wouldn’t have otherwise (I don’t have the same readership you have by any stretch of the imagination).

    Also, I felt a bit conflicted at the beginning (should I follow everyone reciprocally, should I feel offended that someone doesn’t follow me back if I follow them?). And then I read Scobleizer (who apparently follows just about everyone on this planet) about following more than the people you follow.

    The first time you posted something on “here is how I set the rules on what I read on my blog/where I comment/who is on my Facebook/who is on my blogroll”, I was tempted to copy-cat it and post it on my blog and say “here is how Raul decides on who he puts on his blogroll” or “here’s how Raul follows on Twitter”. Right now I don’t feel compelled to do that, but it is very interesting to hear your “baselines” or “here’s how Darren does it”.

    And I’m still not on Facebook 🙂 I joined Twitter because it has allowed me to be more open in the blogosphere community but still keep some sense of privacy.

    Wow. This was a huge comment. Sorry 🙂

  9. Boris has been doing that for years on all the social networks — that is only following or reciprocating for friends or people he has met in the real world. I started doing the same about a year ago, and it’s been great. Otherwise you just get a pile of noise, like you mentioned.

    And I agree – most people are twitter because they want themselves heard, not because they care to hear other people.

  10. I’m not particularly interested in Twitter.

    *Davin just refilled his cup of water.

    It seems like a remarkably massive aggregation of emoting, which was the least interesting part of multi-line chat BBS’s from the late 80’s and early 90’s.

    *Davin is checking out other action-aggregation services.

    Pass. I’m opting for real content, loved by the owners enough to write more than a line or two about the subject at hand. Low maintenance love is desirable, but it’s equally or more good to recognize when your attention is being unduly solicited.

  11. Thanks for the comments, everybody. No time right now to reply to all of them. I did like Todd’s idea about “only follow the people who post things you enjoy following”. I might refine my criteria thusly.

  12. I think in part, Twitter is a victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    What I mean is, the buzz of popularity around Twitter has made people feel obliged to use it. So much of so-called Web 2.0 is suffering from this, where tools are being used to maintain one’s own web presence & popularity. It’s starting to really show in the signal-to-noise ratio.

    Call me a cynic. =)

    It’s very interesting the perspective of the two crowds I hang around, because the blogging-super-connected people shout the praises of Twitter, while most of my gaming and RL friends are still giving one collective shrug.

    I liked how Tycho @ Penny Arcade put it, he just cannot imagine the need to project his minutia, even if it would be read.

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