Thinking About Twitter, Influence and Too Much Signal

I tried to write this post a couple of times, but faltered. So, I figured I’d try to articulate myself using video. The result, I’m afraid, is really no better. Remember–that’s four minutes of your life you can’t have back.

Building on what I ramble about in the video, consider the example of somebody receiving 1000 tweets a day. Let’s imagine that they actually read 200 of those. The other 800 just float by in the endless Twitter river while they’re working, interacting with other humans and so forth.

If each person in their Twitter network posts 10 times per day, then, on average, 2 out of 10 of each person’s tweets get seen.

Now imagine that the size of the average network doubles, to 200. That means 2000 tweets a day. The user still only sees an average of 200, so only 1 out of 10 tweets get seen.

Everything increases but our attention bandwidth. Is there some kind of threshold where the river o’ Twitter becomes too diluted? If the average follower count continues to go up, will we someday rely almost exclusively on DMs and @ messages? Or, as I speculate about in the video, will we just get better at filtering and personalization?

Sources for the video are a comment from a Twitterholic founder on Kottke, HubSpot’s State of the Twittersphere and an article in The Economist.


  1. Glad you mentioned TweetDeck in the end. Because that’s the only way I can currently manage the signal to noise ratio on Twitter. TweetDeck is not perfect.. you probably have to use it in conjunction with FriendFeed.. but it’s a start. Then again, even with your typical average of 330 followers.. I’m sure that most of those following me never see what I’m tweeting about. Hmmm. Alex.

  2. I think the video articulation of your thoughts is excellent Darren. Kudos. One of the professors who taught me during my PhD said that the best way to articulate thoughts is to speak them out loud, and your thoughts on the excess signal on Twitter are bang on. I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts.

    I am one of the Twitter verborreic people, I’ll admit to it. I wish I could NOT be, but I can’t. By now, you know me. I’m quite chatty. And not surprisingly, I follow very chatty people too.

    I filter conversations using tools like TweetDeck, and I have my Priority group. The people whose tweets I *always* want to see are there. I also have my web-based Twitter interface set to NOT see the “@” replies of the people I follow.

    The reason why I set it that way is that I know I am a conversationalist and therefore, if I follow someone like me, I will have a full screen inundated with tweets.

    As you indicate, it’s not about the noise, it’s more about the signal. Recently (e.g. yesterday) I declared bankruptcy again (Twitter, RSS feeds, blogging, email, etc.) – I do this regularly to keep myself sane.

    I do regret missing some people’s signals (and I follow already 400 people) but frankly, my thought is – if they really need me to respond to one of those (as it happened, for example, with the Great Bear Forest Campaign, where I received a direct email informing me of what is going on), I will then be able to react.

    If the signal is just a tweet telling me something that I might or might not need, and that the person who sends the tweet is finding interesting, then I would argue both the emitter of the signal and me as the recipient would be quite ok.

    Myself, I’ve increased my reliance on @ replies, DMs and priority groups on TweetDeck.

    [And… this was again a massive comment. Yowza.]

  3. it’s just like the number of blogs. as “everyone” gets their own blog, the volume of information increases, but not necessarily the consumption of it.

    i’m sure twitter will go the same way as e-tailing and blogging.

    a few “reliable sources” will rise to the top and they will have the influence, while the remainder of the signal will be published with little result.

    1. True, but one difference is that the barrier to entry for Twitter is so much lower than a blog. Blogs require considerable effort on an ongoing basis to maintain, and a lot of them die on the vine. So I think the issue will be more exaggerated with Twitter.

  4. On average, you’ve only made 5.6 tweets per day (3964 tweets divided by the 705 days since you started using Twitter). That number might be deceptively small as I imagine you’ve ramped up the number of tweets per day both as you grew accustomed to using the service, found it more useful and as the user base grew and you added more contacts.

    However, even people who have you as a contact don’t see anywhere near the number of tweets you make per day. For example, I have my settings as “show @ replies to people I’m following” which filters out a heck of a lot of your tweets. Even so, you’re still one of the higher volume Twitter contacts I have; many other people only update 2-5 times a day.

    1. It’s a pity there isn’t any historical and trending data for things like number of followers and average number of daily tweets. That would tell us what the average volume is, and how it’s changing as the network grows.

  5. I wonder if what we need aren’t tools, but simply the skills to filter for ourselves what we want to read—to allow ourselves only to follow people when we find it valuable to do so, and to hold ourselves responsible for writing tweets others want to read. It’s tempting to regard high follower numbers as some indication of success on Twitter, but I think it really is only a relatively small number of users who do/will attain the influence necessary to sustain massive follower numbers. Regardless, I imagine it isn’t useful to *anyone* to follow hundreds of people. The more we allow ourselves to cultivate the information and conversations we want to consume and participate in, the more meaningful our experiences will be.

  6. I think this is why I’ve been thinking of culling my list (or why I’ve stopped following people). Information overload!

  7. I keep saying it, but I’ll say it more because you haven’t banned me from comments yet 😛

    Twitter is not a broadcast tool. It’s group instant messaging, and like any conversation, too many is just too many.

    End micro-rant.

    1. Good luck with that rant. You can’t force other people to think of Twitter in one particular way. It obviously IS a broadcast tool for many people.

  8. If only it were about “the efficiency of the system”. It’s about personal efficiency! The amount of relevant articles online that I’m aware of is so huge, that I could spend all day reading relevant industry news and tweets and never get any work done. I’m less worried about the effectiveness of Twitter than I am to what is happening to people’s productivity.

  9. Great video/post Darren!

    I think the first thing is relevancy / personalization. For example, I only follow people if I share a common interest with them that is very clearly in their bio. If it’s in their bio, it’s likely to be a certain percentage of their tweets. I would say that more than 70% of the people I’m following fit into one of these categories, all of which are more interesting to me: British Columbian; vegan or vegetarian; WordPress fan; someone interested in faith/spirituality; Sikh; Punjabi; human rights or animal rights or anti-poverty activist; marketing professional; coworker; family.

    That ensures that many of the tweets are relevant to subjects I’m interested in.

    Second, you definitely need a filter. I don’t like Tweetdeck and I’m surprised there isn’t something better. There really should be better options. But with a filter, you can break people (like the vegans, the WordPress people, the marketing pros) into groups, and then consume content at your own pace.

    Another thing that would be cool – I think Twitter should exclude hashtags from the 140 character count, so that tweets can have multiple tags and would make searching for content of interest to you much easier.

  10. Interesting subject, but I disagree with some of the assumptions.

    The network isn’t as exponentially connected as you make it out.
    1. You drew all the relations bi-directional, but often they’re uni-directional
    2. Certainly the network isn’t completely connected (everybody doesn’t follow every new Twitter user).

    I think the Twitter network model has a lot in common with email, but placing a lot of control with the recipient, whereas in email almost all the control is with the sender. For example it’s possible to remove connections that bore you (a LOT easier than it is to make boring people forget your email address).

    By the way I’m positive that there are already many research projects ongoing that will result in academic papers about Twitter.

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