Update: Check out a more recent post on the subject in which I regard Twitter as a search engine
While I've been using Twitter for some time now, I keep switching up how I use the service, and I still feel I'm not at the desired configuration.
Initially I used it like anyone else, following people I found interesting, as well as anyone who decided to follow me. For the first few weeks this was fine, although I was only following a handful of people, who themselves were only tweeting occasionally.
Problems arose as I followed more people and the volume of tweets started getting higher and higher. Not only could I not keep up with it all, but it seemed that every time I logged in to check what was going on the chatter all seemed like blather and banality.
At my peak I was following and being followed by several hundred people and while I knew there were gems out there, for the most part it all seemed like nonsense to me. While I can be verbose in person, I usually don't have a lot to say online, and so my tweets are rather infrequent.
I realized what I was looking for was a means of reconfiguring my twitter use and constantly tweaking how I interact with the twittersphere.
That seems like an awkward word, but how else do you describe a cloud of people who may or may not hear what you tweet and vice-versa. It's rather obtuse and vague and that is part of its appeal.
Twitter is a kin of text messaging, and many people interact with twitter using just txt messages. The problem of course is once you reach a certain volume the text message quotas that Twitter has get used and your phone keeps going off incessantly. While reducing the mobile alerts I get from twitter was one step I took towards making sense of it all, it wasn't enough.
My first focused experiment was centred around an individual I dislike. Anytime anyone would mention their name I would stop following that person. The idea was to see what happens when I remove an entire tree of people based on their relationship to one particular troll.
While this exercise was fun, it didn't achieve my desired effect which was to reduce the characteristics the troll displayed that appeared in others. I.e. if that person was arrogant and I wanted to reduce the overall arrogance found in my Twitter feed then in theory the people who conversed with this person would also be arrogant. A simplistic approach that didn't work.
My next approach was to look at the number of people that I follow and am followed by. The premise being that Twitter could be more manageable if the number of people in your cloud like chat room were reduced to a more rational number. I asked my friend Google what number this might be, who in turn defers to Wikipedia, and the result I got back was Dunbar's number of 150:
Dunbar's number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar's number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.
Mind you the description above is not really attainable within the context of Twitter, however it was a good starting point, if it didn't work I could always go lower.
To start with I had to protect my updates, which is the only way on Twitter to control who you're connected to. It's not that I want to secure what I say, but rather if anyone could follow me then anyone could reply to me and so the number remains too elastic. I wanted to actually read the updates of the people I follow and get to know what it is they want me to know. 150 is still a lot of people to do this with, but at the time I was following quite a few more, and needed a means to get that number down.
The easiest people to stop following were those who were not following me. Some might be hotshots who don't really follow anyone in return, and others were folks who for whatever reason had been following me before but were no longer.
The second group of twitter users that I stopped following were those who were verbose for no good reason and had no connection to me whatsoever. There's lots of twitter users who fall into this category, who add anyone and everyone without any clear logic. Their volume is reflected in both the number of tweets they make but also the amount of people they follow and are followed by. Personally I don't have the time for that kind of twitter usage so it was easy to stop following some folks just based on their volume.
My primary logic for keeping people within my group of 150 was either because I had a legitimate personal connection with them, or had conversed with them in some way, so at least a personal connection had been initiated.
One of my hopes was that as new people requested to follow me I would be able to add some of them and subtract others to make room for each new person I approved. Over time that 150 number would remain stable, but the signal to noise ratio would improve.
The problem I ran into was not just rejecting new requests, but also removing people from the 150 once I reached a point where I knew all of the 150. It's not that I had to make hard decisions, but rather had to justify to myself the logic by which I removed people. This is just Twitter after all, I'm connected to just about all these folk via Facebook where I usually get much greater access to their life and social circle.
For example in the Summer I decided that I no longer supported or wanted to participate in the Overlap discussion group. Shortly after coming to this decision I removed people involved in Overlap from my 150. It's not that I disliked all of these folks, but rather disliked Overlap so much that I didn't want to listen to discussion about the group. So removing all these people not only achieved this but allowed me to add new people.
Just after this period the Canadian federal election got underway, and Twitter use become a focus of the media's attention. The coverage kind of annoyed me in that it was so superficial and dumbed down. Not only were the politicians using twitter in an obnoxious broadcasting manner, but the media were normalizing this behavior out of their own ignorance.
So I stopped using twitter for days on end, which was made easy by the fact that the people closest to me, who I spend the most time with, don't use or care at all for Twitter.
As a result of this neglect a number of requests to follow me queued up and for a while I would just reject them all until finally I decided to give in and just open up my Twitter feed again. I'm not sure if I'm going to get back to using it actively, but I'm backing off the whole 150 thing. I figured at the very least I'd blog about it and add more fodder to the whole discussion of what Twitter is good for.
Certainly there are lots of things that Twitter is good for, and I've not spent much time talking about that in this post. Rather I recognize the subjective nature of social media and I can't help but wonder aloud what good twitter can be for me.