Metaphors are a crucial part of how we relate to the digital world. They are crucial in one sense as the low-level languages that computers use are incomprehensible to humans. All our spangly, shiny Powerpoint presentations and music libraries are streams of hexidecimal or binary digits to our processors and disk drives. Unless you’re very special these low-level digital streams are gobbledygook and even if you are special enough to make sense of them they’re certainly not anything like the files most of us expect to see or listen to.
With the invention of the graphical user interface (GUI) metaphor became a much more explicit part of our computing experience. A host of analogies were launched upon us in a rush, windows, scrolling, dragging, trash and even document. These terms were needed to help us cope with this new world and GUIs were crucial in the spread of computing from the lab to the wider world.
From within the bubble of Twitter enthusiasm the worth of the platform seems self-evident, but there are people out there who aren’t convinced, don’t see the point of the medium and aren’t sure how to approach it. Twitter is a powerful tool and that power is the flexibility contained within the broadcast of 140 characters.
Both these posts leave out, at least largely, my favourite benefit of being on Twitter, listening. There are lots of interesting people on Twitter who are leaders in their fields and being interesting people they tend to have interesting things to say either directly through Twitter or posting links to their work or just what they are reading.
Twitter is also highly flexible. You can follow people but you can also follow topics through keyword searches. You can even do this persistently through using third-party client programs like Tweetdeck or Seesmic. I love this method because it removes the emphasis on the personality and the rise of the Twitter Star is a stumbling block at the moment. There are lots of people out there clamouring for attention.
The rise of the marketers and the popularity game
There are two big problems with Twitter at the moment for me. The first is the number of people marketing on the platform. There are lots of profiles of folks pushing out affiliate links, links to coupon sites or even links to sites selling courses on how to use Twitter to become rich beyond avarice. It is fine to ignore these people. They’re not really interested in you they are following you in the hope that you’ll follow them back. Which brings us to the other part of the problem.
The second problem is that it is hard to resist seeing Twitter as a hierarchy or even a game. The currency of this game is, usually, followers. How many people listen to what you have to say. There are celebrities using Twitter with several million followers and perhaps more interestingly there are people whose field of expertise is using Twitter (and other social networks) who have hundreds of thousands of followers.
It is all too easy to feel inadequate with a measly hundred, twenty or five followers, but it’s not the size that matters (insert fnar-fnar joke here, after this meta fnar-fnar one). There are lots of ways to use Twitter. It is useful to stay focused on why you are using it though so as not to be sucked in by the gravity of convention.
Keeping your head above the stream
The primary metaphor of Twitter is that it presents you with streams of information. I think this is a useful metaphor as the information that passes through Twitter is ephemeral and in sufficient quantity it can feel like you’re drowning.
You don’t have to read everything. It’s OK to hop in and out. These aren’t messages targeted at you personally so no-one will be offended if you don’t remember what they tweeted about odd socks last Tuesday. If you start following a lot of people you probably won’t be able to read everything.
Andrew Dubber keeps in touch with about 150 people most of whom he knows personally. I’m not as social as him so I do use Twitter to keep in touch with a few people I know who use the platform, but mostly I use it to learn by following some brilliant people who tweet. In order to keep myself sane I have created lists of people by category, music, webdesign, science, Devon, etc. I can dip into these streams any time to see what the web folks are up to for instance. It’s a bit like wandering from group to group at a party.
I also have one main list that I pay particular attention to. This is fairly dynamic, I move people on and off frequently depending on what I’m most interested in at the time. This list usually has about 30 people on it and almost never more than 50. There is a limit to how many people you can really pay attention too.
In a comment to his post Andrew Dubber mentions Dunbar’s number which is a theoretical limit to the number of people you can maintain stable social relationships with. There’s no precise number but it’s commonly around 150 people. That’s how many he follows.
Why I would like you to use Twitter
The wonder of Twitter for me are brilliant, interesting and provocative people who share 140 character slices of their thoughts. Like the internet in general, there is a wave of commercial interest in the platform. People are trying to figure out how to make money out of the medium. There are lots of business uses, customer service is one of the best, but Twitter’s currency is the individuals who use it.
Twitter’s interest is directly proportional to the number of people who use it. The more folks out there the better chance everyone has of building a community to listen to that fulfils them in some way. There are lots of interesting folks here already but there’s room for more.
There are many benefits to participating in online social networks. The ability to build a large network without geographical constraints gives access to support, insight, feedback and promotion opportunities in an immediate, easy and powerful fashion. There seems to be no downside apart from the time needed to engage with your online tribe, but there is an interesting problem lurking within the groups we create.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, director of the Information + Innovation Policy Research Center at the National University of Singapore, has put forward the idea that our online networks may be harming our capacity for innovation. He may well have a strong point that needs consideration for anyone getting deeply involved in online networking.