Choosing who I follow on Twitter

Twitter bird cartoon by Hugh MacLeod

Since being listed as an “interesting Aussie Twitter user” at the other night, I’ve gained 300-ish new followers. Here’s how I’ve been deciding who to follow back.

First, though, I don’t think Twitter starts to make sense unless you have a reasonable number of people in your network. For me, the penny dropped when I had about 50 followers and followees, and you actually interact with them. At that point I started to see the live communication rippling through the hyperconnected mob. It helped that I already knew some well-connected geeks to get the ball rolling.

Once you hit hundreds of followers, though, there’s a phase shift. You simply can’t see everything that happens. It scrolls by too fast. At first that’s stressful — until you realise there’s always more in the world than you can ever experience. So another penny drops, and you detach. Zen. The Twitter-river flows on 24/7, but you don’t stop to watch every fish.

I use Tweetdeck most of the time, not Twitter’s standard web interface, because I can create groups of people. The unfiltered Twitterstream rolls by on the left of my screen, with separate groups for close friends, for media contacts I need to keep an eye on, direct messages and so on. Another panel shows everyone who replies to me or mentions me. So while I can’t see everything on the main stream, just mentioning me will grab my attention.

(I daresay it changes again when you’re like Stephen Fry with more than 88,000 followers. [Update 5 February 2009: It’s now more than 122,000.] May the gods forbid I reach that level of fame! He wouldn’t even be able to monitor all his @replies and DMs!)

So, how do I choose who to follow? Here’s what I’ve noticed today.

You’ve got three seconds to start with. Maybe five.

I’ll probably skip over you immediately if…

  • You haven’t got a bio (description), or given your location (heck, just give the country if you’re paranoid!), or given a link to your website or an external profile.
  • You’ve locked your tweets for “privacy”. Look, you’re either conversing or not. If you don’t want to talk with me, then don’t. But the true value of Twitter is the interaction.
  • Your tweets are banal. If you’re going to tweet “Eating breakfast”, at least tell us what you’re having, or what you can see while eating, or whether the café is any good. If you tweet “On the couch”, tell is what you’re doing. If you’re watching TV, express an opinion on the program. If you’re resting, tell us why your day made you tired. If you’re masturbating, then tell us… well, maybe don’t. But do provide some life, some colour, some specific detail that’ll help us form a picture of your world.
  • Your profile only lists “SEO” or “network marketer” or “success coach” or is meaningless. (OK, I break that last rule. So sue me.) There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but if that’s all you’re bringing to the table then I’ll move to another table.

Conversely, I will probably follow you back if there’s any spark of interest.

  • You’re interested in at least one or two things I am, and you’re talking about them. Doubleplus if you’re in the same industries I am, and you’re publishing interesting thoughts somewhere like a blog or other website.
  • Your tweets provide an insight into you, one of the 6+ billion uniquely interesting people on Planet Earth.
  • You’re in Sydney and don’t appear to be a complete arsehole.
  • You’re cute.

There’s a bazillion other resources about being more human and moar interestinger on Twitter. Maybe I’ll link to them when I have a smaller backlog of new followers to interroga… to, erm, peer at.

[Credit: Cartoon Twitter-bird courtesy of Hugh MacLeod. Like all of Hugh’s cartoons published online, it’s free to use.]

21 Replies to “Choosing who I follow on Twitter”

  1. Just checked my Twitter followers. No Stil. I feel hurt, betrayed 🙂 I think you deserve your place on that list. I do think that “interesting” undersells you a bit. My baby pictures are cute does that count?

  2. Twitter chatter, for all the hype, is the same thing as an IRC addiction, a YouTube obsession, or a MMORPG. Feels important while the fun lasts, but leads nowhere. Then the next thing comes along.

  3. After reading how you choose to follow someone on Twitter I am now wondering why you picked me. I choose “You’re cute.”

  4. @Sean the Blogonaut: Oh, I thought I was following you. Message me and we’ll fix that.

    @Simon: I disagree. There’s key differences between Twitter and IRC. The most notable is that every person’s view is unique, but overlaps with others. This means you can serendipitously see part of a conversation that sparks your interest — rather than joining defined “channels” or (to use the more modern word) “chat rooms”. Twitter can evolve and morph organically. IRC can’t do that anywhere near as well.

    Also the open API of Twitter has already created an ecology of add-on services.

    While Twitter itself may well die, perhaps for mundane business reasons like paying the bills, the modes of operation and other aspects (which I’ll expand upon another day) will mean that something will soon spring up to replace it.

    @Taezar: Um, but I don’t follow you on Twitter. 😉

  5. @Simon I don’t believe Twitter is simply the next ‘faddish’ addiction.

    The accessibility of Twitter — open API, mobile,desktop, widget, browser access — and the ability to easily control the conduit of information — be it of a personal, business, educational or entertainment nature — has turned Twitter into something resembling a protocol.

    Even today, only a small proportion of internet users own (and maintain) a blog, however every single Twitter user automatically becomes a microblogger. Twitter has effectively created a rapid publishing platform for the masses.

    Fad? Nah… (besides, YouTube & MMORPGs don’t exactly show a sign of slowing down!)

  6. Thanks for the info, still learning Twitter. Give me a couple of hours and I’ll see if I become interesting 🙂 You have my (old) blog so you will be able to see what I am / was into..

  7. I got a follow back. I hope it’s because I’m interesting and not because I am cute. I actually followed you because @gregdwyer said you were fun to follow, not because of the article. w00t, I escaped the masses!

  8. @franskting: No, you are not a complete arsehole. Reassured?

    @lucasng: Hi. You’ve hit some more of the interesting aspects of Twitter that will ensure its sustainability — or the sustainability of something very similar with an actual business model.

    I think the guys at 37signals are right here: A radical idea: Charge people for your product. Quite a few of the heavy Twitter users have told me they’d be happy to pay for it. A freemium model like Flickr would work just fine, IMHO.

    @Yeebok Shu’in: Welcome. I think the trick to being interesting is not to try to be interesting, but just be yourself. Twitter asks “What are you doing?” but it could just as equally been “What are you thinking?” or “What are you seeing?”

    @Mitch: You know, @gregdwyer has a lot to answer for…

  9. I wasn’t comparing the technology of IRC (etc) and Twitter. Twitter is a technological step forward. But I was grouping the obsessions.

    You will only hear from me on Twitter if, for example, I have taken a photo of an Airbus that has landed in the water beside my ferry. And you will be able to find it and follow me.

    I’m distinguishing between the usefulness of the technology and the group of users who are putting large amounts of time into tweeting. That’s the part I feel is exactly the same thing as the YouTube community (a similar minority of heavy users subscribing to each other), or inhabiting IRC, or living in a MMORPG.

  10. @Kate Carruthers: I never said he wasn’t an arsehole, just not a complete arsehole. The following diagram may help.


    @Simon: You make an extremely important point about the difference between the people — the “community” or, more accurately, “the communities” — and the underlying technology which allows those communities to stay in touch.

    I think the key difference between IRC and Twitter is that the communities all slightly overlap. Each IRC channel is its own closed-cell community, whereas on Twitter someone will speak to all their communities at once. I need to do an animation of this some time, I think…

    Anyway, how do you think this will change as, it seems, Twitter “goes mainstream” in 2009? As I said earlier this morning:

    OK, everyone, you can cancel your Twitter accounts now. @coldplay is here. #sharkjump

  11. very helpful. I just joined twitter and had no idea what was it about. I have only one concern though, if twitter is all about getting followers, how many people do this to attain instant celebrity status and how do we spot them?

  12. @patagonia_mente: Glad to be of some use! Twitter isn’t really “about” anything, it’s just a central messaging matrix. Just like the telephone system isn’t “about” anything — though that’s a poor metaphor in other ways. What the users do is what makes it “about” anything.

    For some people, gaining followers is important. Those people usually work in PR, marketing or the media. They want a bigger audience for what they have to say. But another end of the multi-dimensional spectrum (!) Twitter can also be used to stay in touch with a small group of close friends or a family — and in that context “private” accounts make sense.

    I don’t mind my personal tweets being public. Indeed, on Thursday the fact that people knew that Kate Carruthers and ’Pong and I were having a meeting in a particular pub meant that a couple of people dropped in to say “Hi”, and we were invited to a party because someone saw we were just across the road.

    I’ll do a longer piece about my own Twitter use next week. Meanwhile, I have other things to write this weekend…

  13. Hmmm… I never got around to writing that article about how I use a higher-volume Twiterstream. Maybe some other time.

    The river flows on…

    Also, if your Twitter profile’s “Location” field is a set of latitude and longitude coordinates from your fucking iPhone and nothing else, you’ve already pissed me off. Oddly enough, I don’t have the world’s geography memorised to that level.

  14. Great article, simple and informative. I’m getting hammered by people at the moment who want help to market this or that using twitter. People seem to want the benefits of it without any desire to actively participate in the medium. It’s like having email but only ever going to the post office to pick up your mail. Also, it’s funny to me that you can achieve “expert” status on something like twitter in just a few weeks — and I’m well and truely still fumbling through the maze.


  15. @Cameron Stewart: I’m tempted to say… indeed, I shall say… than anyone who calls themselves a “Twitter expert” is a liar.

    Twitter is still too new, and evolving far too fast, for anyone to have a full grasp of what it is and how it works — or how it might work next week, next month, next year… Even heavy Twitter users such as myself are surprised almost every week by new phenomena, such as trend fisting.

    Of course with Twitter’s phenomenal growth rate, even someone using it for just a few months is still in the top 10% of “experienced” users — but that does not an expert make.

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