The Zen of Twitter

My design for Twitter's "over capacity" screenI’m surprised when I see people still overwhelmed by Twitter 1. I’m surprised when people reply to tweets two or three days old. I’m shocked when acquaintances get upset that I didn’t see a tweet.

There are some key terms in the above that describe the relationship I have with Twitter – and I think it’s about the only kind of relationship you can have with a social network without being overwhelmed. Sure, I use Tweetdeck 2 with columns and groups and such. There’s my “Friends” (everyone I follow), “Literati” (writerly types), “Dayton” (local folks), and “Peeps” (people I actually know IRL). But even that’s not the biggest division.

The vast majority of people – even several in my “Peeps” column – would barely rate above “acquaintance” in the real world. Sure, we’ll retweet each other and enjoy seeing what the other person has to say… but we’re not real friends. 3 I’d be pretty delusional to think otherwise. But I still don’t go back and read timelines, except for a very, very few people.

See, Twitter’s like a big party. There’s lots of folks there, talking and having a good time. In a real life party, I might float from conversation to conversation. When I’m talking to Bob and the people geographically near him, I’m missing out on what Bobbie (and everyone else at the party) is talking about with the people near them.

Twitter’s like that… except that you need to substitute time for geography.

I have a day job, so I miss out on a lot of the daytime freelance writing conversations. But I also get to see (and chat) with people who are relaxing after work, or getting ready to go out for the night. I schedule some tweets, so the daytime folks know I’m there, but I don’t worry about it much.

See, the real triage isn’t setting up columns in Tweetdeck (or the app of your choice). It’s those few whose profile page you load up separately, or whose updates come straight to your phone. Those very, very few people are the ones whose tweets I always want to see.

The next level down? That’s the folks who you like seeing every tweet from (for me, mostly twitter fiction like @feministhulk , @definethis, @outshined and @Nanoism) but who don’t tweet regularly or you don’t want to see on your phone. Use your RSS reader to subscribe to their tweets from their profile page. (Google Reader is perfect for this.)

Everyone else? I either see them or I don’t. If it’s something I need to be sure people know, I send them an e-mail, a real text message, or call.

Real-life example. My grandfather died over Labor Day weekend. I tweeted it. You may not have seen it. That’s okay. If you’d run into me on Labor Day, you would have heard me mention it. If not, you wouldn’t have. Same thing with Twitter.

A few people I called (or at least tried to). A few people I e-mailed, because the logistics of the situation impact real-world events.

And that’s it.
I have nearly 700 followers on Twitter (I cleaned out some spammers and bots last night, so it’s 680-something, but you get the point). Bog only knows how many are real people, but I really, really doubt that all 700 people read every tweet.

Why should you feel obligated to?

Similarly, someone who expects you to read every tweet (or blog post, or notecard) is being just as much a jackass.

It’s called a stream for a reason. Dip a foot in, splash around. Have fun. Don’t worry about the water molecules that passed before you arrived or that will flow by after you’re gone. Instead, splash someone, skip a rock across the surface, and wade in the stream.

Have fun.

1 The same thing goes for Facebook’s News Feed, or FriendFeed, or… well, you get the idea. I’m going to use Twitter as an example; substitute your favorite social network.
2 To the person who is about to tell me about their great client that isn’t Tweetdeck: I’m sure it’s wonderful. Keep using it. I’m comfy with Tweetdeck, thanks. App wars are just as dumb as OS wars.
3 I do have a few real-life friends in the “Peeps” column… and they’re still the exception.

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