I admit it. I didn’t start to understand what the Twitter fuss was actually about until a couple of years ago. This may be something to do with the fact that I’m due to turn 40 next year, and am therefore – officially – an old fart. I’d opened up an account briefly, and it reinforced my impression it was all Justin Bieber, trolling and cat pictures. It sat there as one of those slightly sad egg avatars, for years, unloved.
I thought it wasn’t something worth spending actual time on, even were I to start my midlife crisis and feel the need to come across as a cool kid. In any case, the actual cool kids a/ departed some time ago to some mobile app no-one in my generation will even know the name of, and b/ would certainly never refer to themselves as a cool kid.
No self-respecting teenager wants to live their life in full view of their parents, and I thought Twitter was probably like Facebook is to them - “like an embarrassing dinner party we can’t really leave”. I was wrong, and at least according to the article that quote comes from, many of them are a little mystified by the appeal of it too.
As an aside and as a dad, I actually find the article mostly reassuring. However, I won’t pretend that a little of me hopes that someone cracks the “actually private, really self-destructing nude selfie distribution” problem and puts Snapchat out of business. As an acceptable and probably more likely alternative, cryogenic stasis might become viable before my daughter hits puberty so I can buy a little more time. However, I fear neither will occur, and I’ll just have to cross my fingers and pray the hormones don’t win out.
I eventually came to the (obvious in retrospect) conclusion that most of Twitter is Bieber, bullies and kitties for same reason that 90% of a UK newsagent’s bookshelves are filled with OK, Hello and similar – lots of people like to read that kind of thing. It doesn’t mean Twitter is devoid of useful content but, because people have a diverse set of overlapping and non-overlapping interests, it can certainly be a bit random.
Fortunately, Twitter also happens to be a powerful, personalisable newsfeed and a collaborative information filtering platform. You just have to follow the right people, and be absolutely ruthless about culling anyone with a low (from your unique perspective) signal-to-noise ratio. I learned this trick from the way my wife uses Facebook. I used to read IT news first on The Register, but now it’s usually 4 hours to 2 days behind my Twitter feed and takes longer to scan. Twitter replaces what I used to use Google Reader for, and is much better at the job.
As an added bonus, sometimes I get to connect with and maybe even influence interesting people, as it forces me to at least try to be brief and compelling in a way that no other channel does.
If someone contacts me cold or follows me, the first thing I try to do is check out their Twitter history. It’s hard to fake, as it’s timestamped. If they have been saying interesting things, consistently retweet people who say interesting things, or aren’t too noisy and make me laugh occasionally, they get followed - at least for a while. When I can’t quite keep up with scanning the combined feed, I unfollow/mute some people – so please don’t be offended if I do this, it’s just about my capacity. If I’m missing important stuff or become interested in a new topic, I follow some more people.
If/when I actually make contact in the real world with someone I’ve followed, I feel like I know him or her in much the same way that I know someone I once worked with but haven’t spoken to in ages. Usually I’ve formed a pretty accurate impression of what they care about.
To go all Rumsfeldian for a moment, I find that the most rewarding people to follow spend 99% of the time tweeting about stuff I know I should be interested in, and 1% of the time tweeting about stuff I wasn’t remotely interested in until they tweeted it.
I’m trying to keep my own tweets useful to others. If/when I fail, you’ll unfollow me. But if you have a spare 30 seconds, I’d really appreciate it if you could let me know why, and I’ll try to take it into account in the future.