In Praise of Connecting

There’s an interesting article in this month’s issue of Wired by Clive Thompson called In Praise of Obscurity and it caught my attention (sadly the article isn’t online yet or I’d link to it). It talks about a woman named Maureen Evans who started tweeting 140 character recipes over Twitter. She was an early adopter of Twitter and over time she gained a lot of followers, starting at around 100 and ending up with over 13,000, though now she’s hit around 18,400. But the sense of community she had begun to develop in her early days had started to dissolve. Mr. Thompson suggests that the problem is that “socializing doesn’t scale.” If you overcrowd a dinner table it’s nearly impossible to have one good conversation, even with the person across the way from you. But I also feel like this is only half the problem.

Twitter is a tool just like any other, used properly it can have advantageous effects. A lot of people say they don’t get Twitter, but most likely that’s because they have no reason to use it. I don’t carry a blowtorch around hoping I figure out a good use for it.

I started using Twitter 2 years and 9 days ago, and as of writing this I have 6,570 people following me. The thing is, I’m only following 194 people. A while back I realized that if I followed more than 200 people that it became unmanageable. I don’t need to know what Rainn Wilson is blathering about, I don’t care about Mr. or Mrs. Kutcher. On the other hand Martha Stewart posts some fun photos some times, Roger Ebert can keep you entertained for hours and the multitudes of creative people I follow can distract me all day long. But this list I’ve curated, in a sense, is an extension of what I really enjoy and want to hear more of.

I think the problem that Maureen is having is that she’s following too many people back. Currently she’s following around 11,000 people, which seems totally insane to me. If she distilled this list down to a more manageable number, just people she finds inspiring or enjoyable, she might be able to have some better conversations.


11 Comments In Praise of Connecting

  1. Frank Chimero January 25, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    I think the optimal size of a group of people is seven.

    I see it in my class. A class of 15 will usually split into two larger groups. More than 7 people, and it’s difficult to maintain a conversation. The human attention span doesn’t scale to more than 7. Seven’s also the limit to the number of pieces of information our short-term memory can hold at once. (This seems related, some how.) It seems sort of folly to expect a list of nearly 20,000 people to feel like a community. (I’ll have to read the article, though.) Tight-knit communities can’t scale that large because human attention can’t scale that widely. We’re more akin to a herd of elephants than a school of fish.

    I enjoy Twitter for many reasons, but one of them is that relationships are not 1:1. Some one can follow me, but I do not have to follow them back. And vice versa. Stephen Fry isn’t going to follow me back. I don’t want him to. I want him to concentrate on what he’s doing and to continue to be insightful and funny.

    You touch on this. Twitter’s really the first social site that does this at a large scale. It’s dangerous to mistake that if technology can connect us to tens of thousands, it also can widen our attention span to have room for tens of thousands. It can’t. We’re just not built that way.

  2. Steve Love January 25, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    So, I haven’t read the Wired article. That said, I think your own example, Bobby, sounds very much like the quoted problem. For you, socializing on Twitter doesn’t scale well beyond 200. It’s possible I’m misunderstanding the argument though.

  3. Bobby January 25, 2010 at 12:53 PM

    @Frank – Agreed. Twitter’s purpose isn’t giving you the ability to make friends with thousands of people, it’s a way to aggregate information in a structured manner. I choose who I want to listen to at all times.

    @Steve – I agree with Mr. Thompson’s point, that it doesn’t scale in large numbers, like the dinner table metaphor I used in the post. But 200 people to me is a dinner with 7 people, to use Frank’s example above. 2,000 people would be a banquet hall, there’s no way I could keep track of anything that’s being said.

  4. michael January 25, 2010 at 2:38 PM

    the lists feature of twitter is odd, but a grouping of people might help to organize into groups that become manageable.

    i haven’t put this idea into practice though, because lists seem like too much for me.

    maybe thats why i only follow 60 people.

  5. Marc January 25, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    ^5 on the ‘curated list’ idea. I follow 200 people – if I want to follow someone new it means I have to drop someone else. Makes you reconsider the value each new follow will bring to your stream.

  6. Micah Monserrat January 25, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    I agree that following a large number of people can overwhelm one’s twitter stream and that, as a result, a sense of community may be lost. That having been said, there are enough twitter management tools in place that allow one to do exactly that and still maintain a sense of community. The advent of twitter’s list feature makes this even easier…allowing one to forgo 3rd party apps like tweetdeck and seesmic (both of which are stellar, by the way). By following more people, I’m exposed to more things…and often, these are things that I might not otherwise know about. This isn’t to say that I’m able to process everything that shows up in my stream; as Frank pointed out, people just aren’t built that way. But many things interest me…so I choose not to put a cap on how many people I follow. I can always look at a list that caters to more specific interests, whether they be personal or professional. Just to clarify: I’m not making a case for following everyone — that’s something else entirely. My only point is that it’s possible to follow a large number of people without sacrificing connections.

  7. arne January 25, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    Because of what I do, it’s kind of implied that I follow nearly everybody that follows me back. I do have some criteria so it isn’t everybody, but I still end up following nearly 90% of the people who follow me. If I keep watch on the normal feed, it’s completely unmanageable to keep up. The lists feature ends up being perfect for that and now I have 10 lists just so I can keep up with what is hopefully important. It’s the only way.

  8. Datafobik January 25, 2010 at 4:07 PM

    Bobby and maureen the recipe, made my day with all inspiring ideas. Twitter and such socializing tools are important research area before our neocortex blow up. Sociological analysis of virtual societies, could be good point to touch. Agreed most of your ideas, but want to add also the point of twitter as marketing, news, conversation or any (virtual) socializing tool. If u are satisfied enough, why not? Sounds democratic to me (natural selection to virtual selection) Follow news or djs, depends on what u want to be inform about. So.. Thanks for. Greeting from sociologist/ cognitive scientist from

  9. Caroline, No. January 26, 2010 at 3:27 AM

    I really like your blowtorch analogy! I have to say I think people who say twitter is useless are kind’ve irritating. I feel that they’re dismissing it out of hand as a place where celebrities blog. (And it’s obviously so much more than that.)

    Agree – I have to keep my following number manageable. I’m on 200 odd and it’s totally fine at the moment, whenever I can be bothered I follow more interesting looking people. And then quickly unfollow anyone who’s spouting drivel. :)

  10. richiee January 26, 2010 at 9:15 AM

    Well I must say, for me Twitter was the blowtorch I just wanted to have and then quickly figured out that I can also use it to toast my bread, light the stove, and keep wild animals away. It’s really only useful once you’ve gotten into it. I try to keep it not “too much time consuming” by following only 13 people, otherwise it’s getting really unmanageable. Quality over quantity. ;)

  11. Fabian January 26, 2010 at 8:13 PM

    As Malcolm Gladwell said in The Tipping Point, “the magic number is 150”. More than that and you will lose that sense of community as it will become unmanageable.

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