On Twitter, and the Great Unfollowing of 2008

So there's this fascinating service called Twitter. I won't waste time trying to describe it, except to liken it to the world's largest cocktail party. You -- and the Twitter users who "follow" you, and the people whom you "follow" -- are all assembled in one cavernous virtual ballroom, all with bullhorns, gabbing away. And the acoustics are so damned good here, you can hear every word everyone is broadcasting. It's a helluva thing. I love the service. I love the kind of instantaneous, worldwide, bite-sized communication it delivers. If you know Twitter and pause to think about what it does -- bringing people of all types into a common experience where, in 140 characters or less, they can make friends, expose themselves to new creative work, and express themselves -- it is thing worthy of awe.

The brilliance of Twitter is that it is "opt-in" all the way: You choose which people you want to "follow" -- their communiques will be visable to you in your "tweetstream". If you're blessed enough to have people interested in "following" you and what you have to say, you can follow them back.

Following the natural logic, the worst-case Twitter scenario is that you have no followers, and you tweet into a void. Best-case scenario: You (and your friends) are awash in a stream of communication, back-and-forthing with conversation. It's a hoot.

I was an early adopter of Twitter; my memory's foggy here, but I believe I signed up for the free service before it became a monster meme at South By Southwest 2007. Not much was happening there at the time ... but the thing caught on, friends came, chatter blossomed. The great Following began.

This was a good thing. It further lowered the barriers of communication between creative people. It was a far more direct avenue between me (a new media entertainer) and the folks who dig my work. It empowered me to talk "directly" to fans and vice-versa. Twitter is more immediate than email, and more convenient than messaging on Myspace/Facebook, or commenting on a blog. (In fact, I think Twitter is killing the art of blog commenting, but that's the subject of another post.) Combine these facts with the understanding that on Twitter, everyone has deservedly equal conversational footing, and you have a mighty powerful form of free, nearly instantaneous communication.

During my first year of using Twitter, there was -- and to a degree, still is -- a pervasive popular philosophy of "Twitter karma." The gist: If someone has put forth the effort and interest to follow you on Twitter, you respectfully return the favor. (There's even a clever Twitter Karma service that allows you to manage such "following," and a recent Twitter quasi-competitor called Plurk that incorporates this karma concept into its service.) It makes good sense, engenders goodwill and reciprocity, and levels the communication playing field. Accessibility is in. Gated community, begone.

I, like a great many folks on Twitter, followed everyone back. I benefitted from the relationships, made new friends, was exposed to brilliant creators, bloggers and fans. Twitter changed my life. It opened my eyes to a landscape of new media beyond the "ghetto" of podcasting (I do not use this word disparagingly; see this post for a better understanding), and has connected me to people whose work I admire beyond words.

And then more Twitter followers came. And more. At the time of this writing, I have more than 1,800 followers. This number is a drop in the bucket for more popular entertainers, but it's significant, at least to me.

I continued to apply my personal rules of reciprocity and karma to Twitter, and followed a great many of these folks. Conversation thrived.

And as the months went on, more came. And more. And more.

Perhaps it's my history with Twitter -- and the memories of those early months when Twitter didn't just feel like a small secret community, but by God, it was one -- that influenced the way I've begun to recently view it. When you follow around 1,500 people and a great many of them are not connected to one another (but are connected to you), you are exposed to a flood of mostly-unrelated messages. There is no cohesion. Communication is happening, but it's impossible to follow. The guest list of the world's largest cocktail party has grown so large -- and everyone's voices can still be heard -- that the result, for me, was a cocophany.

I hate myself for saying this, but it became noise.

Am I suggesting that the things people are saying now are any less significant than they were saying last year? Absolutely not. Perhaps there's even more significance to what pours into the tweetstream these days, since its growing user base is using the service in more creative ways than ever. (Folks are tweeting fiction; they're also using it as a platform to promote products or new creative endeavors. I do this relentlessly on Twitter.)

No, I'm saying that my personal experience began to sour. The messages being transmitted to my Twitterfic Twitter reader became too numerous to read, much less understand. The mostly-geniune and mostly-important conversation became an incomprehensible squall.

There are ways to cut through the noise -- I call them Twitter "dog whistles" -- and they come in the form of "@" replies (which show up in the public tweetstream) and "DMs" (direct messages, which only transmit to the intended recipient). These messages show up in special places on the Twitter site, or are are given special highlighted prominence in Twitter readers such as Twitterific. I enjoy receiving these messages, as they rise above the din and more easily get my attention. When appropriate, I reply in kind.

I hate admitting this, but for much of 2008, I've mostly been reading the "@" and "DM" messages directed at me, and not the unfolding conversation in the public 'stream. The Twitter service may be scalable, but my attention couldn't keep up. I began to hate the noise, and felt guilty for hating it.

There are tremendously talented folks in the space who manage Twitter accounts with thousands upon thousands of followers, and follow these folks back. I presume that either their attention is more scalable than mine, or they perceive and use Twitter differently than me.

There are also folks who have thousands upon thousands of followers, but rarely follow them back. For many a moon, I considered these brilliant creators -- Wil Wheaton, Warren Ellis and Xeni Jardin to name a few -- to be hypocrites. What, you'll use this thing to communicate with fans, but you won't connect with them on the level that Twitter was built for? I thought. You'll stand atop your mountain and evangelize your cause, but won't let people into your Ivory Tower? What bullshit.

But now I get it. It's the noise, man. It's all the fucking noise. If you can't parse the communication, you can't participate in the conversation in any useful, meaningful, way. To me, that defeats the philosophical intent of Twitter ... or at least, the philosophy I project upon it.

And so, today, I conducted The Great Unfollowing. I examined the list of the nearly 1,500 people I was following, did some voodoo emotional math (which I won't share here), and removed most of them from my "following" list. It was draconian. It was a slaughter.

I am now following less than 200 people. I am certain this decision has hurt some feelings, but I've best explained how I came to it, and why it was important to me to follow through with it.

Have I become one of the social media starfucker hipocrites I spent months sneering at? Yes. Have I removed myself from hundreds of lively conversations? Yes. Do I feel like an asshole, particularly since I've built a reputation for being a very down-to-earth, accessible entertainer? Yes.

Do I think that, given my awe for this service and things I love most about it, this was a necessary deed, a "red phone" option that would rejuvenate my interest and enjoyment of Twitter? Yes.

I've said on numerous occasions that Twitter is an ephemeral thing; its experience is as varied as the people using it. I'm changing how I use Twitter, so I can better experience it.

Interestingly, The Great Unfollowing doesn't mean I'm any less accessible. Folks can still send me "@" replies (which I always appreciate, and repsond to, when appropriate), and thanks to Twitter's robust search function, I recieve aggregated RSS reports of relevant tweets about me and my work. When appropriate, I reply to these tweets, too.

Jaded Twitter veterans -- or less naive users -- probably see this post as the confession of a noob. Others might read it as the manifesto of a philosophical sellout. I'm neither of these things. I simply realized that the cocktail party was now too popular and spectacular for me to fully appreciate. I am still tremendously grateful to the 1,800+ people who follow me, and understand how blessed I am to have people interested in what I have to say.

I'm still at the shindig, just chillin' a little further from the bar and dance floor these days. Shout my name, though, and I'll probably bound over like a happy puppy.

We'll put down our bullhorns and talk for a while.

--J.C.