February 26, 2009

Twitter is for Following Topics and Listening, Not for Following People

Another slow news week means another opportunity to debate the "right way" to follow or be followed - and per usual, the forum is Twitter. Once described to me as the "backstage" discussion to the blogosphere's concert hall, there can occasionally be fisticuffs, especially when bigger personalities are involved. And tonight, Loic Le Meur and Robert Scoble are publicly debating whether following thousands of people on Twitter makes sense - with particular focus on whether programs that let you auto-follow add value, or instead, give credibility to people who aren't friends at all, but are spammers, or worse.

Even if you are a rabid information junkie, the constant updates from Twitter can be too much for anybody to absorb, even with a few hundred connections. To believe that I am seeing all of a friend's updates with 6,000 connections, or that Scoble can see the updates from ten times that many, is clearly impossible. So while a small population of Twitter is using the service to follow individual's updates, a huge number are instead using it to broadcast updates, monitor keywords, and occasionally, send direct messages to people or reply in public. Twitter is simply too much to handle as conversations are lost, people's updates can be of any type, and the limitations of the service, including the much-discussed 140 character boundary, make it a poor foundation for exchanging ideas in a crowd.

I use a auto-follow program from SocialToo and am an advisor to the company, run by Jesse Stay. I don't auto-follow to necessarily see an individual's updates, and I don't auto-follow to give a stamp of approval to who they are, or their Twitter stream. But I do use it to let me open up the opportunity to send direct messages to them, and they to me, and because on the occasions I do check in on Twitter, I want to at least have the opportunity to see their updates. But it does not mean I see their Tweets on a regular basis in any way.

That's right. I don't read your tweets. Practically the only way I would see your tweets is if I was following you on FriendFeed, if you were in one of my lists I read regularly, and even more likely, if that tweet got comments and likes, pushing it to the top of my visibility. Alternatively, I will have seen your tweets if you mention my user ID, the company I work for, or if you are mentioning a hashtag or a topic I am following.

When I do want to see an individual's tweets, I will go to their user page and scroll down to read, or I will check their FriendFeed. But I am not sitting with the Web interface open, or constantly refreshing TweetDeck, only to hit the API limit.

I use Twitter because I know my updates to Twitter go to both Facebook and FriendFeed, where I do have personal conversations and a real platform for discussion. I use Twitter for the opportunity to send instant messages, publicly, to individuals or groups. And I use Twitter to monitor mentions of me or my company via their search engine. But if I were to "really" follow people the way that some people think they are being followed, I would have to follow the new trend and start a massive unfollow process, eradicating more than 90 percent of those my Twitter account is following today.

Twitter has something special - a real-time search engine that can instantly take the temperature of today's Web users. It has a good platform to say what you are doing right now. But it does not have a good platform to follow people, or a large group of people, and it does not have a good platform for conversation. If you want people and discussion go to Facebook and FriendFeed. If you want to get a litmus test on a topic, go on and use Twitter. Just don't think I'm reading your Tweets. I know you don't see mine.