Is Twitter a River or a Glass of Water? Depends On Who You Ask

Twitter, like all social networks, doesn’t come with a rulebook. Sure, there are technical limitations to what you can and can’t do with it, but just like all flexible communication technologies that came before it – faxing, email, texting, IM, etc. – the way it’s used is defined by the people who are using it. Different peer groups will have different implementations; the way two 30-something’s text is radically different from the way two tweener’s text.

Twitter is no different. Over the couple of years I’ve been using Twitter, I’ve been surprised – and sometimes amused – at the friction caused by mis-aligned expectations of how Twitter “should” be used. I’ve been asked a couple of times to explain how I use Twitter, so here’s that long-overdue blog post.

I think in general there are two camps on Twitter: those that treat it like a river and those that treat it like a glass of water.

Twitter as a River: Your Twitter stream is a rushing flow of information. You follow many hundreds or thousands of people, and what you see from them is what is in your feed when you open up your Twitter client. You see what’s flowing when you step into the river, and when you step out, everything keeps flowing. When you come back to it, what came before doesn’t matter because there’d be too much to try and read. You can follow as many people as you want because unless they have an ultra-high output on Twitter, you may never see what they tweet. Oh, and if you’re following thousands of people and claiming you’re reading everything they tweet, you’re either lying or unemployed (or maybe both).

Twitter as a Glass of Water: Your Twitter stream is a large glass of water. It’s something you can drink in one sitting, or maybe you sip it regularly throughout the day. You follow a few dozen people (or maybe a hundred low-volume streams), but you read everything they post. When you load up your Twitter client, you scroll back to read what you missed. You take it all in.

I treat Twitter as a glass of water; right now I follow around 100 people/companies, but more than half don’t even post daily. The exceptions are sometimes Engadget and Business Insider; their output is so heavy I often skip past Tweets (especially Business Insider – I’ve unfollowed several times because they tend to get pretty spammy).

When I start to follow someone, I’m going to read everything they post. If, after a few days/weeks their Twitter subject matter isn’t interesting to me and/or their volume of tweets is overwhelming, I un-follow. I could say it’s nothing personal, but it kind of is – your Twitter stream is a partial reflection of who you are as a person, and what interests you. I think Twitter works best when people find the topics that interest them the most rather than the people (unless the person they’re following is consistently tweeting about one topic).

When I un-follow someone on Twitter, and they notice and ask me why (which is a bit awkward in itself, but I don’t shirk from answering), my response is typically along these lines – that they either tweet too much for me (too much noise and not enough signal), or what they’re tweeting about is on a topic that doesn’t interest me. I’m not offended if someone stops following me on Twitter, but I tend to find most people don’t share that reaction – I’ve had more than a few people get offended and hurt when I stop following them. I don’t know if there’s a way around that without being dishonest.

I don’t pretend that everything I tweet is going to be of interest to the whole world, but I do try to post thoughtful comments or questions that add value in some way through insight, humour, or something I’ve discovered worth sharing. I do not tweet “Good morning”, I do not tweet “Good night”, I do not tweet that I’m hungry, or that I’m sleepy. I ask myself with every tweet if what I’m posting is worth a few seconds of someone’s time or not. How I wish more people did that! If, however, you’re using Twitter as a personal diary and posting only for your own benefit, that’s fine – but don’t get offended when someone doesn’t want to follow you.

Ultimately the strength of Twitter is that I can follow you without you following me; it’s an asynchronous system that works well, even when we all have different ways of using it.

River image courtesy of this site; glass of water courtesy of this one.

  • I’m not sure what I think about Twitter anymore. I used to use social media all the time. I stepped off of Facebook a while back. I check every few days to see if anybody commented on one of my posts (the answer is usually no). I post on Twitter (which feeds to Facebook) but don’t bother to read anything. I’ll scroll through a few hours of posts, then close the tab.

    I’ve come to think of social media as shouting into a crowded room, hoping somebody else will hear you over their own shouting.

  • That’s not a bad way of thinking about it – sometimes I think it’s true. There’s so much noise, it’s hard to be heard when you have something significant to say. Social media is like email though; you get out what you put in. So if you’re not commenting on what others are saying, they might not comment on what you’re saying.

  • Vladimir Govedarica

    I don’t follow big companies nor sites on Twitter. I like to follow people that are original and nice.

  • It’s a funny thing: the social presure sometimes on these social media. I keep FB and Twitter seperated very stricktly into pleasure and ‘business’ respectively, and usually tweeps who get unfollowed don’t even react. On Facebook however it can start social wars…
    On the other hand: with my handling of either medium, unfriending someone on Facebook usually means trouble in real life too (there’s no one on my FB that I never see in real life).
    After all it’s just a giant virtual bar where someone needs to get kicked out every once in a while, and with good reason 😉

  • Jamie sharpe

    Interesting outlook on twitter there, I suppose I used twitter like a river until very recently I now use it as a glass of water. I realised that I was following so many people (600) I would never see tweets from people I actually knew and many of the tweets on my feed didn’t interest me. I’ve now cut the amount of accounts I’m following into half and it’s the best thing I’ve done. The thing is that is how twitter should be. You should be able to just unfollow someone on twitter without them getting upset. That’s the difference between twitter and facebook. Facebook the term is unfriended which sounds a lot harsher than unfollowed. I love twitter. I’ts like a customized newspaper with things I want to read whereas facebook is a list of family and ‘friends’ that I barely talk to that I’m forced to look at their updates but that’s another debate all together!

  • Mark Reisch

    This is really well said. Thanks for sharing it. I like the idea of taking a moment to see if what you are saying is a value add. I seem to keep my stream a good mix of personal/business.