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.