26 Apr 2012

Twitter evolution (or how I learned to stop following and love the retweet)

Today I discovered I have been on Twitter for 1332 days, or three and a half years (it's ok, I didn't count it myself; there's a web app). There is also a website which recalls your first tweet, which I am sure, for many of us, was not necessarily our most insightful moment. Indeed as Twitter has evolved over time, myriad tools and applications have developed alongside it, making the social networking tool a lot more sophisticated and useful than many people could have imagined when they initially started using it several years ago.

This is in part due to the ongoing shift from document-based content to message-based content; in other words the transition from the Web to the Stream. Social messages and content streams are now often our primary starting points for discovering and navigating content, rather than search engines or web pages. Ben Elowitz estimated that “for every 100 visits that Google sent to the top 50 web publishers in November, Facebook sent 62. By December, it was already up to 73 visits from Facebook for every 100 from Google”, prompting the question “how long until social is a bigger traffic source than search?

Technology Trigger to Trough of Disillusionment
Twitter is by far the tool I find most useful for discovering and managing different content streams. However when I first started using Twitter it was largely as a micro-blogging tool, which was what many people used it for back then. I followed lots of people: friends; people I knew; people I didn’t know; publishers; newspapers; authors; economists; researchers; celebrities (probably). But I quickly realised that following so many people was counter-productive. Some people tweet *extremely* frequently, and it simply becomes impossible to keep up without constantly checking your Twitter stream. A little overwhelmed, I took a step back. Gartner’s technology hype cycle was starting to take shape.

Slope of Enlightenment (Twitter pruning)
Fast forward a few months and I relented. This time though I had learnt my lesson. The first thing I did was unfollow a whole bunch of people because either a) their tweets did not interest me anymore or b) they tweeted too often (even if their tweets were good). Don’t be offended if people unfollow you; it has to be done. Now I put a lot more consideration into who I follow. It almost seems counter-intuitive given the sheer volume of tweets, but if you invest some time and effort in refining the list of people you follow, Twitter can be an extremely efficient way of discovering and filtering content. You can create separate lists for special interests, use saved searches by keyword instead of following users and download apps to help you organise your stream.

Plateau of Productivity (Tweet V Retweet)
Nowadays I don’t tweet that much, but I retweet a lot. In other words, I curate more than I create. I use Twitter as my main source of news and information. By selectively following targeted communities and organisations, your twitter stream can become an incredibly relevant and personalised source (almost like a kind of recommendation engine), which efficiently filters content based on a network of people whose judgment you value – people with similar interests, objectives and goals. Whenever I see an interesting link in my stream I also retweet it so that I have a permanent record on my own tweet stream, a further layer of filtering in a sense.

Beyond Twitter
Now it is not just about Twitter, but Twitter clients like TweetDeck and HootSuite, Twitter analytics, third-party apps and tools for analysing your Twitter feeds and more. Indeed Twitter itself is just the beginning, and seems more popular today than ever. Why? Possibly because there is nothing else quite like it today for efficiently discovering and filtering information in such a personalised and social way, and also in a way which embraces the Stream. Twitter is also extremely fast - indeed faster at sharing information and breaking news stories than many traditional media sources. Crowdsourcing through Twitter can provide rapid answers to both objective and subjective questions. At 140 characters, its brevity is a virtue and retweeting makes sharing instantaneous. Like most things however, using Twitter effectively is a learning process (just ask @rtefrontline...).


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