Tech Life Why do these cars keep hitting me?

A Twitter Decision

In starting a significant project, an engineer knows the first three big design decisions you make are vastly more important than the second three.

The nature of these decisions varies from project to project. They may be choices about look and feel, rules about architecture, or trade offs regarding feature set. Whatever these decisions are, they set a tone that defines the success of the project.

When I look at Twitter, I see three early essential decisions about how Twitter allows you to craft a community. I believe much of Twitter’s continued success is due to definition and execution of these decisions.

Interestingly, some obvious candidates for the Top 3, like “Scales like crazy”, “Will generate money”, and “Needs to be searchable” weren’t initially there.

The decisions were:

  • Decision #1: A user chooses whom they follow.
  • Decision #2: A user chooses whom they no longer follow.
  • Decision #3: A user should be judged only by what they say.

These are simple decisions of empowerment. As Twitter’s popularity grows exponentially, both veteran users and recent arrivals need to remember that these basic decisions mean Twitter is yours to build with however you choose.

Yeah, Britney’s here now. Barack was here for a bit. I hear Shaq is figuring out Twitter as well. Yeah, these folks have an inordinate number of followers and are saying nothing particularly interesting, but they do not embody what makes Twitter great. Twitter is great because of choices made to allow you build whatever you want.

Decision #1: A user chooses whom they follow.

This might have been your first Twitter crisis: why am I here?

“Well, I hear so’n’so was on Twitter and I like them, so I followed them so I could figure out what the hell this Twitter thing was all about.”

You added folks. You looked at whom others you respected were following and you added more. Then, someone pissed you off. Someone said something that was not aligned with the vibe of your Twitterstream and you got cranky.

Every couple of weeks, a meme stressing about “an increase in Twitter spam” wanders the Internet. Each time I see this meme appear, I turn away from my keyboard and bang my head against my desk three times.

Twitter spam. Really? Are you even paying attention? I’ll say it again, you choose who you follow. If you’re following a newsbot, you’re going to get news spam. If you follow a good friend who can’t stop RTing, you’re going to to get retweet spam, but complaining about it is like standing the middle of a freeway asking, “Why do these cars keep hitting me?”

“But Rands, I need to follow this person, but they won’t shut up.”

There’s a legitimate complaint here. I’m certain there’s a sensible feature request based on this complaint, like “Please don’t show me tweets contain RT or @” or maybe a feature to put someone you follow on Twitter time-out during that weekend drinking binge where they won’t shut up about their ex-girlfriend. Yes, these features could be added to the base platform, but why complicate a feature you already have? You unfollow. It’s brutally simple and it solves the problem.

Decision #2: A user chooses whom they will no longer follow.

My theory regarding folks who complain about Twitter spam is that they, like me, have been traumatized by decades of email spam. You believe that Twitter spam is inevitable because, well, we lost the war against email spam, so we’re going to loser the Twitter spam war, as well.

You can win this war.

Think if you had the following power over your email inbox. When a piece of spam showed up, you could press a single button and guarantee that you would never receive that type of mail again. Poof. We just eliminated the billion-dollar spam detection and prevention industry with this dream. That’s exactly what Twitter made possible with Decision #2 and they did it with class.

If you choose, you receive a notification when someone starts following you, but have you noticed there is no similar notification when they leave? I find this omission telling. While I can’t confirm the feature omission was deliberate, I hope it was. The simple choice to not broadcast a departing follower strikes me as saying, “We are choosing to focus Twitter’s community conversations on what’s being built, not what’s being taken apart.”

A service like Qwitter quickly appeared to fill the gap, but unless you’re getting paid by your number of followers, getting lost in figuring out why someone is no longer following you is a waste of time. Their departure has nothing to do with you; it has to do with them and the experience they want out of Twitter.

Decision #3: A user should be judged only by what they say.

Take a look at the decisions Twitter made regarding your profile. It’s a spartan, 160-character bio, your location, and a URL. None of which you actually need to fill out. This is decidedly not Facebook. There is no feature in Twitter which tells who in your graduating class has a Twitter account. If you don’t know the person whose account you’re checking out, you’re forced to think. You make a choice to follow not based on where they live, where they went to school, what they do, or whom they know. What matters is what they say.

Yes, this rule says should because there’s no way my hippie utopian vision of a world where bright ideas connect bright people is going to last. Barack hasn’t said much since the election, but still garners thousands of followers a week. Mr. Tweet robotically scrubs your follower list and offers automated helpful advice regarding followers of followers that you might be interested in, and I’ve found some “Well, duh, I should be following them” folks.

Twitter is mainstream and lots of time and energy is being spent analyzing and judging Twitter habits. “He’s got 17,123 followers and only follows THREE PEOPLE. Jerk.” Who cares? Yes, some folks have huge numbers of followers, whereas others have 12. This gives these massively followed people a larger stage for their 140 characters, but because someone has a pile of followers doesn’t mean I ever want my search altered by someone else’s subjective calculation regarding “authority”. I define my own authority. I prioritize.

This is My House

Think of your Twitter account as your house. This is my house. Your house is different. You’re trying to figure out how to use Twitter to monetize eyeballs. Good luck with all that. For me, Twitter remains a place for casual information. For me, a tweet is still a note I tie to a balloon, which I let go and think, “Who is going to read that one?” Sometimes I look and see where it ended up, sometimes I don’t.

In my house, I want to create an illusion of a two-way conversation, which means I continue to prune followers so that content flows at a consumable rate. If I get the sense that I’ve lost control over my Twitterspace, I’ll stop going — the same way my fancy new mail rule files once important messages straight into the well-intentioned To Forget folder.

This is my house and I’m still deciding how I want it built and, thankfully, Twitter decided to be spartan and to stay out of the way. I think they knew the construction of your community is your deal. Bitching about it means you haven’t figured it out for yourself.

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45 Responses

  1. While there’s no e-mail notification telling you someone has stopped following you, there’s still a social stigma if you log in one say and suddenly realize someone’s 24×24-pixel avatar is no longer in your sidebar.

    “That bitch,” you say.

    Friendships are ruined and brimstone rains down.

    I read an article a while back, and I can’t remember who or where, but they suggested that most social networks should have a “mute” feature to manage your “house” rather than force people into a black or white acceptance or rejection.

    I wholeheartedly agree. You may be a good friend, but I may have no interest in what you tweet.

  2. Lucid as always… I might need to send people to this post when they ask (STILL, after two years now) why they should use Twitter.

    I do wish however there was a sort of “snooze” button for Twitter… I do have friends (or followees) who will periodically drive me crazy with a constant ranting on a topic, ranting that mars an otherwise interesting and valuable communications channel. I’d love to tell Twitter to just snooze a follower for a week or so. 🙂

  3. How does this have anything to do with Twitter’s success per se? These qualities also apply to many less-successful “Twitter-clones” and so are nifty observations but almost completely irrelevant to Twitter’s “success” in the marketplace.

  4. I wish there was a feature where I could minus the keyword… like -boyfriend or -girlfriend – and create a list like that to filter topics I don’t care about… -tv for instance. -limbaugh -barack -“good morning” -whatever.

    I think that would make what hits my twitter a lot more relevant. There isn’t anyone out there twittering exactly what I want to see all time. There are those with off-days and those with off-posts that could be filtered immediately.

    Ahh, there are so many things that could be done… and will be I’m sure. Twitter is quite an amazing tool at the macro or cosmic level… I’ve had friends help me and complete strangers. I’ve found graphics folks to do my logos halfway around the planet b/c of twitter.

    What did we do without this? I don’t even remember repressing that info – but it’s gone. It doesn’t matter – that’s why I don’t remember.

  5. Amen. This simplicity is also the reason why all those “Facebook will kill Twitter OMG” talk is bullshit. Twitter is focussed on one thing and does it well. Facebook may have a bigger following, but it’s much less suited as a conversational tool.

  6. right on. love it.

  7. Jan Lehnardt 15 years ago

    @John Whittet If your real world relationship can’t take a Twitter unfollow, I’d suggest that no feature in Twitter will fix that.

    Mute instead of unfollow is a technical solution to a social problem and as such out of the ballpark.

  8. @Rob Allen: No, there’s nothing stopping these features being implemented in the client as far as I can see.

    The “twitter spam” I’ve received so far has been follow requests with adverts in the user info. By their very nature you end up reading the advert as you’re deciding whether to approve/deny the follow-request.

    Irritatingly, that is spam that’s very hard to get away from and I think Twitter needs to address this, perhaps with a “report user” feature.

  9. Englishfolkfan 15 years ago

    As a silver surfer directed to this article via my son’s tweet I would just like to express the view of someone who uses twitter simply as a personal ‘keep in contact’ tool.

    I love the simplicity and clarity of twitter so by following my son & other friends I am able to exchange news & views (far easier than texting, which I loath, and Facebook which I find too cluttered). I’ve also followed Stephen Fry since he started as I am an admirer of his erudition. With 8 following & 8 followers (not all the same!) mine is a very limited non geeky use (only via desk & laptop) but is an important part of my online life. It leads me to all sorts of places, like here, which helps keep the little grey cells working.

    Thank you for the opportunity to read and ponder your Posts.

  10. This is good, and the idea of a mute button is interesting, but there’s a solution already built in. As Neil Gaiman said last week “I’m going to be tweeting all day at this press junket, so unfollow for the day if you’re not interested.” Easy, social solution. Unfollow isn’t permanent, nor damaging to any relationship. Although I do see the disadvantage of having to find someone again.

    My personal biggest gripe though is with RT. Twitter, unmentioned in this post, has another great level of control: @ replies. There’s a dropdown saying “all @ replies, no @ replies, or @ replies only to people i follow. This is awesome granular control not just over who I follow but over what I see that they say. Unfortunately, RT @xxxxxxxx destroys that filter, which is just another reason to hate RT. 95% of the tweets I wish I didn’t see are people I like a lot (and follow for a reason) RT’ing things by people I didn’t care about and never wanted to hear from.

    On the other hand that could just be me.

  11. yo! great post!

    real quick: i wish i only saw @replies between the people i follow. in otherwords if @bestfriend is sending a tweet to @somerandomguy, i don’t want to see it in my feed unless i am following @somerandomguy.

    that’s my 2 cents

  12. Peter 15 years ago

    As Vern mentioned above, I’d be fine with the ability to apply boolean filters to the timeline. Especially since most of the times that I have a problem it’s for short bursts like when someone is “livetweeting” an event, and they label their tweets #eventname.

    As it is, there really isn’t much to complain about since, as you said, it’s all voluntary.

  13. Jan:

    “Mute instead of unfollow is a technical solution to a social problem and as such out of the ballpark.”

    I disagree. While yes, people should learn that Twitter unfollows don’t equate to you no longer being friends or any such thing, it’s just not how most people encounter it. The discovery that a friend has stopped following you on Twitter far too often is met with a lot of (needless) drama, and it will take more than just social stigma by the likes of you and I to get people to understand that. It takes Twitter helping out with a feature.

  14. Joey Sichol 15 years ago

    I wish people used Facebook for those “I’m getting a coffee” or “I’m bored” posts instead of making me waste time, thinking it is actually a useful tweet.

    The signal-to-noise ratio is WAY too high on twitter. I would MUCH rather have an RSS feed of the people/sites I follow. (Netnewswire with Ollicle Reflex, FTW!) The tweets, to me, are worthless and are much better accomplished through other means…

    Do people not respond to direct emails anymore? Is your idea that great and succinct that you can describe it in 140 characters or less? Is what you are saying so important that all of your “followers” have to know immediately? In all cases, probably not…

    As to traffic, twitter (and digg and reddit) users are usually too smart to click on ads. Advertisers paying by impression are getting the shaft.

    To me, twitter just seems like another marketing circle-jerk vanity-type publishing with questionable real-world returns…

  15. I’m with Jan on this mute thing. (Sorry, Fixxy…)

    Anyone who gets upset by being unfollowed can either (1) ask why, or (2) grow up.

  16. Jason 15 years ago

    @Austin: Twitter power tip! Go to Settings on, click on the Notices tab, and set “Show me” to “Show me @replies to the people I’m following.”

    At that point you will no longer see ANYTHING from your friends that is a reply to someone you don’t follow.

    It’s a Good Thing.

  17. I haven’t used this and don’t know how reliable it is, but someone has implemented snooze:

  18. Illtron 15 years ago

    I think you need to make the distinction between Twitter spam and people who tweet too much bullshit on Twitter. Spam is spammers who sign up for an account and then follow you so you get the email, click to their profile, and then see the spam. If they’re lucky or you’re particularly bad at life, you’ll follow them. That’s spam.

    Would you say that somebody who emails you too often is spamming you? If somebody posts too much crap, you stop following them, end of story.

  19. Jesse David Hollington 15 years ago

    As the original article pointed out, I fail to see the issue with “signal-to-noise” ratio, since the “noise” you receive is based upon the choices that you make. If somebody is spewing too much noise for you, your choices are to either a) Live with it, or b) Unfollow them. If you had a friend who was regularly too chatty with you on the phone and started to seriously annoy you, you’d either sit them down and explain that to them, or you’d stop answering the phone when they called.

    John Baxendale mentioned above that “The “twitter spam” I’ve received so far has been follow requests with adverts in the user info. By their very nature you end up reading the advert as you’re deciding whether to approve/deny the follow-request.” This raises another interesting point, however…. You actually don’t need to approve or deny followers (unless you have a private account)… There are some people pushing for that to change, but right now you only get a notification of a new follower, which you can just as easily ignore. Further, you can even turn these notifications OFF (something that I”m sure the celebrities have actually done to prevent their inbox from being inundated).

    Ironically, the people who are pushing for a “follower-approval” model either forget that their tweets are entirely public anyway (unless they close their profile), or fail to realize that a follower-approval model would potentially increase spam, since you would need to check out the people (and spam accounts) that are following you in order to make that decision.

    Personally, I prefer the open-follower model. Do I really need to care if people are following my public tweets? If a spammer actually wants to follow me, they can go right ahead … it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever to my Twitter experience.

  20. David 15 years ago

    Re: snoozing and

    If you’re not missing their tweets enough to remember to re-follow the person when they’re done their drunken ranting or press junket, then why are you following them in the first place?

  21. Another form of twitter spammers are those who create twitter accounts solely as a way to generate links back to their porn/wares/ponzi-scheme websites. They follow hundreds or thousands of people, a few even follow back either out of politeness or laziness, and in the process generate hundreds of links to their sites all across twitter’s “Who’s following you?” pages. Rather than simply not following them back, I would urge users to to ‘Block’ these spam-users from following you.

  22. Rob Allen 15 years ago

    I’m familiar with Twitter only in the abstract so forgive my ignorance. Is there anything stopping someone from building a Twitter feed reader which incorporates a snooze/pause button – or builds tweets into a digest? The information seems to be there in order to implement that.

  23. Twitter is a great way to size people up. Is someone a herd instinct follower of minor celebs? Do they make up fake followers to puff up their own celebrity? Do they try to gather as many followers as possible?

    There are people in my trade I was on the fence about. After watching them on Twitter, I know exactly what kind of people they are.

    Thanks for the article.

  24. Twitter is NOT email and it is NOT Facebook (thank God!)

    Unfollow spammers.

    Unfollow boring friends.

    Simple and elegant. Great post!

  25. Nice Post Rands…

    However, Twitter SPAM has the same problem of Email SPAM… the difference is… the things you lost by unfollow someone on Email(filter to trash messages from someone) are potentially more important than unfollow on twitter…

    Keep doing good! Don’t make me unfollow you! 😉

  26. Good points but our definitions of twitter spam are different. I don’t consider boring/dumb tweets from people I am following as spam because I am following them. Twitter spam to me are all the accounts setup by people who then start following as many people as they can, which sends notifications, leading me to click on their profile and see who they are and if I want to follow them back. That is Twitter spam. What you are talking about is just junk tweets that people need to decide for themselves if the quality vs quantity is worth continuing to follow someone.

  27. Darren 15 years ago

    All the discussion on mute/pause vs. unfollow seems to miss the point of “mute”.

    I don’t want a mute button because I’m afraid of some social stigma associated with unfollow. I want it for two simple reasons:

    1. I don’t want to have to remember who I temporarily unfollowed, and have to go find them again.

    2. Once mute was implemented, it would be trivial to make unmute automatic.

    As an example of #2: I’d love to mute a friend for the day each time he goes to a particular meeting — he gets verbose and ranty and I don’t care about that noise. If I could press “mute for 3 hours” about the time he starts tweeting about the meeting, then I don’t need to do *anything else* to unmute him after he’s done with his ranting.

    I’d have no problem with people I’ve muted knowing that I’ve done so, and for how long — in fact, I think that’d be a desirable feature.

    Essentially, mute is a feature that makes temporarily unfollowing people a lot more user-friendly.

  28. Thank you for the crystalisation of the “first three big design decisions” – that is very well said. And I agree with you.

    I was trying to explain that in a series at my blog, but keep going round and round. You put the finger at the right spot in just one go.

  29. The only thing approaching Twitter spam is *NOT* people you have chosen to follow who are ranting or Retweeting. etc, it’s people @reply to you with stuff that you don’t care about.

    Things like Twitterhawk are going to make this much more common, where people can automatically search for “buzzwords” and then send automatic @replies.

    Or you get someone with too much free time who decides it would be funny to create a bunch of Twitter accounts and have them all @reply you.

    Both of these things have happened already, just on a small scale.

    At which point you can complain to the @spam account, but like every other kind of spam, by the time you complain about it, even if you get the account closed, it’s too late, it’s already taken your time and attention.

    That’s the only thing you can legitimately call Twitter spam.

  30. Excellent post. Echoes my sentiments almost exactly. I’m a responder (mostly) with a few broadcaster tendencies. I love the community — or “house” — I’ve built for myself with Twitter.

    A few additional comments: While I agree that both @replies and RTs can be annoying, occasionally they help me connect with other people or information I find interesting. To me, it’s worth wading through both on my Twitter stream for the 10% or so additional useful content they provide. I do wish people would think twice before using either feature; it sure would cut the bandwidth.

    As for following/unfollowing — I follow only 100 people, which I find borderline managable. If I want to add someone, I have to remove someone else. That’s how I keep my house. But it never ceases to amaze me how some people use Qwitter to track unfollows and get so offended when you stop following them. People like that really do need to get a life.

    Now I need to figure out who to unfollow to start following you.

  31. Screamo 15 years ago

    I’ve been using Twitter for a couple of months now, yet during this time i’ve struggled to define my interest in it.

    This article has provided that definition so I thank you.

    I only follow people that interest me and that mostly includes those working in the video game industry and it’s enthusiast press. There have been occasions where some people have become irritating with their content and/or frequency of their tweets, and as your post suggests, they have been ‘unfollowed’. The annonymity afforded by this feature is also greatly appreciated as there is rarely any awkwardness unlike in Facebook.

    A mute option could be useful in the context suggested by @Darren but, for me personally, I don’t follow anyone who tweets in that grey area of ‘interesting but annoying sometimes’. The tweeters i’ve encountered so far are either one or the other.

    In summary, Twitter performs a very specific function for me and the fact that I can customise my experience to match my interests means that i’m only viewing content I want to see.

  32. Weakly 15 years ago

    Sheesh. And I thought the tweets were trivial.

  33. Erwin 15 years ago

    The mute/unmute idea is easily done with a client like Tweetdeck where you can define custom groups. Not everyone that you follow has to be in a group, at all, or all the time.

  34. Loved the statement of “its likes standing in the middle of a highway and wondering why do all these cars keep hitting me” haha it is so true.

  35. Some of us actually enjoy the “It’s cold out to-day” posts… at least they’re nice to read compared to my friend who tweets every 15m during work days with a status report for his boss.

  36. I signed up for Twitter in July 2007 but didn;t really start using it until September… and that was largely because of a posting here at randsinrepose. 🙂 In fact, my first tweet (according to was

    Reading back issues of 2007-09-11 22:44:16

    How did II find people to follow? I started with @rands, clicked open all of the people he followed (or who followed him) looked at what they were saying. If they were of interest to me, I added them, then went out another ring, clicking on who they read and who read them. And again.

    I’m not the busiest voice on Twitter but I’ve posted 1200 updates and now follow over 300 people. I knew some of them before Twitter; I’ve met some in person since Twitter; I know many only through Twitter.

    Be patient. Let it grow.

  37. Shii wrote:

    Some of us actually enjoy the “It’s cold out to-day” posts…

    I love them. I live in the San Francisco area. I follow people in Boston, Canada, Australia, the UK, India. I love reading the simple things abut what”s happening elsewhere. It gives me more of a feeling of connection.

  38. Rob L 15 years ago

    “they were the business. Their goal was not to build something great, but to make a profit.”

    How dare they! Totally un-American. Who needs money?

  39. filmutopia 15 years ago

    Thanks for this. It’s a lovely change to read an article that focuses on the network management aspect of Twitter rather than the tedious, and in my view, often wrong headed network growth aspects.

    There is, however, one element you’ve missed from the choices available – we can also choose who follows us.

    Most twitterers see the Block function as something done only in anger, but actually, it’s also a way to decide whether you want someone to have access to what you’re tweeting about.

    I know this may seem to go against the ethos of Twitter, but I think there is a lot to be said for taking an active view of who follows you, as well as who you are following.

    I made a decision early on to keep my followers at about the 1000 mark – even with a small following like that, there are people with whom my interaction is non-existent. My personal goal is to have a tweet stream where I have a valid connection with my entire network… an idea that may turn out to be idiotic, but it’s no more idiotic than collecting thousands of people to whom I’m just another unknown scrolling down the left hand colomn of my Tweetdeck.

  40. Great post! Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

  41. You know, I don’t read blogs. But yours is really worth beeing read.

  42. The only thing I have to add pertains to real-life friends who may not tweet too much, but are certainly boring in what they say. In these cases I usually elect to suffer their occasional inane tweets rather than unfollow them (as I have on at least one occasion been questioned as to why I did so, and chose to lie, citing a Twitter error). Perhaps it’s a failing of mine to be unable to be honest with my friends, but it feels unnecessarily cold to outright tell someone that they write boring and trivial tweets when actual harm can result. It’s a toss up between brutal self-design and maintaining public relations with those few friends who just don’t have anything interesting to say.

  43. orjin krem 13 years ago

    Some of us actually enjoy the “It’s cold out to-day” posts… at least they’re nice to read compared to my friend who tweets every 15m during work days with a status report for his boss.

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