Tech Life You choose who you follow

We Travel in Tribes

The rumor that Twitter is abandoning Ruby on Rails comes as no surprise to those familiar with Twitter’s shaky uptime record and its tendency to lose its mind in increasingly impressive and creative ways.

So, new platform. Fine. Saw that coming. What continues to surprise me is this: why aren’t we more pissed when Twitter goes mute for three hours? How about when those tweets you sent just vanished? How come delete only works 50% of the time? Why aren’t the Twitterati bolting to Pownce?

The answer comes down to value. In the time that I’ve been using Twitter, it’s transformed from a curiosity to an essential service. What were seemingly random status updates have now become organized into organic conversational threads that bring a steady flow of relevant content across my desktop.

“Rands, you mean, just like an RSS reader?”

Yeah yeah yeah, that’s not the key value. The value lies in the network of people and how they illuminate the things I don’t know.

Don’t Give Me What I Asked For, Give Me What I Want

When I ask a question, I’m looking for an answer in one of three ways:

  1. Specifics. Just answer the question directly and cleanly. I am the king of finding specifics. Average rainfall in Honokaa, HI? Yeah, that took three seconds to find.
  2. Like or Related. Rather than answer the specific question, how about a related answer? I’m in a Sigur Ros mood — what should I listen to? Ratatat. Google can help with related answers, but useful discovery rates begin to drop here because relation is subjective. It’s influenced by personal preference — a judgment call. It helps if you know me before you suggest that this is like that and you think I’ll like it.
  3. Rock My World. Fuck my question. Rands, here’s a random thing I know you need to know. There is no technological solution to knowing when or how to rock my world. Well, there is, but the technology is far less interesting than the people who use the technology, which brings us back to Twitter.

Affinity is the opposite of Infinity

Twitter is a social network, yes, but it’s a social network without the superpoke scrabtaculous zombie noise and, for that, I’m thankful, because I’ve got work to do. Yes, I could spend days tidying my profile and scrubbing my friends list, but to what end? I want to know more people, and sure, it’s interesting to see what they’re up to, but what I really want to know is what is going on inside their heads with a minimum of fuss.

I want to see how they see the world. This is why I follow people on Twitter. This is why they follow me.

I’ve already described how I maintain a healthy Twitter equilibrium. This lightweight following protocol keeps the average amount of content I receive at any given time to a readable volume and shields me from the increasing and poorly named problem of Twitter spam. As an aside, I don’t understand folks who are complaining about Twitter spam when it’s a fundamental tenet of Twitter: “You choose who you follow”.

There are two immediate networks that I care equally about. First, there are the folks I follow. I actually know or have met a majority of the people on my followed list, but there is also an increasing healthy dose of strangers.

The second list is the folks who are following me. Now, there are functional differences in how these two groups are treated by Twitter and its supporting cadre of third party applications, but, to me, there is no difference between those I choose to follow and those who choose to follow me. Both groups have amazingly high information value because of a simple choice: “By choosing to follow this person, I am acknowledging we may have something in common / an interesting intersection.”

The act of one human being choosing to follow another is a big deal. As long as nefarious intent is not in play, the connection creates what the social science nerds like to call an affinity map; by drawing a line between you and me, we can infer that we’re somehow connected. How are we connected? Who knows? Maybe you like nerd culture? How about gel pens? We’re not really going to know until we test that link by asking a question.

Via the LazyWeb convention, I expect reasonable, informed, and quick answers to most any question. Where I used to use Google, I now use Twitter for questions, because not only do I get the answer, I also get the opinion. And sometimes I get my world rocked with random, psychic, off-the-cuff, tangential information that Google will never give me because Google doesn’t know who I am.

We Travel in Tribes

I’m eagerly watching Twitter evolve and organize itself. I’m dazzled as third parties are giving Twitter memory and context. But what I care about, and what has value to me, is the tribe of people in my ecosystem. Twitter is the best social network out there; it’s a great social search engine; and it’s a short strategic hop from being a terrific next generation address book.

My tribe is not your tribe because you’re not using Twitter how I do. You wrote an Academy Award-winning screenplay, only follow a few people, but have thousands following you. You sell shoes and follow each of the thousands of people who follow you. You are a major airline, but sound surprisingly human.

Twitter’s value has nothing to do with the technology.

Measuring uptime is an interesting nerd exercise, but Twitter’s value lies in how it stays out of the way and allows people to easily connect so they can share their thoughts and, more importantly, explore their differences.

20 Responses

  1. Twitter founder Evan Williams denied the rumor right after it srufaced:

  2. Chris 16 years ago

    “As an aside, I don’t understand folks who are complaining about Twitter spam when it’s a fundamental tenet of Twitter: “You choose who you follow”.”


  3. David 16 years ago

    Well I never, you’re a Sigur Ros fan.

    In a hopefully refreshing and tangential non technical comment on this blog entry i’ll take a wild stab at rocking your world and suggest that Rands may like these albums:

    Coolfin -Donal Lunny

    Väsen -Linnaeus Väsen

    Lunasa -Lunasa

    Michael McGoldrick -Wired

    Eclectic Bluegrass entry:

    Cadillac Sky -Blind Man Walking

    Love your book and the blog by the way. Please don’t ever stop with your entries and commentary. You’re a sanity lifebuoy in the ritual corporate onanistic sea that is my workday..sigh..

  4. Nathan Bowers 16 years ago

    “Don’t Give Me What I Asked For, Give Me What I Want” is product design advice for the ages.

    Hopefully Twitter gets its scalability sorted out, but I’m not too worried. Downtime killed Friendster, but social networks since then have been killed by user attrition due to noise, not downtime.

    Ironically Facebook’s reliance on “real world” connections is its biggest weakness. Real world friends can be totally lame online, but you can’t “unfriend” them in a tightly coupled Facebook-style network without hurting feelings.

  5. I love Ratatat, but I’ve never heard Sigur Ros. I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for mentioning them!

  6. heyrocker 16 years ago

    Recently I have seen Rands mention Sigur Ros (twice), Mogwai, Kronos Quartet, and Ratatat. Not only is Rands smart and hilarious, but good music taste as well? Bring it on.

  7. @girk 16 years ago

    I turned you onto Ratatat and I’ve never even heard of Sigur Ros.

  8. Barbara 16 years ago

    I have only recently become part of the Twitter family.

    I really don’t remember how I found your website, but it is on my favorites list and yes, I am following you.

    You showed Twitter to me (thank you), and I started slow, just trying to figure it out (still am), but my biggest problem with it is that NO ONE I know uses it.

    Sucks, really…

  9. Sigur Rós, very nice. 🙂 You may want to check out, it has similar recommendation features, and they’re pretty good. Plus it builds up a profile of all the music you listen to and figures out what you may like.

  10. Kevin Bracey 16 years ago

    Twitter is killing the technical blog. Twitter far more “what’s in it for me” and my clic than permanent community building. I’ve noted that many technical blogs have now fallen into disuse or sporadic updates. I’m guessing few want to type the same thoughts twice, and blogging takes a lot more work.

  11. Kevin, blogs have been falling into disuse since the dawn of time. I don’t think Twitter can really be blamed for that.

  12. James RS 16 years ago

    Thank you for explaining the appeal of Twitter, which up to now I have found simply baffling.

  13. Riddle 16 years ago

    Great post, I’m bookmarking it. 🙂

    You may want to re-link “memory” to, waay better search. 🙂

  14. Sweet William 16 years ago

    Twitter still haunts the same space as HDTV, Vista and Paris Hilton – products that I happily live without. Mainly because I’ve yet to see any benefit in them.

    I guess it’s a tribal thing: I’ve yet to stumble on a tweek worth the bandwidth.


  15. Great post and a great blog! thanks for everything!

  16. Mike W. 16 years ago

    I started on Twitter because of a recommendation from John Reese. At first, it baffled me. Some of the things that people put out there. WOW! “I’m doing this right now….”

    Since then, I have followed, un-followed, and been followed. It is interesting to me to hear what an organic sheep rancher is doing in Australia. I have a small flock. Where else can you do that?

    I look forward to branching out with my other iterests, too.

  17. Steven Klassen 16 years ago

    I try to explain this the uninitiated. It works about half the time.

  18. Finding this post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. A) You’ve been off my RSS for a couple years and I don’t know why. B) I’ve recently gotten fed up with Twitter because of the noise factor, but you’ve reinvigorated me to the possibility of honing it into something more personal and sharper.

  19. Lindsay Donaghe 16 years ago

    I just found your blog, Rands, and it’s already added to my feed subscriptions. I particularly like your Nerd Handbook article and see myself eerily reflected in it.

    But back to Twitter. I have the same problem as Barbara. I haven’t really been able to build up enough of a community on Twitter to make it worthwhile. I think there’s a critical mass that I can’t reach. But I have been using FriendFeed for a while and it lets me reach a lot more people and participate in conversations which is really my whole goal. Have you looked at FriendFeed yet? What do you think about it?

    Thanks again for the awesome blog!

  20. saya sangat daitsuki this blog! Keep up good works… sangat menyenangkan bila kita bisa berkenalan lebih dekat…:D