I have had several conversations recently that take one of two shapes: 1. Why do you have over a 1,000 followers but only follow 200? or 2. How do you decide who to follow? These questions seem related, if not coterminous, and go to the heart of what I find valuable about twitter, and how and why I use it, so I thought it might be useful for others to spell out exactly how I go about “managing” who I follow.
Those I follow break down into roughly the following groups:
People at University at Texas at Dallas. I follow pretty much any student (grad or undergrad) I have had in class who regularly uses Twitter. As I said in my original post on Twitter I think the most valuable thing about the medium is its ability to build community amongst individuals who are geographically dispersed. I know a lot more about my students, there concerns about the program, what they are planning on doing, art openings one of them might have etc. Plus this often yields feedback on the readings or their coursework in general. There are also a few other faculty members who I follow, but it really is mainly a student medium which makes it high in the signal to noise ratio for connecting with students and contextualizing the educational process.
People in Dallas. I follow quite a few people in the Dallas area: this keeps me updated on things going on in my area, weather, news, events, general goings on. Plus connects me to a group of people when I want thoughts and opinions about things to do in Dallas (say for example recommendations on the best Pad Thai . . .)
Twitter “Power Users.” There is a handful of the top 200 twitters I follow. I don’t follow a ton of these people, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 20. These include people like @jayrosen_nyu @newmediajim @anamariecox and a small selection of journalists (although mostly citizen journalists over professional folk). I tried following people like @maddow for a while but I found that for the most part I like people who tweet their opinions and the minutiae of their lives, not just announce what is going to be on their show. I don’t follow many “tech pundits” honestly I find most of their conversations boring and repetitive. The key exceptions here are Tim O’Reilly (@timoreilly), Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold who also fits in the category below), and Dave Winer (@davewiner). In fact Dave Winer is one of the people I most value. He mixes the personal with the professional, the ranting opinions with short quips, the humor with the sincere. I don’t always agree with him, but this is what makes it interesting. In fact I think “I learned” how to use Twitter by following him, and mimicking what he did. (He’s the one who gave me the idea to change my Twitter name to Dave Hussein Parry during the election nonsense.) I don’t follow any “celebrities.” I did follow a few for a while, but honestly there was no pay off for me. (I do follow cobracommander though.)
Academics who are in my field. There are probably 30-40 academics in my field (what I will call “Digital Literacy” or “Media Studies” who I follow). This is not only because they tend to talk about things which interest me, tweeting about what they are currently working on, but also because it helps me stay in touch with these people, some of whom I know better than others. The nature of academia is that there are not often many people in your immediate geographic area who study what you study (because you are supposed to be “the person” who covers the field at your school why would they hire a second), so Twitter helps fill this gap. Also in this group are a collection of instructional technologists as part of what interests me is the pedagogy of technology.
A wide swath of people. Yeah, I know this group doesn’t make any coherent sense. But, one of the ways I use Twitter is to get a “snapshot” a quick look at what people are thinking about, what I have started to call the “collective conscious” or “swarm consciousness.” So this is the group that takes the most tweaking and I would be hard pressed to tell you how I decide who fits in this group. Often I will follow someone, take them for a “test-drive” and if they provide tweets and perspectives not in my stream I follow them. I have high school students I follow, undergrads in college (who are not media majors or even in Texas) a few politicians (mainly conservative ones as I like to know what they are thinking). I have added people who were tweeting about part of the world to which I had never been, or who lived in part of the US from which I did not already have someone.
I don’t follow many organizations, that is I find it more valuable to follow people rather than news organizations, or groups who are using Twitter to update people. There are a few exceptions, but mainly the value in Twitter for me comes from individual voice.
I tend to add people in, and “listen” to them a while and then decide whether or not to stay tuned in. The key for me is not adding in so many people that I cannot follow the thread of what they are tweeting about. When I am “listening” to Twitter, I pretty much try to read or at least glance at everything that comes through. If a particular user is dominating the stream I tend to unfollow (as often happens when they live tweet an event—in most cases I refollow after the event). I found if I follow to many people I find it hard to differentiate between people, and part of the value for me is connecting the individual tweets to the stream of tweets that someone has been authoring. If I followed many more people I would get overwhelmed, not able to follow what is going on. So for me it is less a matter of numbers of followers, and more a matter of managing number of tweets I get per hour when I am paying attention to Twitter.
Yes I do recognize this is fundamentally an unequal power relation, that is, many more people are “listening” to me than I am “listening to,” but in my defense I offer that this also can help the network. Hubs are an important part of any network and the asymmetrical nature of Twitter is one of its principle features.
I have blocked very few people. Pretty much I only block spam tweeters, and people using twitter as a marketing tool. I tend to think that the power of twitter comes from it being an open network, so I keep my updates unprotected, related to this I tend not to follow people with protected updates (again with some exceptions).