Hashtag self indulgence

23 February 2013

What is bothering me about Twitter? And why do I imagine that anybody cares about the answer to that question?

I’ve been working from home, for myself again for the last couple of months. I quickly settled into my usual home-based daily work routine - get out of bed, stumble over to the computer, open three browser tabs: Gmail, Google Reader, TweetDeck.

But I began to wonder where my mornings were going, and why I was getting annoyed when I glanced over to that TweetDeck tab, sat there keeping me company on a secondary monitor. It wasn’t the replacement for the office banter that I was hoping for.

Success

I felt frustrated and bitter that I wasn’t “succeeding” at Twitter very much. Why don’t more people follow me, interact with me, pay attention, listen to what I have to say, like me! Love me!

Maybe it’s because I’m a software developer so I don’t understand those squidgy lumps of flesh that actually use software. Humans are interesting, complex and confusing. I find this the case both online and offline, and have done all my life. I’m not gregarious and I’m not the life and soul of the party, although it seems like that would be nice. I don’t have vast numbers of casual acquaintances in the world of atoms, so why should it be any different in the world of bits?

Most people seem to have more success on Twitter than me, in a similar way that most people appear to have more successful social lives than I do. But this can actually be explained with maths! The average person’s friends will, on average, have more friends than them, because you’re more likely to be friends with somebody who has a lot of friends. It’s called the Friendship Paradox.

(There is also the Friendship Paradox Paradox, which is a term I’ve just invented for where you find yourself with even fewer friends after explaining the Friendship Paradox to them).

It’s similar reasoning which explains why everybody you see in the gym is fitter than you - it’s because they’re the ones that go to the gym more often, so they’re just more likely to be there in the first place (I don’t actually go the gym. I’m not mental).

Likewise the people you see posting on Twitter all the time are the people who post on Twitter all the time. The fact that I’m following them means it’s more likely that they are somebody that people follow. So it makes sense that the people I see on Twitter are the more successful users. The people who are shit at Twitter just don’t feature heavily on my timeline in the first place.

This certainly appeals to my rational brain, so I should therefore have no logical reason to feel bitter. That won’t stop me, of course. I’m sure I’d have more friends and followers if I understood humans better, but being less of a curmudgeon may also help - I would also have to actually like people’s tweets more.

#lunch

It quickly became a cliché to say that Twitter was all about people posting pictures of their lunch, but the reality seems no less self-involved, or maybe I was just following all the wrong people. It may not be their meals but it will be minutiae of their everyday lives, exhortations to watch their films, come to their events or download their apps, their attempts at jokes, their grasping interactions with celebrity Twitterers, meta-tweets about how many followers or retweets they’ve got, and pictures of their fucking cats.

I’m not any better. My tweets are no different to anything I’ve just listed above. I make attempts at humour and I post my half-baked opinions just like everybody else. I want people to download the software that I’ve written. And I want people to read my blog posts, just like this one.

I just don’t see what good this is ultimately doing.

The Game

You can be winning the game of Twitter but you’re not actually achieving much. You can think you’re building connections, but connections based on what? Collecting all of these contacts to do… what, exactly? Connections don’t build things. Are your followers going to become people who will work with you because of your Twitter connection? Are you building up a fan base of people who are going to buy your products? Or is it simply a narcissistic need to keep reminding people that you exist?

Remember that the majority of internet users don’t use Twitter at all. This may not matter if Twitter users are more influential than non-users - maybe it’s worth spending some time to try to get these people excited about your stuff. Of course Twitter users want you to believe that Twitter users are influential, even though they’re a small portion of the population. But I think it’s easy to forget that there are other people, people who are not spending all their time on Twitter, that it may be more valuable to try and reach.

You could spend ages building your Twitter “brand” instead of actually getting some work done. It may feel like work and you will feel very satisfied when you see your stats increasing. Twitter has gamification built right in - all social media does. Your reply, retweet and follower counts are all points in the game of Twitter. But it is just a game.

Value

Most of the time you can’t distill the value of something down to a number. What metric can I use to decide if some software I write is good, or a blog post is valuable? You could get a lot of comments on a blog post, but maybe only because you were being stupid or controversial. Somebody might read your blog post and it could completely change the way they think about the world, but will they necessarily write a comment or retweet it? You can only expect comments from the kind of people who feel the need to comment on blog posts, which is only a small fraction of the population. Likewise, who retweets things? Retweets are like laughter - people don’t laugh just because they find something funny. Most people don’t laugh when they watch sitcoms at home on their own. It’s a social signal - you want people to know you find something funny (this is not a conscious process of course). Similarly people don’t just retweet something because they like it - they want people to know that they like it. It’s part of a statement about who you are. Even if nobody actually reads stuff that people retweet (I skim people’s RTs quicker than their original tweets, and I can’t be alone in this). So it seems pointless - a quick click to make another few sketched lines on the self-portrait we create on Twitter, which makes us feel as though we’re expressing ourselves, that we’re a valuable conduit of information, even if ultimately nobody gives a fuck.

You can spend ages reading tweets and learn absolutely nothing. Nothing in your timeline is going to help you become a better person or actually get some shit done. You can work for ages, posting, retweeting, mentioning, growing your followers, following the right people and hoping they follow back, building up an illusion of your own significance, but what if it doesn’t amount to anything real?

You can be followed by thousands but many of those people will never even see your tweets anyway. Different people use Twitter in hugely different ways. Some people follow tens of thousands of accounts. Even if they check Twitter all the time, they may only be paying major attention to their @ mentions, maybe not checking their main timelines at all or only skimming for those gems of information that are directly relevant to them, if they happen to glance over at the right time as they scroll past. And for people who follow a small number of accounts, the ones who don’t spend all day with TweetDeck open, because they’re actually doing useful things, it’s easy for them to miss your tweet entirely.

Changing my behaviour

I used to have TweetDeck open constantly. But I don’t need to be at the water cooler or bar all day, talking about myself and imagining that other people give a damn about what I think. So now I try to ration my usage. I check it a few times a day, perhaps. I don’t follow as many people as I used to - I “culled” maybe half of the people I followed. I don’t need to see what famous comedians or journalists or other people with tens of thousands of followers or more are saying. If it’s important, I’ll see it eventually anyway. The power of Twitter should be in maintaining genuine personal connections, which takes a lot more work and can only be done one at a time, and requires a slower drip-feed of information than the firehose of irrelevant crap you get when you follow loads of people you hardly know.

So I should be satisfied with my relatively low number of followers and people I follow, in the hope that there’s a more meaningful connection there.

Of course, I’m a complete hypocrite. Which is why I’m posting this. Why on earth do I imagine that anything I’ve said above is in any way novel or interesting? Why do I think anybody would care in the first place? I cannot complain about the quality of posts on Twitter. I am just as bad, if not far worse - look, this is 1658 words of unexpurgated moaning crap. I could have spent today doing something useful, but I wrote this instead. At least it doesn’t matter too much because it’s a Saturday. So, anyway, if you want to give me some metrics to massage my ego, you can express your displeasure or otherwise in the comments below, or follow me @alexwarren. Sorry, I’m a wanker. #hopethatdoesntinvalidateeverythingijustsaid #offtowritesomemoresoftwarenow