Is Twitter "information overload and interaction underload"?

You’re probably familiar with Rohit Bhargava’s image of the Five Stages of Twitter Acceptance.

I also like Jason Hiner’s “Four Stages” version on ZD.net:

1. Confusion and indignation
>>>> 2. The first “Aha!” moment
>>>>>> 3. Remembering to Tweet
>>>>>>>> 4. Thinking in 140 characters.

Then this got me thinking about it all, now I’m almost two years into it. Maggie McGary recently posted, asking “Is The Twitter Honeymoon Period Over?” Her conclusion: “Twitter is starting to become information overload and interaction underload.” I know exactly how she feels… namely that in some respects the more immersed you get into Twitter, the lonelier it feels.

Having said that, it seems to me like this is a cyclical and repetitive process which is entirely to do with the growth of the “stream” as you progress from newbie to power user, and your use of and experimentation with more sophisticated applications in order to handle that growth.

I’ve gone through several cycles:

I joined Twitter on September 6, 2007, after my first ASAE annual meeting in Chicago and the immense value I got out of meeting people via the Mozeo text backchannel set up by blogger bud Ben Martin. At first I listened closely to everyone I followed, and being a social, extroverted type, felt right at home. At this point the mobile value was huge, since I was following a small number of people whose tweets I could read on my phone.

Then, at one point fairly early on, I had to stop getting tweets delivered by SMS except for a handful of friends. That changed the way I listened to the stream and I started investigating Twitter apps. I found a myriad of great ways to find new and interesting people to follow, and I followed back everyone who followed me. I started seeing the value of link sharing, I connected it via RSS to my blog, I started feeding my stuff to my Facebook page. Over time, Twitter became less of a “cocktail party” and took over as my RSS reader. My follow/follower counts grew to over 500.
I kept finding great links and content and kept adding miscellaneous people, many of whom followed me back. I found more ways to connect to people – local to DC, tech scene, startups, anyone who had a Twitter app (or any other online app) I was using, brands, bloggers, social media mavens, more and more association friends and colleagues, nonprofiteers… I eventually decided I couldn’t deal with the fact that the stream of tweets I was following had become a raging torrent. I spent a whole afternoon trying to cull the list of who I followed – I got it down from 2100 to 1300, which was hard for me, as I want to listen to everyone! I couldn’t bear to unfollow anyone I knew personally, even if many of those people had yet to tweet or had dormant accounts. At this point, some of the Twitter apps I had checked out started developing group functionality – like Tweetdeck – but I unfortunately already had too many people in my stream to be able to divide them up into groups easily. My advice for you – do this before you are following more than a couple of hundred, or it’s a bloody nightmare. (and same goes for Facebook. Sigh.)
I stopped automatically following people who followed me. I turned off @replies to people I didn’t know, then later turned off all @replies not addressed to me (until they decided to mess with the settings and now I annoyingly have them back. No offense, but I really don’t need to read a 25-tweet conversation between two people I know, regardless of the fact that I know them.) At some point, I had to automate my “thanks for following” messages because I couldn’t do them fast enough to keep up and I thought it was important to say it anyway. Eventually, the backlash against auto-DM’s became such that I recently stopped bothering (apologies to any new followers).
And right now, I’m currently in a new “brain freeze” stage, where I’m so busy that I feel like I’m missing out on lots of good stuff, I’m clicking on less links directly (have reverted to my Google Reader for blog reading because it’s more controlled – which, by the way, I also cull regularly); I’ve learned to spot really good stuff by watching for multiple retweets; and I’m starting to learn to really use the search and trending functions better and better. Groupthink and the wisdom of crowds here we come.
Call it “Twitter fatigue”, “Twitter blues” or something else, I’m actually OK with this cycle – or spiral – of growth and culling, of plateauing and adjusting, of diving in and pulling back to get the lie of the land. I think that one the one hand, Twitter is still a brand new communications tool, maybe just like an awkward teenager with zits, and as it grows and the apps around it adjust to that growth, it’s going through its own organic development cycle. Whether we’re actively involved in all that beta testing or we’re just along for the ride, the kinks are being worked out as we use it, and that’s not only ok, it’s awesome to see.
Twitter is a simple concept with vastly complex applications and iterations and add-ons. It’s easy to get frustrated, or overwhelmed, or simply lose the plot with it over time – but it’s also easy to take a break. When the current become too strong for a while, just sit on a rock and catch some sun for a bit instead. And when you’re ready to swim again, just start by responding to your friends! If there’s one thing I remind myself, it’s that “All community forms in small groups“. Just start small again and roll with it.
Dang, look at that, that pesky incrementalist strikes again! :)

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{ 2 comments }

Adam June 12, 2009 at 8:17 am

I'm experiencing a bit of this as well. It seems that back in 2007, the only conversations happening on Twitter were those of value.

Today, you're seeing some very different discussions, as indicated by the trending topics. As Twitter continues to gain broad acceptance, it will be interesting to see how those people that have been on Twitter for multiple years continue having high-value conversations and develop ways to filter content.

www.freedomforchina.co.uk June 12, 2009 at 3:53 pm

i think with twitter its more about creating an aura of a party so theres stuff like what people had for lunch and what not on there.
that then allows people to naturally share their business etc. cos its irritating when people Only plug their stuff without saying hello properly.
i use twitter to follow the bloggers in da know, and there's a krazy amount of exchange of useful websites etc, seems technology moves so fast so the twtter helps keep people in the loop.

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