Buffering the stream: A solution for the status update deluge


This is a follow-up post to one I wrote few months ago about how difficult it was to keep up with the 250 or so people I follow on Twitter and Facebook. Because I was pulling in everyone's updates into my custom news reader, I would store up hundreds of updates every day, which I would then try to skim through as best as possible.

In the end, I decided it just wasn't in fact possible to keep up, and that most Twitter users most likely view their stream in bursts of what I termed as "Phased Attention". Or to put it in less geeky words, people are either paying attention to their stream, or they don't and don't care. No one besides myself was trying to store up every tweet made in the past 8, 24, 48 or more hours and then go through and read them all.

Once I realized how futile my effort was, I deleted the streams from my reader and just ignored them. That's not very much fun, though, because people are still using Twitter and Facebook to share links, thoughts, etc., even if in fact, most of their followers never actually see those tweets. I felt like I was really missing something. But what was the solution? I was either overwhelmed or felt like I wasn't involved.

After I mulled it over for a few weeks, I decided to re-add my Twitter and Facebook streams, but putting my Phased Attention theory into practice, I limited the amount of tweets I see in my reader to a buffer of the previous five hours. This means that if I get busy and miss a day or so of updates, I don't return to 2,000+ messages to try to wade through in order to jump back into the flow of messages. The results have been great - I still get a great feel of what the people I'm following are doing, and yet I'm not overwhelmed at the same time. The buffer is a very practical solution - better than logging in to the Twitter website or using a client and scrolling down a few pages to see what I missed, but not as bad as trying to keep up with every single tweet either.

Essentially, what I've done is codify into my news reader how Twitter is actually used by most people. Most tweets aren't of much lasting value, so if you miss them, it's not a big deal and I think most Twitter users realize that. Viewing someone's thoughts about the big game three days after it happened is just a waste of time really. So by accepting that updates are generally time sensitive, and coding for it, I've been able to finally keep up with status updates in a reasonable way. Now instead of being distracted constantly (by using a client which pings every few minutes with new updates) or missing huge chunks of messages (by logging into to Twitter once and while to see what was happening), or having to wade through *everything* posted (by subscribing to the raw feed of updates), I now get a nicely balanced number of updates that I can check out, which are still relatively "fresh", yet not overwhelming.

What's interesting is how retweets become very useful in this way as well. Rather than being an annoying repost of something without any real additional value, the rewteet becomes useful because of the fact that the original tweet has been *shifted forward in time*, which increases my chance of seeing it.

Now that I feel I figured it out, I wonder when Twitter, Facebook and others will get it as well (if they haven't already and I haven't seen). Because right now, status updates are a sort of Social Ponzi Scheme, where new users have to be added all the time to make up for the eventual dwindling of older users who tire out of trying to keep up with everything, before giving up all together. Any other type of filtering just doesn't work - even if you just focus on the "important" people or topics, eventually those numbers will get overwhelming as well. The only real solution is to consider all status updates as ephemeral, and then simply decide on how much and when you want to jump into the stream and enjoy them before jumping out again. As the members of social networking sites hits saturation levels, the growth is going to stop - if they don't figure out how to keep users engaged without it being overwhelming to do so, they're going to have problems.

Then again, I've never really understood social networks, so I may just not get it still. Regardless, my new system works pretty great for me so I'm happy. Time will tell what happens to the social networks.


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