Drinking from the Firehose


This post is about my attempts to figure out how to best view Twitter and Facebook updates. I still haven't figured it out, and though I've been meaning to write this post for a while, I was hoping to have developed some sort of solution or system to expound upon, but I don't.

Let me, instead, expound on what I've noticed so far.

First, let me describe how I use Twitter, and to a lesser extent, Facebook. With Twitter, I follow, at this moment, 245 accounts. None of these accounts have been added for any reason except for me thinking that what that person has tweeted in the past is interesting, and that I want to hear what they say. In other words, I haven't followed someone just because they followed me. Depending on your point of view, 245 people may seem like a lot or a little, but when you combine industry people, official accounts, friends, co-workers and contacts, it adds up rather quickly. (And I'll tell you the truth, I'm not a very social person. I'm sure the real "networkers" out there are following a lot more than this.)

So because I use my own custom news reader, my Twitter timeline feed has been stored in a MySQL database which I've been using to tweak my Tweet-reading experience. And now, I can look at it from a historical perspective as well: Since last November (the last time I purged the DB for whatever reason), I've gotten over 98,000 updates. In more specific terms, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, for the past 130 days, I've been storing every tweet I would normally get online.

98,000 tweets / 130 days = 743 tweets a day on average.

That's a lot of updates in 5 months, (and that's not counting the Facebook updates, which I also read). In fact, if you look at the chart I made above, the average doesn't really show the real story - the number of tweets can vary between 600 on a slow day to well over 1,000 on a busy day. Except for the Christmas holidays, when everyone took a break it seems. Some tweeters are more verbose like Michael Gartenberg (who's tweeted 3850 times in that period, or around 30 times a day average), and others are much less so, but regardless, the total number of tweets stays north of the 600 mark daily.

Let me say, it's basically *impossible* to keep up with 600+ updates a day. I've tried.

I'm talking about reading each and every tweet from each of my contacts. Not filtering in any way, but simply re-organizing and re-formatting the tweets to see if there's some magic way of keeping up. The best I've been able to do so far is to organize the Tweets on their own page, sorted by contact. Here's a snapshot of what that looks like. By organizing tweets and Facebook updates by person, they become almost blog-like in their nature. It definitely helps for skimming, so if someone I know that hasn't posted for a while shows up, I'll see their pic and can stop and read more closely. I can also see when someone is just being overly verbose, and skim all their tweets all at once.

I've also tried:

  • To organize the tweets based on hourly and half-hourly increments.
  • Adding Javascript so I don't see an individual's tweets unless I click to expand that section.
  • Highlighting the updates that have links, calling them out for better scanning
  • Formatting tweets like one big paragraph per person (getting rid of the date)

In addition to ways of seeing *everything*, I've also tried filtering:

  • Based on "favorites", ranked from 1 to 5, with the top ranked users sections expanded, and the rest collapsed.
  • Filtering to show only those tweets with links
  • Filtering based on keywords I find interesting (mobile, etc.)

None of these options really works, for various reasons. Either you miss context, or you miss the flow of a conversation, or you end up just focusing a fewer amount of users and should just unfollow the rest anyways.

So, if it's impossible to *really* keep up with a moderate amount of users, the question in my mind is, how the hell is Twitter and Facebook continuing to do so well, and increase in popularity? Well, I've come up with a couple of terms that I think explains how these services actually work. The first is what I'm calling "Phased Attention" - a time period in which a user views a stream of updates filled with "Transient Information" - data that by it's very nature is expected to come and go.

To be more specific, "Phased Attention" is pretty much how anyone who uses a Twitter client deals with the constant flow of updates - they turn it on, participate, and then turn it off. Anything posted outside that time period is of little concern. Unlike my attempts to archive and read every tweet from every user, every day, it seems the only real way to consume the constant flow of data from contacts, data sources, etc. is during the time when that information is freshest, not later.

"Transient Information" is information that you don't necessarily need to worry about. If it was, it would (and should be) sent by different means than a status update stream. This is an important concept that I think we're starting to see is fundamental to Twitter and Facebook. First, because trying to force-fit important information into the stream is just a *bad* idea, and secondly, because we're learning how much transient information is actually out there. What my friend ate for lunch, what someone's opinion of a TV show is, or even stock prices and sports scores are all bits of info that are valuable only for a certain amount of time, to a certain audience.

It may seem obvious, but I think these concepts are a fundamental change from how we've viewed communication and information consumption up until now. Email is expected to be durable for the most part, and messages build up in your inbox until you actively do something about them. This is similar to the way news feeds have been read up until now, as well. Emails and news items don't get deleted after a certain amount of time, do they? (Though many of us wish they would). However, that is essentially what happens to tweets when they disappear "below the fold" - they might as well be gone forever.

On the flip side of this, chat - including group chats and IM - expect that all participants actively and synchronously take part - you wouldn't bother typing if there was no one around to respond to you. (Though IRC might be the exception here). These systems expect the *participants* to be durable, if someone drops from a IM during the middle of a conversation, it usually means the end of the conversation.

Basically, these two ideas means that Twitter and Facebook are fundamentally different in that users don't expect either the participants nor the messages themselves to be durable.

Let's imagine how an average person signs up to Twitter and starts using it for the first time. The 245 people I follow average about 5 posts a day - so assuming this new user has typical friends, the first few days or so of using Twitter is very similar to other services she may have used before. She posts an update, her friends see it, and they respond, etc. After she adds her 10th friend, however, she's now getting nearly 50 updates a day, and she's noticing that her friends don't always respond to her tweets like they did at the beginning. But enough do so that she keeps on updating her status - it's fun and cathartic, thinking that there's all these people out there that are interested in what she's doing. Soon however, she's following or friended a few dozen people - including some services like CNN, or her favorite singer or actor - and a few dozen more are following her back. The number of updates have skyrocketed to nearly 200 a day or more. Every once in a while she'll "catch up" to what a friend wrote over the weekend or something, but in general, more and more messages fly by without her seeing them. But that's ok because when she's online, she responds or retweets the ones she thinks are interesting, and also sees responses from one or two people that's following her. This keeps her interest going like a Pavlovian randomized reward and the process continues.

The key takeaway from all this analysis is simply a better understanding of the true nature of these new data streams:

  • You can't consume all the data in a typical update stream. There's basically no way of organizing, sorting or prioritizing it that would let you see it *all*. The best you can do is filter, which by its very definition means you're missing something.
  • Any stream which contains mostly Transient Information - like status updates - can't replace any medium that contains vital information. The chances that the updates will be missed - *even by those subscribed to them* - is just too high.
  • Phased Attention is the 21st century's answer to Information Overload. As the data volume increases, more of it will simply be skimmed, missed or outright ignored outside a set time-frame or context. What's different is that unlike in years past, this is becoming an accepted, and expected way of dealing with communication and information, and it's bound to bleed back into other technologies such as email.

I have a suspicion that the novelty of the transient information stream is going to wear off. I'm not sure when, but it feels to me like a pyramid scheme at the moment, driven by the power of numbers of people who are involved. For every one person who becomes disillusioned with Twitter due to the lack of interaction or return on time invested, there are two people who replace them. But there comes a point when that growth has to end because there really is a finite number of people out there. For example, I've got roughly 1200 people following me on Twitter. If I update enough, eventually a few of them will actually see my tweets and respond. If they don't, it's pretty much like a write-only medium, which isn't very compelling. After a while, as less and less people bother responding and are not replaced by others, the desire to update your status will simply disappear. Retweets, liking and favorites, etc. help this a bit, as it lowers the bar in terms of effort to give feedback, but even this eventually is going to fade in value.

So where does it all go from here? I don't know. I'm still struggling to understand the growth of social networks, and every day I'm starting to wonder if the emperor has any clothes on or not. Something doesn't seem right, I just can't figure out exactly what it is. The idea that people are able and willing to use a Twitter client all day, with multiple accounts and windows, subscribing to hundreds of people's updates, posting 30 or more times a day, and are still able get anything done in their life seems far fetched to me. Are all those people really content with missing 90% of the information streaming through? I guess maybe they are, because that's the only way you'd be able to manage it. This just doesn't seem right at all.

Or maybe it's just me. I'm just not sure...


< Previous         Next >