Thursday, March 1, 2012

Asymmetry on Twitter

I received an unpleasant email the other day from someone who had bought one of my books, followed me on Twitter, and then realized I wasn't following them back. They then unfollowed me, and when I sent word about my new subscription, they wrote me back to tell me that following readers of my books was just common courtesy, which I clearly lacked.

I've let it stew in my head for a few days, and though I'm sorry I made that person feel bad, the truth is I think asymmetry—the fact that you don't have to follow back those who follow you—is one of Twitter's most important features. Let me explain.

Twitter is my social media tool of choice, both for learning and for sharing. I consider the 140 character limit an absolutely brilliant and sublime innovation and I love how it trains us all to be editors, peeling away the layers of excess. I try to follow the tenets described in Tim O'Reilly and Sarah Milstein's excellent and newly updated The Twitter Book, especially that of adding value to the conversation. Still, I consider myself a difficult person to follow on Twitter, since my tweets are divided between two very distinct topics: ebook production and Catalonia, which have a limited amount of overlap. My followers generally have to bear a fair number of tweets on the other topic, often in another language. And sometimes I tweet a lot.

In short, I'll understand if you don't follow me. I know how it is. Which leads me to the second half of my Twitter life: the 500 or so people that I currently follow. You are all amazing. I learn so much from you. And unfortunately, I can't read half of what you write. Of course, I can't read even the tiniest percentage of what's on the internet, so I figure I'm doing OK with half of your helpfully filtered stream. Thank you.

But still, I worry about the other gazillion people, my disgruntled reader among them, that I don't follow. Not because I may be hurting their feelings, but rather because I'm missing out on what they might share. I'm sure I should be following some of them, but how to know? Once in a while, I look at people's profiles, and if something catches my eye, I might check out their latest Twitter stream, but as the list of people who I follow (and my to-do list!) grow, I get more and more reluctant to add any more information to my already overflowing banks. More often, I follow people that I have conversations with, who ask interesting questions, offer interesting links or insights, or well, who can help Catalonia become independent.

So I like Twitter's asymmetry. I follow lots of people who don't follow me, and lots of people follow me that I don't follow. I am honored when someone decides I'm worth following, but rarely insulted when they don't. Being able to follow anyone without the obligation that they follow me back has allowed me to connect to a much wider group of people than any compulsory following ever would have. I can follow Roger Ebert, Elisenda Paluzie, Neil Gaiman, and Miquel Calçada without worry of imposing or being a fangirl. I believe asymmetry encourages authenticity and also allows a more gradual connection which may well end up in mutual following.

For the record, I do have a Google+ account or page, but clearly haven't been there enough to even know what it's called. I'm on LinkedIn only because I wanted to be able to access the ebook discussion groups, but honestly, I need Twitter's 140 character limit in all parts of my life, so I barely ever go there. Plus, LinkedIn always seems to know more about me than I told them and generally gives me the creeps. If I don't follow you there, or talk to you there, just talk to me on Twitter.

And though I am on Facebook, I mostly use it for personal stuff, though, truth be told, my Facebook friends get a fair bit of information about Catalonia too. 


  1. Easy to avoid this problem by the use of a private list on twitter. Follow back everybody, which gives those followers of you a certain sense of happiness that they're important, too. But create a private list of only those people that you really want to follow closely. With effective use of lists, both public and private, twitter becomes much easier to manage. Private lists are key to following thousands of people and still keeping up with those you really want to read.

  2. 1. Somebody who sends unpleasant emails isn't worth following.

    2. Having to hack twitter by using lists is awkward and problematic because lists are awkward and problematic (and not well supported among twitter clients).

    3. Demanding to be followed is rude. That person who emailed you sounds rude.

    4. Autofollowing isn't a common courtesy, it's a sleazy marketdroid tactic.

    5. Culling the number of accounts you follow on a regular basis is essential for twitter to remain usable and nobody should take unfollowing personally.

    My five cents :-)

  3. Elizabeth, there is absolutely no reason to follow everyone who follows you on Twitter. The person who complained to you was inspired by pure ignorance and rudeness. Twitter is only valuable if you follow just the people you want to follow. I use twitter lists for other types of feeds that I don't want to clutter my "all friends" feed. As a somewhat "public" figure, you're going to attract responses and commentary that are both positive and negative. You'll need a shell to save your sanity!

  4. There is a germ of a terrific idea here. I am writing about your expressed regret over not being able to somehow digest all that those you follow say or digest the whole internet for that matter.

    Software that summarizes a single, long form (or longer) document has been around for a while. So why not have a recursive digest that distils what all of the folks that you are following say into a few statements that have hyperlinks that enable drilling down into all of the specific comments that led to the digest version.

    Maybe later on we can digest the whole Internet on a diurnal basis asking, "What did the Internet say today?"

  5. thought it would be nice to show you it's not all crazy mean folks on twitter. I follow anyone who's shared anything valuable to me and I certainly don't expect anyone to follow my twitter nonsense.

  6. its funny i always thought twitter as like a large room with lots of different people a bit like a party and that the 140 chars were like little sound bites or fragments of conversations that you had with people, just because you talk to someone at the party doesnt make them your best friend.. i agree with windhamdavid, not every one on twitter is crazy!

  7. I don't twitter. Never did. Blog/read blogs, yes. Facebook, yes. The blog thing is a heavier version of what you're talking about. I read people who don't read me. People read me, and many of them I don't read. There's not enough time. Many of the people I can't read for that reason write beautiful or useful things and I miss out. But I have only one life, and it's a circus. This is why I have hopes for eternity. Now, that will be one VERY big room and we'll probably be able to hear and process more than one thing at a time. But for now - well -we do the best we can.


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