The problem with Twitter

In an act that could fuel 100 "how we live now" thumbsuckers, Nick Beaudrot gave up Twitter for Lent. But now Lent's over. So is he excited to fire up the old Tweetdeck? Nope:

I'm not going back to Twitter. Or rather, I'm not going back to Twitter until I find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. And on twitter there is alot of chaff. This extremely accurate chart* suggests that up to 90% of a typical twitter feed is basically a waste of everyone's time. If I could write a filter that only showed me tweets that contained links, that might improve the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where twitter were useful.

After two days without Twitter, I barely missed it; by the second week, I was downright happy not to be thinking about "staying on top" of my feed. I've uninstalled Tweetdeck from my phone, and going forward will only use Twitter to post links to my own blog posts. So my first piece of advice is that you should just stop using Twitter altogether, or find a way to show only those tweets that contain links.

I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me, but amen. Toward the end of the election, I pretty much stopped reading Twitter altogether. It improved my life, and the quality of my work. There was so much partisan sniping and gaffe-driven garbage that reading almost anything but Twitter was a huge improvement in the quality of the information I consumed. I've since returned to Twitter. But I'm there more than I'd like to be.

The problem isn't Twitter, exactly. Twitter, like so much else, is excellent when consumed in moderation. But it's also an unusually addictive product, and it has certain unusual properties that help it crowd out other information streams.

If I neglect my RSS feed today, the posts will still be there tomorrow. The same is true for the books I'm reading, the magazines piled on my nightstand, the tabs open in my browser, the long-form I've saved to Pocket, the e-mails I've filed away to read later, the think tank papers saved to my desktop, and pretty much every other sort of information I consume. The backlog nags at me, but I'll get to it.

Twitter elicits a more poisonous information anxiety. It moves so fast that if I'm not continuously checking in, I completely lose track of the conversation -- and it's almost impossible to figure out what happened three hours ago, much less two days ago. I can't save Twitter for later, and thus there's always a pressure to check Twitter now. Twitter ends up taking more of my time than I'd like it to, as there's a constant reason to check it rather than, say, reading a magazine article.

If the conversation was worth that kind of continuous attention, then perhaps the anxiety would be a productive one. But it's typically not. Beaudrot's snarky graph is, I think, close to the truth:

twitter pie chart

 

There's nothing wrong with those topics, of course. I like the debates. I rely on the links. I enjoy some of the snark. Some tweets are absolutely brilliant, hilarious, or otherwise irreplaceable -- and I don't want to miss those. But the daily signal-to-noise ratio isn't that high, at least for me. And the time it takes to keep up with Twitter crowds out other information sources that have a higher payoff.

Twitter is invaluable for promoting Wonkblog's work. And the conversation isn't something I want to miss out on totally. But I need to figure out a better, more contained, way to use it. I've tried making lists but didn't find them satisfactory. I try to keep the program closed most of the time, and I tweet using a Chrome extension, in the hopes of reducing idle time spent on my feed. As of yet, I haven't found a product able to deliver a summary of my Twitter feed that I've found really satisfying -- but I'm very open to suggestions on that one.

My guess is there are a number of users like me out there. If someone could come up with a really effective way of separating the wheat from the chaff in high-volume Twitter feeds and then letting users engage with it at their leisure, there's got to be an audience for it. Perhaps someone already has, and I'm just behind the curve.

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