My generation is waking up to the fact that we don’t need a lot of material ‘stuff’ to be happy, and that in fact our possessions can act as a drag on our freedom and happiness. But we haven’t yet learned that lesson in the digital world. We install dozens of social apps on our smart phones, building networks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Path, LinkedIn, Quora, Google+, FourSquare, and more. I can flip tabs on my browser between Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, RSS, and Quora, hitting refresh on each one and consume an entire day reading the latest thing on all of them. It is too easy to over-subscribe and over-consume.
This isn’t a good thing.
It’s time we cut some calories out of our information diet. For me, the network with the biggest problem is Twitter. Updates are a mere sentence or two, like a 4-calorie Tic-Tac, so you feel like you can handle a lot of them. But before you know it, you’ve binged and are in a situation where a tweet comes in every second. My twitter following count quickly reached hundreds of people soon after starting a few years ago, as the service makes it easy to follow everyone you’ve ever heard of and more. But with 500+ following, the service became largely unusable for me. I couldn’t hope to keep up with it all.
This meant that I wasn’t able to keep up with the people I really cared about and knew in real life though, because they were all just buried in the noise. The result was that I simply stopped using twitter for the most part.
Recently I decided to do something about it though, so I set out to change the way I use Twitter. I took inspiration from a personal policy I have of having a fixed number of clothes hangers, and pulling an old shirt out of the closet any time I buy a new one, so my wardrobe remains fresh and compact (important when living in San Francisco!).
I decided to do the same thing with the people I follow on Twitter. So I started removing a lot of hangers from my twitter account, so to speak, by unfollowing everyone I could stand to unfollow. I was ruthless: post more than 4x a day? Unfollowed. Can’t remember ever seeing a tweet from you? Unfollowed. Post nothing but trite nonsense? Gone. Can I live without knowing every update? I already am, so I might as well unfollow.
I took my list down from about 500 to less than 100. The remaining accounts are close friends, a few news sources, a few journalists or notable industry commentators, and a few others I find interesting or entertaining. The result has been dramatic! I can check twitter just a couple times a day and pretty much stay on top of what’s happening with everything I really care about. I don’t have a new tweet showing up every few seconds begging to distract me from whatever I’m doing. I actually reach the end of unread updates, look up from my phone, and take part in the real world more.
I think Twitter has done themselves and their users a big disservice by encouraging users to follow as many people as possible. At a certain scale, it is really detrimental to the experience. So I’d like to challenge everyone to a new way of using Twitter: Limit yourself to 100 follows. Concentrate your experience, and force yourself to have the discipline to only follow the really quality accounts. Want to follow #101? Go through and unfollow someone less interesting.
This could have a meaningful impact on the quality of the Twitter community. It means that when you follow someone it’s a high compliment because you don’t simply follow everyone. When someone with <100 follows starts following you, it means that they’re likely to actually see and read your posts. And if everyone is limiting their follow lists, it encourages better quality content, knowing that there is competition to be worthy of a spot on other’s follow lists.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by Twitter these days, and its just a firehose that you can skim at best, try taking the #twitter100 challenge, and encourage others to do the same (with a tweet, natch). We’ll all be better for it in the end.
(And of course, I’d be honored if you chose to follow me: @BrianScates)