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Online Media: Relationships and Finding Signal In the Noise

When I first started using Twitter in the fall of 2006, I was one of only a few thousand people using this weird new service. It was fun because my friends were there. I’m an early adopter when it comes to technology so it’s not all that uncommon to find me on some new online tool kicking the tires.

Back in those days, there was a small enough pool of users that, hey, if someone followed you, you followed them back. It was just that simple. Many of us set up scripts that would automatically follow anyone who followed us. It was karma. It was social. It was how the changing face of the Internet made “us” better than “them”.

As all things go, however, Twitter began to jump the shark. People started using Twitter to push their products and agendas instead of simply communicating. We were like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water, many of us not realizing until it was too late, that the reciprocity approach simply wasn’t scaleable. We concocted formulas to rationalize our efforts. We chose not to follow people who had an unbalanced follower to following ratio. We called them spammers. We labeled them as people unable to engage in conversation. We rationalized our own existence on Twitter, all the while boiling ourselves in hot water to the point that our worlds were nothing but noise, and our effectiveness as professionals became nil.

Around the time I had 2000 followers (also roughly 2000 people following), I stopped following everyone back. This was almost two years ago. Organically, I grew to 8500+ people following me in return simply because I was interesting and people wanted to follow interesting people. The concept of equivalency was tossed out the window by most people while the “influencers” kept talking up the idea of equivalency. I only followed people I had actually met.

Still, the noise became too much. There was no real way to come back from the brink. I had long ago reached the point where tweets in a tweetstream were at full force. I called it Twitter Terminal Velocity – the point where a tweetstream could not perceptibly travel any faster. And the content was not relevant to my personal or professional life.

Good people. Irrelevant content. Too much noise. This was the problem.

About two weeks ago, I made a drastic move that has improved my life in immesaurable ways. I culled the people I was following from 2800 down to 492 (that number has organically grown since). I had a number of criteria for who I kept – people in Austin (gotta keep my new city close, right?), people in tech (not tech news, not social media… tech!), people in the WordPress community, and real friends.

These are the people that matter to me on a daily basis. They make my life worth it on a personal and professional level. I see all their tweets now.

This is not to offend anyone that got cut. If you talk to me (via a mention), I still see those tweets and most of the time I will engage. I also have keyword searches so relevant conversation surrounding topics of interest are also seen, whether they are directed to me or not. However, in my day to day content consumption, I have made my Twitter experience a much more pure experience.

Today, I find myself more engaged with the people I care about. It’s not about me and my existence and importance. It’s about the people I care about engaging in my world and me in theirs. For instance, I would have never been able to encourage a friend about her father’s deployment to Afghanistan if I had 2800 people I was following. It doesn’t scale. It’s not personal. It’s not real relationships.

In closing, let me give on zing to the social media marketers and networkers. Relationships aren’t about what you do or if your customers care. Relationships aren’t about ROI. Sometimes in relationships, you get nothing in return. But real relationships actually make a difference to ROI and customer care. Just don’t mistake the two for the same thing. They are very far from the same thing.

Published by

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

13 thoughts on “Online Media: Relationships and Finding Signal In the Noise”

  1. I was an early adopter who didn’t see the point and went away, only getting into Twitter with any enthusiasm maybe 18 months ago. I’ve never auto-followed but tend to follow people who I’ve met, either in real life or virtually.

    The ability to DM makes me follow more people than I actually want to read on a regular basis, so actually only “read” those who are on my lists, whether in Twitter itself or on TweetDeck.

  2. Aaron – another great post. Thank goodness I live in Austin… otherwise, I fear I too may have ended up on the cutting room floor. ;)

    On a serious note, this is something I’ve battled with over the almost three years that I’ve been on Twitter (I’ve also experienced a similar issue with my blog reading). To follow or not to follow. So far, I’ve been able to manage with a special column in Tweetdeck for friends like you. This helps me keep my day to day following manageable and meaningful. It also allows me to dip occasionally into the broader pool which can be (pun intended) refreshing. But I hear you on the noise. And there are times where I feel like maybe I am being inauthentic (is that a word?) by not “really” following all the people that I am technically following.

    1. Yep. Lists are my saving grace. I can still look/read/consume my normal twitter timeline with sanity and engagement… yet still track the other things that are important, but not necessarily important for my main timeline.

  3. I’ve been having convos lately about how twitter was back in 07 and early 08 versus now. While companies and individuals who think they’re brands should think of Twitter and Facebook as replacing or supplementing the “email list”, it doesn’t mean they should use like an email blast list. Also, RT’s can be useful but are way overused and contribute to the noise. I agree… too much lazy pushing and not enough engaging and communicating.

    I have no choice but to follow your lead and cull my followee list down to a few hundred. I think it will return value to Twitter for me. Now, if I can find the time to get it done. Decisions decisions…

  4. random trivia- a frog will NOT slowly cook in a pot of boiling water if the heat is gradually turned up. The frog would actually become more active (since it’s cold-blooded…when the temperature is cold it’s dormant, and the warmer it is, the more it will move around). So a frog sitting in water that is slowly getting hotter will, in deed, jump out of the pot.

    i don’t understand twitter at all.

    the end.

  5. While companies and individuals who think they’re brands should think of Twitter and Facebook as replacing or supplementing the “email list”, it doesn’t mean they should use like an email blast list. Also, RT’s can be useful but are way overused and contribute to the noise. I agree… too much lazy pushing and not enough engaging and communicating.

  6. Thanks, Aaron. I’m a relative newcomer to Twitter and have struggle with how to keep up with the pace of Tweets. I follow people mainly in these areas: Austin people; entrepreneurs and startups; and social media. I especially enjoy when all three come together, but still they add up quickly. Your post validates my theory that following a few (hundreds) people will be better that following everyone I can. It might be different if I were selling something (Old Spice). Thanks for the clarity.

  7. Excellent Post! Using lists is a great way to manage who you follow and it’s worth taking the time to set them up. It also takes a-lot of effort to unfollow so many people- I tip my hat to you!

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