Twitter bankruptcy: skipping unread tweets

My weekend was busy: a bike ride down a remote mountain canyon, riotous with fall color. Delicious meals shared with family and friends. Home projects to prep our cabin for the winter. A mile-long hike to waterfalls, interrupted repeatedly by toddler discoveries (and potty breaks).

Good things, every one of them. But the weekend’s activities left very little time for checking Twitter. By the time we settled down last night, I had fallen a full day behind my timeline, and I was too exhausted to wade through the 500+ tweet deficit.

For some people, that’s no problem; just skip past the older stuff to the current tweets, right? But that’s tough for me; I’m a Twitter “completionist”—i.e., I try to read every tweet in my feed, and I hate jumping ahead. Skipping a Twitter backlog feels like a loss: what clever observations will go unobserved? What news stories will I never even hear about? What blog post ideas will go uncaptured and unwritten?

But although I hate feeling out of sync, Twitter debt provides several benefits:

  • That high unread count indicates that I’m staying active. I spend too many weekends comatose on the couch, checking Twitter so frequently that I’m always caught up.
  • Twitter backlogs remind me to follow fewer people. If my timeline’s unread count skyrockets every every time I disconnect, I’m probably following too many people. Twitter completionists must ruthlessly cull their follow lists, dropping tweeps who overpost (or underdeliver).

Even being forced to declare “Twitter bankruptcy” can be good:

  • People get the priority. It shouldn’t be difficult to choose between reading strangers’ tweets and being present for loved ones. My daughter won’t be two forever; she won’t always chirp, “Come play?” When I skip unread tweets, it feels like I’m prioritizing what really matters.
  • Good content tends to resurface, anyways. Even if I miss an amazing tweet when it’s first posted, chances are that someone else will retweet it later. If it doesn’t come around again, it probably wasn’t worth my time, anyways.

This morning, I finally let go. With some reluctance and a bit of grief, I tapped the status bar, then watched Tweetbot scroll past hundreds of unread updates. After a moment of respectful silence, my unread count silently started ticking upwards again. ■


A long sentence vs. a short paragraph: on Twitter’s character limit change

Last night, Twitter began public testing of a long-rumored, controversial increase to its character limit, doubling the quota from 140 characters to 280. It’s the most significant change to the service since its debut over a decade ago—the difference between a quip and a quote, between a thought and an idea, between an objection and an argument.

To illustrate this, I’ve pasted a few familiar quotations below; each of these fits under the new 280-character limit; the struck-through text would have been cut off under the old 140-character rule.

Winston Churchill, address to the House of Commons, June 1940

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg address, November 1863

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation… can long endure.

Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement address, 2005

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death.

It’ll be fascinating to see how user behavior changes once the longer quota goes live. Until yesterday, every tweet was understandable at a glance. Now, browsing your timeline will require require actual reading (heaven forfend). Will Twitter still feel like Twitter? ■

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“Twitter Isn’t Raising the Character Limit. It’s Becoming a Walled Garden.”

Smart take from Will Oremus, writing for Slate. He posits that Twitter’s rumored move to allow longer tweets is effectively its version of Facebook’s “Instant Articles”:

Twitter, like Facebook, has long played the role of a switchboard that routes people to in-depth stories elsewhere on the Web. This is great for those other sites, but not so great for Twitter, which is essentially giving away one of the Internet’s most valuable commodities: readers’ attention.

“Beyond 140” (Twitter’s code name for the new feature) would essentially replace links to external content with content hosted by Twitter itself.

This makes sense, from Twitter’s perspective (even if I resent the change as a content creator. I would’ve guessed that Twitter might partner with Medium, a closed blogging platform that already hosts writers’ work in a similar way. Medium was founded by Ev Williams, who also co-founded Twitter and still sits on Twitter’s board. But apparently Twitter would rather keep users’ content in-house.

One question about “Beyond 140”, though: why 10,000 characters? Twitter applied that arbitrary limit to direct messages last summer, but how did they arrive at the number? 10,000 characters is approximately 2,000 words—longer than most blog posts and long enough that many users would never even approach the limit. So why not just drop the character limit entirely?

My guess: Twitter considers brevity an essential part of its brand identity. An unlimited character limit would mean that Twitter had effectively done nothing more than build another closed publishing platform. But if the announcement includes a fixed limit (even an absurdly large number like 10,000), Twitter can market the change as a natural extension of its familiar clipped format.

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Drowning in Twitter debt

I abandoned RSS because I couldn’t keep up.

Feed readers made it easy to read every single post from my favorite websites. But there’s a downside to that thoroughness. Hit ‘subscribe’ too many times, and catching up becomes a chore—one more inbox to empty. My RSS unread count frequently ballooned into the hundreds.

When Google Reader (my preferred RSS client) shut down, I resolved to try something different. I would rely on Twitter for the latest updates instead. I became a “Twitter completionist”. In other words, I always pick up my timeline from where I left off, rather than starting with the most recent tweets. My favorite Twitter client, Tweetbot, makes this automatic; it syncs my timeline progress between the iPhone and iPad.[1]

Tweetbot unread
My out-of-control unread count in Tweetbot.

For years, this Twitter-as-feed-reader approach worked well. But recently, my renewed commitment to daily blogging leaves me with precious little free time for social media. I’m facing the same problem with Twitter that I had with RSS: constantly falling behind. Over the Thanksgiving break, my unread tweet count approached 1,000 for the first time ever. By this morning, I had whittled that number down to 700, but I can feel it climbing as I type.

Here are three potential ways to handle skyrocketing “Twitter debt”:

  • Follow fewer tweeps. Easier said than done; how do you decide who makes the cut? Besides, as of today, I only track 366 people on Twitter. That seems like a reasonable number (right?).
  • Stop reading every tweet. After all, Twitter itself doesn’t expect its users to be completionists. But I rely on Twitter to generate ideas for this blog. Skipping ahead often could mean missing out on potential post topics.
  • Declare Twitter bankruptcy (when necessary). I have to accept the fact that I’m going to occasionally fall behind—especially on vacations. That’s a good thing; the holidays are meant for lazy TV watching with family, not for checking Twitter obsessively. I plan to adopt this approach during the upcoming Christmas break.

Till then, I’ll keep that scrolling thumb loose. Tweetbot Zero, here I come.

  1. Syncing also works on the Tweetbot Mac client. That doesn’t help me; I’m a Windows users on the desktop. Lately, I’ve been avoiding Tweetdeck on Windows, just to preserve my mobile progress. That’s good for productivity, but somewhat irritating. If only Twitter had integrated (or replicated) Tweetmarker in its official clients—then I’d always be in sync, no matter what app or platform I used. But Twitter refuses to acknowledge the possibility that some users prefer a third-party client experience.  ↩
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Online contests: stop selling your followers.

Savvy companies know the value of a meme. Viral advertising pays for itself, so marketers employ a variety of techniques to get their brands trending. The perfect celebrity endorsement. The quirky video. The well-managed controversy. Another sure-fire way to kick-start some buzz? Contests. Offer a sparkly prize, and require your fans to share your message in order to enter.

It’s not hard to find examples of this strategy in the wild:

Of course, businesses sponsored contests long before the advent of social media. The difference? Social networks give marketers a direct line to customers’ eager eyeballs—through their Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds.

Stated plainly: when you pass along these companies’ “advert-contests,” you’re selling your friends. You’re bartering your followers’ attention for a raffle ticket. You’re exchanging your friends’ time for the chance to win a vacation (or a PlayStation, or a car). You’re saying to them, “I value even the possibility of free stuff more than I value you.”

Would you sell your friends’ phone numbers to a telemarketer? Or give their home addresses to a door-to-door salesperson for cash? Would you slip ad brochures under your friends’ windshield wipers, if it meant you might win the lottery? Chances are, these exchanges would make you queasy. Yet we enter online contests without a second thought. We don’t ask, “Is this appropriate? Do I want to leverage my friendships into a chance to win a toaster?”

Your social graph is an asset, and you’re free to spend it as you see fit. You can sell your friends to marketers. But don’t be surprised if that friend count takes a hit. For many (including me!), it’s an automatic unfollow.

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Social media = dessert.

Candy makes a lousy meal. Sure, for a while, it’s delicious. But after a certain sugar threshold, sweets stop tasting sweet. Mucous builds up on your tongue. Your teeth ache. And it’s addictive; long after you’re gorged, you’re still digging congealed corn syrup nuggets from the bag.

Social media is like that. You know you’re craving ‘real food:’ thoughtful conversation, shared adventures, drinks with friends. But, instead, you socialize online. It’s hauntingly empty. Your heart hurts. And it’s addictive; long after you’re bored, you’re still refreshing your browser, hoping for an update.

Dessert tastes best after a hearty, healthy meal. Social media works best as an extension of real experiences, real relationships. Make it the main course, and you’re likely to get sick.

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A kink in the fire hose: Twitter search and ‘top tweets’

Twitter is real-time. It’s news on-the-ground, right now–before the cable 24–7s, online news outlets, or bloggers run with the story. By searching Twitter for a topic, you gain instant access to primary sources–raw data–before it’s digested and regurgitated by main stream media. No filters. No spindoctors.

Last week, however, introduced a subtle change to search. Queries no longer return the ‘fire hose’–i.e., every tweet that matches your search string. Instead, by default, only ‘top’ results show up. As Twitter explains here, top tweets are “popular Tweets that have caught the attention of other Twitter users.” In other words, Twitter’s search algorithm surfaces only the content that is already generating conversation.

No big deal, right? Isn’t this good for users? In some ways, it is. Twitter explains, “We think that showing the Tweets that other users have retweeted, shared, and interacted with can help you find new and helpful information more easily.” Popular content is popular for a reason. And those who want the fire hose can still enable it with just a few extra clicks.

But the ‘top tweets’ feature undermines one of Twitter’s greatest strengths: disintermediated public access to primary sources. Making ‘top’ the default view re-intermediates the content. Once again, news belongs to the elites–this time, the Twitterati. It’s a de-democratization of Twitter, muting the masses and amplifying the celebrated few.

If this change really does undermine Twitter’s core competency, why make it at all? Why default to top tweets? Here’s a (cynical) hypothesis: it might be about money.

Twitter must eventually capitalize on its cultural cache. But the company’s monetization efforts have been marked by bungled roll-outs and miniscule returns. Consider February’s Quick Bar fiasco. Twitter’s official iPhone app slapped a panel of trending topics on top of users’ timelines. The ‘feature’ could not be disabled, and many ‘trends’ were sponsored, thinly veiled advertisements. The Twittersphere erupted, condemning the obtrusive “Dick Bar.” Complaints continued unabated until Twitter finally backed down.

Whatever prompted the ‘top tweets’ change, it’s far less brazen than the despised Dick Bar. In fact, this subtlety may be strategic. Rebuffed by the earlier blunder, perhaps Twitter is tip-toeing into ad integration this time around. Will the ‘top tweets’ feature (like the Dick Bar before it) eventually integrate more ‘sponsored results’? How else might ‘top tweets’ pave the way for a more ad-friendly Twitter?

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Why tweet?

A week or two ago, I explained how Twitter is not just another inbox. It’s meant to blur by–a stream we visit occasionally but don’t follow post-by-post. Smart twitterers learn to ignore the service’s constant background noise.

But this raises another question. If no one’s really listening, why tweet at all? Why post something that others may not even read?

Many of us tweet because we’re in denial about the value of our narcissistic “content.” We’re too self-absorbed to realize that no one else cares about our excruciating minutiae: food selections and location check-ins and tired talking points. Misguidedly, we convince ourselves that our quips are clever, our insights profound, and our thoughts worthy.

We may even have grandiose ideas about Twitter ushering us into fame and fortune. We shamelessly self-promote, hoping to attract new readers, woo new customers, or capture mind share. With each new post, we cross our fingers, hoping beyond hope that this one goes viral.

For others, tweeting provides an outlet for our social frustration. We long for real, embodied human contact–something our fast-paced, screen-mediated lives deny us. This disconnection hurts, and we recoil. We spasm. We tweet, hoping that someone will notice and reply.

Ugh… this is depressing. I’d better end the post–and plug it with a well-worded 140 characters or less.

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Don’t get Twitter? You’re doing it wrong.

I used twitter for years without knowing why. The microblogging service long ago went viral, but I lingered on the shore of the mainstream. “What is this for?” No one I knew actually tweeted; I felt like a guest three hours early for the party. It is social media, after all, and I was shouting into an empty room.

But there’s a better way to tweet. Forget about following your friends. Oh, you can add them, too. But you should follow everyone. People you love, people you hate, people you love to hate, smart people, spectacularly dumb people. Your team’s star player. The crazy politician from the rival party. Your favorite over-exposing celebrity.

And don’t just follow people. With full-featured twitter clients like Tweetdeck or Twitter on iOS, you can siphon in topical searches, the latest Internet memes, breaking news as it happens, and hyperlocalized info. And each additional tweet-source exposes you to new tweeters to follow. Layer upon layer, topic upon topic, let your stream crescendo into a dull roar of pseudo-relevant babble.

“But,” you might object, “How can I possibly keep up with that many people?” In short, you can’t. You may even miss updates from your actual friends.

Don’t sweat it. Here’s the key: Twitter is not another inbox. It’s not a list requiring scrutiny or sifting. Instead, it’s background noise–the world’s busyness, digitized. Every once in a while, you prick up your ears and listen in–click that link, track that trend, or chuckle at someone’s cleverly concise quip. But you shouldn’t feel any pressure to read all those tweets–to catch up. Give yourself permission to not read it all.

Using it this way respects the medium. Plays to its strength. twitter is not for conversations (who can keep track of all those @replies?). It’s not for stalking friends (that’s why we have Facebook). It’s not for critical messages (that’s why email hasn’t yet died). Instead, twitter thrums–there when you need it, ignorable elsewise.