Inverting the Long Tail: Why Selective Unsubscribe Can Be Key to a Good Twitter Experience

Purges are never pretty, but I just conducted one — and the results were a surprise.

When I signed up for Twitter last Spring, I figured I’d go ahead and reciprocally subscribe to updates from just about anyone who subscribed to mine. It’s neighborly, right? And that way I’d also get a broader initial exposure to the Twitter community than if I only connected with people I already knew. Pretty quickly, it seemed that twitterers were using the site in three primary ways — as a micro-blogging tool (“Just got to work — Mondays suck”), as an online community (“@bobdobbs great idea! I’ll bring the beer”) and as a broadcast tool/rss replacement (“new article up —”). I also found that I was using it mainly to push out article teasers and to follow other author/aggregators, and only somewhat as a community (very rarely as a micro-blog).

The main obstacle to getting involved in Twitter as a social network? Signal-to-noise ratio — too much clutter drowning out the good stuff. As I subscribed to more streams, it was hard to get an exact picture of which twitterers were providing value and which ones weren’t, though it was clear that I skipped over a lot more tweets than were useful. The problem wasn’t micro-blogging per se, since some of the most prolific twitterers were also some of the best, but BAD micro-bloggers can really fill up a page (if you haven’t seen Twitter, it shows the most recent 140-character messages from the people you follow, newest messages first) and push much more relevant posts far down the list.

Once the pattern was obvious, I started previewing recent updates from people who subscribed to the /epolitics Twitter stream before reciprocating. If they didn’t seem to be putting out information I wanted, and particularly if they were doing it prolifically, I started passing on them. But I was reluctant to get into a serious wave of unsubscribing — how many would have to go? After all, un-friending someone on a social network is usually a Big Deal, a public snub, and who wants to be a jerk?

But Twitter is different, since it’s not obvious when you unsubscribe from a Twitter stream, making it an action without social consequences. So a couple of weeks ago, I got around to knocking a few repeat offenders off the list. Immediately, my Twitter experience improved — more wheat, less chaff. Boom, time to knock a few more off — with even more better results. In the end, out of the 300-odd Twitter feeds I was following, I got rid of about a dozen…which was all it took to make the site much more useful.

I was honestly shocked! I figured that the ratio would be quite different: that perhaps ten or twenty percent would have to go before I saw much improvement. Instead, it turned out that a handful of people were providing the vast majority of what came across to me as static, while the hundreds of others I was following were collectively providing the value. I’m not quite sure if this embodies the Long Tail effect, perverts it or turns it on its head, but it’s fascinating — as in so many other public spaces online AND off, most people are good actors, but a small number of bad ones can really ruin the party.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Hey, Colin, thx for the Twitterific post. I’ve recently become a Twitterer and concur with everything you’ve said. I check in about three times a day, post something quirky and/or useful, and regularly unsubscribe from streams that are both (1) over-frequent and (2) don’t provide much value. I’m still trying to get the hang of properly “branding” what I do — that is, using Twitter and Facebook as sales tools — instead of extensions of my personality. There’s not enough time in the day to keep separate biz and personal identities in both spaces, though some do. Any advice on this dilemma appreciated. Cheers! Suzanne

  • True – some people are just too prolific Twitterers. It’s great that they update so much but their frequent tweets clutter my Twitter feed that I can’t see what my friends are up to.

    Another Twitter infraction, IMHO, is frequent updates on what you’re eating at that exact moment. A little “I’m having soup!” is fine but I don’t need to know about every single thing you eat throughout the day.

  • Yeah, thx Joe, there are some really interesting bloggers who occassionally tweet great stuff who think we REALLY CARE about their breakfasts/lunches/dinners/cute kids. Get over yourselves already!

  • I think that there is an art to microblogging, and that a certain etiquette is evolving. For instance, I have started using the DM function a little more because I want to respond to someone, with a simple TY or something that no one else is going to be interested in. Right there that reduces my follow cost. Of course you can’t DM someone unless you are mutually following each other.

    Indeed, I too have followed, and later unfollowed, Twitterers whose tweets are truly inane, annoying, and prolific. However, there are many whom I follow who have a high follow cost that I continue to follow because enough of their tweets have content that is interesting to me.

    I guess its all in the eye of the beholder. The example cited about what people are eating may actually be of interest to me, as I am a foodie. I follow others who are interested in cooking and restaurants. And with some of the more witty Twitterers 🙂 some of the inanity is can be amusing and entertaining.

    It’s all subjective.


  • Great post. I hope I made the cut.

    I agree with you that unfollowing is hard. So I’ve also started previewing who I follow. I’m will get the around to the purging sometime. That being said, I think I like the posting of links by folks. My RSS reader is packed with blog posts that I want to read but will never get to on time (i.e. this one) so I appreciate when people share links. Also I think creating groups in Tweetdeck has helped me deal with the clutter a bit better. Lastly people do know when you unfollow them Since I’ ve started using it, I’ve lost 22 followers…. sad.