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 — http://www.tinyurl.com/blah”). 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.