Why I’m not following you on Twitter…

The Twitter fail whale error message.
Image via Wikipedia

I recently tried an experiment on Twitter. I tried following back everyone who followed me — well, almost everyone, as I’ll explain. The results were very interesting. Within a few days, I had gained more than 100 followers,  and they weren’t dropping off like they used to. I also found that my Twitter feed wasn’t overwhelming me. If anything, the tweets in my feed were even more interesting and varied than before, and there was always something new, every time I tuned in.

Even though I was following back (mostly) everyone who followed me, I didn’t want my Twitter feed to become overloaded with spam. I quickly formulated some rules to weed out those folks who were worth my time and attention from those who weren’t. The rules are really quite simple. I won’t follow you if:

  • You have no avatar. These are generally spam accounts, I’ve found. (If you have a pornographic avatar, I’m going to block you.)
  • Your Twitter name ends in several numbers. Again, this shouts “spammer!”
  • You have the words “social media expert” or “SEO” in your profile description. Or you have no profile description. I like to know a little something real about you before I’ll follow back.
  • Your Twitter username has that “make money at home” vibe or includes phrases like “DebtFree.” Ditto your tweets.
  • Your tweets are too hard sell or look like a series of spammy links.
  • The links you post all point to the same domain name.
  • You use hashtags like #acai #berry. Come on.
  • You just repeat the same tweet over and over.
  • You dominate my feed with your tweets. Or you don’t ever tweet.
  • You don’t speak my language. Nothing personal, but there’s no point in seeing tweets I can’t understand.
  • You abuse your direct message privileges. Actually, that’s a sure way to get me to block you.

I know a lot of people use Twitter for business-related reasons, such as public relations or networking. I don’t see anything wrong with this, as long as you keep in mind that Twitter is made up of people who are primarily interested in the conversation. You have to provide something of value. Share what’s going on in your community or post some interesting links that aren’t all self-serving. If it’s not a conversation — if all you’re doing is trumpeting yourself, your business or your service — then your followers will tune out. So if that’s all you intend to do, you might as well just shut up.

But if you’re interested in having a conversation with me, you’re welcome to follow me. I’m on Twitter as sturlington.

How to search your old Tweets + Twitter spring cleaning tips

I recently had a question: How do I search my own tweets for an old link I might need or a great quip I had made? The problem with Twitter‘s search tool is that it’s time-limited. You can search your tweets by prefacing the search keyword with your Twitter username, but the search results will only go back a week or so. This is a pretty serious limitation of Twitter’s search functionality.

It turns out there is no good tool for searching your past archive of all tweets. Google will search tweets, but it’s not at all easy to limit that search to just your own tweets.

The best solution I’ve found requires a little forethought. First, you have to archive your tweets in a searchable location. I use FriendFeed, which also archives my Delicious bookmarks, StumbleUpon finds and blog posts. Here are some other places where you can archive your tweets.

If you start the archive now, it won’t be much help in finding tweets from 6 months ago, but at least you will have a searchable archive going forward. However, if you already have a FriendFeed account or similar Twitter archive, you can use the search tool there to search through your past tweets. I use FriendFeed’s advanced search, so I can limit the search to just my feed by entering my username in the “Specific friends/groups” box.

If you just want to search links, BackTweets may help. It enables you to search links posted on Twitter, and it expands shortened links. Unfortunately, you can’t search only your own Twitter account.

A better solution is to archive your tweeted links on a searchable platform. Packrati.us fills the void. It automatically archives every link you tweet to your Delicious bookmarks. It will even tag the link with each hashtag you add to the tweet. This has been a real timesaver for me, because I like to share useful tweets on Twitter and then save them on Delicious, which used to be a two-step process.

Speaking of Twitter, now might be a good time to spring-clean your Twitter account. I just went through my followers list so I could block questionable followers and make sure I was following back the interesting people. I also cleaned up my Twitter lists. Mashable suggests some good tools to help.

The best tool on the list, I thought, was UnTweeps. This tool finds all of the people you’re following who haven’t tweeted in a while (30 days or more) and lets you quickly unfollow them. Twitter Karma also seems like a cool tool. It shows who you’re following and who’s following you back. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it to work for me yet; it depends on how busy Twitter is when you run it.

10 Ways to Archive Your Tweets (ReadWriteWeb)
How to: Spring-clean Your Twitter Account
Twitter Karma
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Should you expect privacy from online services?

I think the answer is no, with some qualifications, which I’ll get to shortly. But here’s the thing. When you sign up for free services like Google‘s various offerings, Twitter, Facebook, free blogging platforms and a myriad of other services online, your value to those companies is in the data and content you produce. It is not in their interest to keep that data private. If privacy is important to you, then it is up to you — and only you — to safeguard it.

The only way you can guarantee online privacy is to avoid free services, including all social networks, altogether. But you need an email account, for instance. Well, there are many alternatives to the free email services. Your ISP, who you are paying to provide Internet service to you, will probably give you one. Or you can pay for an email account with a hosting company. The point is, when you pay for a service, then you have a right to expect a higher level of privacy, as agreed upon between you and the company. (Many people use a free email account for public transactions, like online purchases, and keep a private email account for, well, private communications.)

If you do decide to get a free email account or sign up with a social network, then you should accept right off the bat that you will be giving up some privacy. That is the deal with the devil you make in exchange for free access to these networks. You will no longer have total control over information about you and that you generate. It is best to know this and accept this from the start.

Personally, I like the openness that social networks have brought. I think it fosters communication, collaboration, sharing and understanding of our differences, but that is the idealist in me. Yes, there is a negative side, but that is true of anything with value. I think social networks help us express who we are, and feel okay with who we are.

But if you are going to use these services, and privacy is of some importance to you, then you need to become savvy about how they work. When you sign up for a service, you need to be willing to explore, play with settings, try things and see what happens, and learn what the service is doing and why. This means extra work, but as I said, it is not in these companies’ interest to protect your privacy, so you can’t expect it of them. It only took me five minutes of playing with Google Buzz to figure out that my followers were listed on my public profile and to turn that off. That was well before all the privacy warnings came out.

I have some sympathy for people whose email contacts were exposed by Buzz, because this was not an expected outcome. But only to a point. Because you had to participate in that exposure. You had to set up a free Gmail account. You had to turn on Buzz. You had to create a public Google Profile. You had to accept the list of followers/following presented to you by Buzz without making any changes to remove those who were not acceptable to you. At each point, you could stop and ask yourself what the privacy implications of this are. At the very least, you could wait a few days for the issues to surface. It was only a few hours before many news outlets on the web were posting about Buzz’s privacy issues and the fixes for them.

I think this is a good learning moment for all of us. By all means, play in the social networking playground. But remember that these free services still have a cost. Just like in the real world, online the only one you can count on to take care of yourself is you.

Google’s response to the privacy concerns and instructions for protecting your privacy when using Buzz. And Google may offer Buzz independently from Gmail.

Twitter vs. RSS: How Twitter has freed me from hours of blog reading

I used to subscribe to all my favorite blogs and read them in Google Reader. But no matter how much I tried to stay on top of them, I always ended up subscribed to 100 or more blogs, which were collectively posting hundreds of times a day. I was spending hours skimming through blog posts.

There is something about the RSS feed reader that makes a completist like me feel like I have to at least look at every post that shows up. Maybe it’s that bold number at the top. I have to get it down to 0 each time I open up Reader. It’s like my email Inbox — it must always be empty. And it feels like cheating to mark everything as read when I hadn’t actually read it.

Another problem was that I was reading about the same things 5, 6 or 10 times over in different blogs. There aren’t that many blogs that consistently post new content. Usually, they just react to the same bit of news as everyone else.

So one day, not too long ago, I unsubscribed to most of the blogs in my Reader. And I started following the bloggers on Twitter instead.

Almost everyone who blogs is also on Twitter. And they usually tweet about their own blog posts as well as other interesting bits of news and links. So everything in their RSS feeds also shows up on Twitter.

But I don’t have the same need to have to catch up with everything on Twitter that I do in my RSS feed reader. Twitter is like a river of information flowing by (I know that New York Times columnist used the same metaphor in his Twitter article but he stole it from me — he must have overheard me making this observation in a Starbucks or something). Every now and then, when I have a few minutes, I dip my toes in the river. Google Reader, on the other hand, is more like a dam, and all the new information flowing in backs up into a lake that I feel compelled to empty.

But what if I miss something? Well, so what if I do. The Internet is so vast, and there is so much interesting stuff going on all the time, that I’m bound to miss many things. Besides, the truly interesting things get reposted so much that I will see them sooner or later. By doing most of my reading through Twitter, I have found that I am more in control of how long I spend surfing. Whether I want to stop in for a few minutes or hang out for an hour, when I am done and ready to move on to other things, I just close the page and walk away.

Twitter lists are the new feature that have made this really possible for me. I obviously don’t want to follow thousands of people — too much noise. I tend to follow just the people who are consistently interesting. But I can add anyone I want to a list without having to follow them. So when I want to dip into a particular subject of interest, such as the world of book bloggers or minor celebrities, I open up my list on that topic.

I still use Google Reader, but it’s a much more targeted use now. RSS is a very handy way of keeping on top of news that really interests me, such as local events or personal friends’ FriendFeeds or Google alert results. And there are still a very few blogs where I want to see every posting. For instance, I know if it’s interesting, eventually it’s going to show up on MetaFilter, so I still subscribe to that feed. But now when I open Google Reader, the bold number that faces me is usually less than 20, which is a lot easier to zero out.

This is yet another reason why Twitter is so much greater than people generally think it is. And it’s not at all addictive. So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out whether Justin Bieber is still trending.

My social media world

This past weekend I joined Facebook, and now my social media world is so complex and intertwined that it makes my head hurt. To help me make sense of it all, I drew this map:

My social media map

My social media map

(I used bubbl.us, which is a really intuitive, easy-to-use, free mind-mapping tool.)

This doesn’t show all my social media sites, just the ones I use most regularly. But it did help me organize my social media efforts, at least in my own head. The black lines show everything that feeds into FriendFeed, which is my nexus and the most complete view of what I’m doing online. The gray lines show which services are being automagically updated by which other services, usually via an RSS feed or FriendFeed’s automatic output to Twitter.

I organized my social media universe into four quadrants. My home quadrant (tan) — my blogs but also my Google Profile – are my home bases on the Web and also where the world finds me. My networks quadrant (green) have organized quite naturally into a professional network that I use only occasionally (LinkedIn), a network of friends and family I know in real life (Facebook) and an online network with many overlaps with the other two networks that I use most frequently and is the largest (Twitter).

My links quadrant (purple) are my tools for collecting and sharing links. I read blog posts and other articles via RSS feed in Google Reader every day, and share interesting finds out to my network. Delicious is where I permanently store links and do research. StumbleUpon is more of a historical record of links I’ve blogged about, plus a lot of random fun stuff I discover while surfing the web.

Finally, there are miscellaneous tools that reflect my hobbies in the pink quadrant. I’m an avid reader, so I have several tools for organizing and recording my reading and books (LibraryThing, Lists of Bests, All Consuming), which feed back to my books blog and sometimes Twitter. I also use tools to track my goals (43 Things) and travel (43 Places), and to upload my photos (Flickr).

Of course, not everything is on here. I didn’t include really miscellaneous places like my Amazon Wishlist or Bookmooch, or places I rarely visit like Digg or Technorati. But it is nice being able to visualize my little online universe and my place within it.

Using Twitter to focus and be present

Twitter is a tool I have been exploring lately and thinking about how it can be put to practical use. Twitter asks the question: What are you doing? But the answer to that question can be more than just what you are eating for lunch or watching on television. Rather, the question could be: What are you doing in your life? What are you accomplishing? Stop and observe — be in this moment.

By giving you the opportunity to pause and think about the answers to these questions, Twitter becomes a tool for getting focused. The brevity of a Twitter post — no more than 140 characters — forces you to finely craft what you want to say. But the immediacy of Twitter forces you to write and post quickly, usually within seconds. The net effect is to pull your thoughts into the present moment, to focus completely on what you are doing right now.

Here’s how to put this to work:

  • Tweet before starting a new task. State what you hope to accomplish with the task — the goal or the result you are looking for. This will help you focus on that end result before beginning work and prevent flailing around, searching for a purpose behind what you are doing.
  • Tweet after finishing a task. State what you have accomplished. This will force you to take a moment and consider whether you accomplished what you set out to do or achieved the desired result. Is there anything left to do before the task can be considered complete?
  • Stop what you are doing and tweet at random points in the day. This will help bring your consciousness to the present moment, to what is happening in your world right then. Tweet your observations only. When you look back on your archive, you will have a log of these moments that would have otherwise passed you by. InnerTwitter is a tool that can help you with this.

In the future, I will try to follow all three of these suggestions. Feel free to come and follow me.

How are you using Twitter?

Twittering away

I have been playing with Twitter lately. You’re welcome to follow me, although I can’t promise that it will be scintillating. I have had some fun with it, but I am still thinking about how it might be useful, especially for work.

The most fun I had was on Oscar night, when I joined in with fellow Twitterers to dish about the clothes, celebrities, jokes and awards. It felt like I was attending a gigantic Oscar party. I was able to track the relevant tweets using a special hashtag (#aa08), so that all related tweets showed up on one page, such as over at twemes.com. I also enjoyed watching the tweets about Super Tuesday pop up on a Google map, although that wasn’t as highly participatory for me.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from twittering:

  • I like to follow people I know or to whom I have some kind of personal connection. It’s OK if I only know them from online. Consequently, I don’t follow a lot of people.
  • I don’t like to follow people who tweet frequently. I only check Twitter a few times a day, and I prefer a good signal-to-noise ratio.
  • I have noticed that just by following BreakingNewsOn, I am actually seeing news first on Twitter before I see it anywhere else.

For me, Twitter is a good way to stay in touch with just a few people whom I am particularly interested in and as a news/information source, but if I follow too many people (or people who are too verbose), it rapidly loses its value. I have particularly enjoyed seeing tweets from my colleagues who are working in Rwanda right now; I feel much more in touch with them than I would have otherwise. And I have struck up one new acquaintance through Twitter, who reads my tweets and replies directly to me — that was unexpected, but very nice.

As for work, I think that Twitter will be most effective for distributed groups of people working on a project together, especially if everyone actively participates. It will be most useful for keeping up with members of the group who are traveling and helping everyone stay in the loop on what we’re working on. This doesn’t only have to apply to work projects, but volunteer projects, friend and family circles, temporary groups such as people attending a conference together and the like.

The trick is to get people in the habit of using Twitter. They will have to find value in it, just as I have — but it took me a few weeks of using it and figuring out how it worked best for me before I saw that value. It helps if there are multiple groups they can plug into beyond just the primary group. SmartMobs has a nice article, “Why I’m Hooked on Twitter,” that describes the value add and can be used to sell Twitter to friends and colleagues.

Here are some more useful resources for Twitterers:

  • Twitter Pack Project is a wiki that lets people self-identify by area of interest, location, company, etc. and connect with others to follow.
  • TwitterWho lets you batch search for names or email addresses to find people easier on Twitter.
  • TweetWhatYouEat is an interesting application that lets you set up a food diary using Twitter.