Does asymmetric tweeting work? or will we see “natural deselection?”

Phillie Casablanca recently observed via Twitter that “following @gapingvoid and @scobleizer is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. When they’re on a conference call.”

I found this comment fascinating. As far as I can make out, the primary reason Phil would get this sensation is because he’s unable to see the tweets that Hugh and Robert are responding to, and as a consequence he’s unable to place the context in which these two are tweeting.

Why is this the case? This will always be the case where two people have asymmetric connections in any social network that works like Twitter works. In fact, where you have gregarious and extreme social animals like Hugh and Robert, if anything the effect is accentuated. If Hugh has twenty times as many people he’s talking to, when compared to Phil, and their overlap is 5%, then you see what happens. 95% of the conversations that Hugh is in are only partially visible to Phil, and Twitter is colourless without context.

Yessirree, Twitter is colourless without context. It becomes boring, insipid, tasteless. And ultimately very frustrating.

So what does this mean? I wonder. There are a number of possibilities.

One, people de-friend those who exhibit this contextless behaviour. [Please understand, this is not because either Hugh or Robert are choosing to make noise by posting often. This would be a wrong interpretation. It is only because they are in more conversations with more people that such an effect happens. And that per se is not wrong.] Let’s call this “natural deselection”.

Two, people learn to filter this effect manually, develop a scanning habit that learns to skip the contextless tweets.

Three, twitter itself gets a granular control facility that allows people to balance out the gregarious. Not sure how it will work, but there could be a possibility that a person is restricted to seeing the tweets between a friend-pair provided both sides of the conversation are friends. But then this would only work in the open @person conversations.

Four, the twitter topology itself shifts towards a trusted network model, where friends of friends are friends as well. This may be unattractive to many early adopters.

I for one don’t care. I think it is right that I am symmetric about my connections, anyone who follows me I will return the favour. So far I haven’t refused anyone once they pass a simple sanity test which consists of a quick scan of their friends,  tweets and blog page where available. If there is no information available, I wait.

I believe there is a lot of serendipitous value in Twitter, value that I don’t want to throw away with the wrong rules. So I won’t be deselecting people as yet, I want to learn more about this medium and what it can do.

Early days yet.


18 thoughts on “Does asymmetric tweeting work? or will we see “natural deselection?””

  1. I wish the Twitter’s web interface’s ‘in reply to’ link show not just one tweet, but a (window of)whole lot of contextual tweets. Even a window of ‘with friends’ tweets will be useful.

  2. Balaji – if you click on the userID/handle of the person (rather than the “in reply to”) you at least get a history of that person’s tweets (as long as they are “public” of course).

    JP – I’ve found the asymmetric conversations quite useful at times – when I see somebody I’m following either replying regularly to someone I’m not, or the topic sounds interesting, I’ll follow the other person as well. I wouldn’t want to lose that serendipity.
    I would also hesitate recommending to Twitter that they make it more complex – the joy of Twitter is its simplicity. There may be some ‘deselection’, but I suspect that people will grow more accustomed to that sort of conversation – I think your option 2 will emerge as more standard behaviour.

  3. I think some people have developed the knack for responding with enough context that their network can follow along .. in 140 characters!

  4. Thanks for the comments. We need to keep twitter simple, which is what the post concludes with. As we learn to use this medium, we will also learn how easy it is to transport the context with the message.

  5. I certainly agree with Casablanca’s opinion on the apparent noise from some high profile twitterers. I too find it rather frustrating to find that the window of my twitter client is full of tweets from a single person. This is perhaps a slightly different issue to that which you identified above. I think that if a tweet is made in response to a particular person, then it should at least use the emerging convention of containig the nanoformat of @username so that others listening in can easily gather a little of the context if they choose.

    In the situation that irks me most, where a user floods my twitter view with many, chained and seemingly undirected tweets, it seems like they are just shouting. I’m trying to resist the urge to un-follow (and I love the term ‘natural de-selection’) the offending users, but I will not be able to resist tuning them out if they persist.

  6. I think it largely depends on the value that you take from those conversations and therefore all of your observations are probably correct. I follow both Robert and Hugh on Twitter, but have recently ‘deslected’ Robert as I wasn’t drawing value ‘listening’ to his multiple conversations at once. Hugh also gets involved in these discussions but they are sometimes with people I know and can therefore gain context (such as yourself and @jayfresh) along with general thoughts that I can gain value from.

  7. For me it comes back to this feeling of ambient intimacy, something which is very sensitively balanced on Twitter.

    I’ve happily followed Scoble on Twitter for a while (along with 8,698 other people) and have been able to follow most of the conversations he’s had with people I don’t know (I follow 77 people). He’s deliberately worded his tweets so they can be followed by everyone, even if directed at one person. And I’ve nodded my head in agreement when he’s told people to unfollow him if they’ve had enough. But this was all at a level where I was able to sustain the feeling of ambient intimacy I have with the other people I care about.

    Over the holidays, though, the balance changed. Robert’s noise-to-signal ratio went up, and my ability to follow everyone else went down (and, yes, the other people I follow were still tweeting). I tried to keep up for a little while, but then decided to unfollow Scoble, in the hope that anything particularly useful will find it’s way onto his blog.

    I’m very much of the view that Twitter should stay as it is. It seems that many people want ‘one small change’, but opinions differ on what this change should be. Add many or most (or any?) of these features, and the system falls down.

  8. I think Phil makes a great point. Our attention – even in an ambient setting – is a scarce resource. I much prefer it when friends realise that the 140 character format should inform their Twitter communication and self-censor their tweet volume. We all have a voice but some choose to use a megaphone as well and that is not sustainable.

    That said, I assure Phille Casablanca that real-life conversation with those two sometimes have the same assymmetric effect.

  9. Phil has summed it up pretty well in his first comment – especially the part about “regular” tweets drowning in the onslaught of excessive update(r)s – as well as in his brilliant blog posting.
    There’s little left to say.

  10. Since “following” someone means making two decisions (first to follow and second whether to send those tweets to my cell phone), I already practice a form of deselection. Not everyone I follow gets to my phone, and particularly not those with a high level of asymmetrical chatter. That is, all twittering of those I follow display on my monitor. Those whom I highly value get beyond that to my cell phone.

  11. “Not everyone I follow gets to my phone, and particularly not those with a high level of asymmetrical chatter. That is, all twittering of those I follow display on my monitor”

    rates a “me too”.

    More than about 5-6 tweets a day an individual is too much on the phone…

    The rest I follow online…

  12. So we have a number of levels of selection/deselection

    1. Dont’t know person
    2. Know, but don’t follow as yet
    3. Know, too noisy, deselected
    4. Know, follow, but too noisy for phone
    5. Know, follow, receive on phone as well

  13. Twitter versus “pester”… discuss with reference to ambient context.

    Why is this problem different from issues involved in managing email, or indeed creating information from data in any other asynchronous conversational technology characterised by ‘post, reply’.

    It can’t be message length.

    Ambient context surely arises from identity, situation and conversation. Who am I, what am I doing and where, and what am I saying.

    Context for emails can be managed using filters and threads, etiquette around ‘reply’, ‘reply all’ and ‘cc’, and because the content of emails creates meaning once a conversation is under way.

    Context for blogs is managed by forcing all replies (blog comment) to be republished to all readers in place situated near the blog post. Compared to email this is like ‘cc and reply all’ but replies still have to be pulled by checking the blog (or feed); they are not pushed to you like email.

    Tweets are pushed to channels by publishers, for any channel subscriber to see. So far the only way to filter seems to be to choose between getting tweets pushed to you (sms, twitterific) or not (http). If you choose push, then you will be pestered .. like email. If you choose to check twitter periodically, then you may not have enough context to enter into a conversation.

    Unlike email and blogs which manage situation and conversation quite well, and to a degree identity, twitter seems to lack features. Would adding them be a bad thing or kill it off?

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