I've realized I need to change how I read Twitter

January 2, 2016

People talk a lot about modern social web sites being designed to be sticky, to encourage you to keep them open and to interact with them all of the time. For a long time, this was not my experience with them; I felt no reason to stick around Facebook, for example. Then I got on Twitter with a fortuitous choice of client.

I am the kind of person who has historically had a 'gotta read them all' mindset about, well, basically everything on the Internet that I've wound up following (and Usenet, too). If you are this kind of person, Twitter is a terrible trap (especially with a client that lets you see read versus unread tweets). Once you follow enough people, there will be new tweets to read more or less every refresh interval. I may not read them right away, but there they are, tugging at my attention, and they will take time to read eventually. And of course there's the ever present temptation to take a (nominally short) break by reading some of the pending tweets.

For me, the inevitable result of following Twitter in my current way is a fractured attention and a slow but constant drain of time away from other things. It's especially pernicious because it doesn't feel like much time, since individual bursts of reading may be short. But the cumulative effect adds up and adds up.

(This should not be surprising, and really it isn't. We've long known the effects of breaking concentration and how little interruptions can have outsized effects; people write about various aspects of this all the time, and I've read them and nodded along with it. Yet here I was, quietly walking into doing exactly this to myself. One can draw various lessons here.)

At a one level, how I need to treat Twitter is straightforward. Rather than seeing it as something that I read all of, I need to treat it as a stream that I dip my toe into every so often (and only every so often). At another level, there's a vast difference between knowing a theoretical answer and being able to change my habits to carry it out in practice. It's going to take me time to work out how to do this in a way that works for me, and willpower to not keep backsliding into old 'read it all' habits.

(And I'll miss reading all of my Twitter feed; there's really nice stuff there that I enjoyed following. That what makes it hard, that I know I'm going to be missing things that I want to read.)

It's been quite interesting to be sucked into Twitter this way, bit by bit, and then realize that I was being pulled in and working out what the effects on me were. I have some views on why Twitter worked on me where other 'social web' sites haven't, but that's going to be another entry.

Comments on this page:

By Alex at 2016-01-02 02:30:53:

Twitter is the junk food of the Internet. Consume a little here and a little there, but don't binge on it. You are not missing out AT ALL.


I found exactly the same thing happening to me, over the course of a few years. I went from following a few friends to following hundreds of people/feeds/accounts, and trying to read all of them.

At one point I was reading for 15-20 minutes over breakfast, another 30 minutes at lunch-time, and an hour or more in the evening to "catch up" on everything.

As a parent, and with a full-time job, and other interests on top, taking almost 2 hours out of my day on an endless stream of "interesting" simply wasn't sustainable.

Now I have a list, called "People", which only contains actual human beings who I definitely don't want to miss anything from - I can catch up with this in under 15 minutes a day, and the rest of my feed is only used when I have a need to "kill time" (waiting to catch a train, for example).

... now to work out the best way to cut down on Facebook :)

Same as David, I have a list of significant accounts I do not want to miss (and they don't tweet a lot), and let the rest just scroll by.

By leo at 2016-01-03 13:19:51:

You could take notes and after each decide: Is this really worth it?

I use the same dip-into-a-stream mentality to both Twitter and Facebook. This reduces I-am-missing-out anxiety and also lets me allocate small chunks of time to the "experience".

For accounts that I really really need to be in sync with (like my spouse), the Twitter app gives me the ability to get notified for every tweet that they send out. For the rest, yes, twitter lists help me separate my tweets between technical, political and local content.

Written on 02 January 2016.
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