i’m just a softy – aka my twitter journey

The title of this post is thanks to Jessica Lynn Rose (@jesslynnrose an American tweeter in the UK).

As this is my first post in 1200 days, I might be a bit rusty, so bear with me.

I wanted to tell the story of my first nine Twitter months, and what I’ve learned and seen.

I joined in 2011 to find out what all the buzz was about, but I didn’t devote any significant effort to the platform until 2015.

I am a regular Facebook Poster, Liker and Commenter, ever since the death of a close friend in 2008. I realized at the time that it is too easy for us to get caught up in our own busy lives. To forget that there is a wider world of friends and acquaintances that value staying in touch, even if only via electronic connectivity.

I should say at this point that I grew up with technology as the Internet and the World Wide Web grew from mere seedlings. I first started emailing in 1989 when some corners of the still-tiny internet were only reachable via BITNET nodes. You had to know every host along the path to your destination, and uucp!had!similar!limitations. The email username that I still use today at er1p was assigned at random by a Carnegie Mellon computer. Format is first-initial.last-initial.random-digit.random-alphanumeric – four characters for everyone. Except for the sysadmins, who could make their own rules. Those admins likely thought that having four character usernames was future-proof at the time (!)

Over the past months, I have tried to understand how Twitter fits into the modern communication landscape. I realized that it is different than the other networks. It makes possible something quite distinct from what Facebook or LinkedIn or mailing lists offer.

As a reader, I can follow the thoughts and links of interesting and colorful people from around the world.

As a poster – a tweeter – I can engage these same people if I choose to. I may or may not get a response, but there is a potential communication and interaction partner behind each avatar and bio.

As a long-time advocate for and practitioner of inclusion, I realize that this can be a great medium for hearing from and about diverse voices. I resolved to curate my following and my reading in a way that would skew me away from my usual cohort. Expose me to diverse views, topics, and experiences.

In practice, at first this meant that I purposely followed female-looking accounts. Since there are only a limited number of non-male voices in my day-to-day job, I can augment such voices with my online interactions. I can widen my knowledge and experience of the world. I soon learned that don’t-look-like-me is probably a better way to think about the voices I am seeking and over time I learned to take into account a wide range of not-like-me factors in my followings.

There are indeed a wide variety of voices on offer – and it can all be quite cacophonous at times. As in any other human interaction, there are petty things and there are important things. There are confusing things, there are challenging things, and there are insightful things.

There are also boring things. Many of which revolve around attempts to “monetize” the community and its users – sometimes in ways so ham-fisted as to be amusing.

Many years ago, the book collection in my apartment was declared “eclectic” by a psychology PhD student (so basically, a “professional opinion”). I believe that the same is true of the users I have decided to follow on the Twitter.

I follow writers, technologists, businesses, and parody accounts. Plus the occasional celebrity and the occasional “Twitter famous.”

My next step was to try to understand what it might mean to have followers of my own. Why would people follow me? What would it mean for non-spam accounts to favorite, or RT or even reply to one of my own 140 character missives?

In addition, looming behind these questions: how to avoid the perhaps inevitable shitstorm that must certainly be lurking just around an unforeseen corner. I have been selectively following German-language accounts, so I know that this term – often used by European posters – quite accurately describes the phenomenon that I have witnessed numerous times in my feed.

A follower would venture an opinion that others felt to be excessively “controversial” and would thereby attract negative commentary. This commentary would soon drown out any supportive messages. Eventually blocking would ensue and/or the original poster would declare themselves DONE and quit the conversation (sometimes with account deletion; sometimes to return perhaps days, weeks, or months later).

Ultimately, I chose the route of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. I had already gotten somewhat comfortable with Favorites – adding my nod or smile or explicit support to a topic that I felt was one of the better things I had read that day. Taking the Favorite concept seriously, I was selective and marked those few items per day or per session that I felt were the BEST or MOST APPROPRIATE.

Then, in an offline conversation about social media platforms, a friend told me that they had gotten advice from a member of the twitterati that “RTs are the only thing that matters” – and this matches my experience.

Favorites – now Likes – are essentially bookmarks. To be used at some future point to find a comment, link or person that was particularly interesting that day.

To truly support a particular message or user, requires a RT.

I adapted my approach and began my foray with comments on article links – adding specific words of endorsement and encouragement to something I found particularly important or touching or amusing. I figured this had dual benefits: others might be more inclined to check out the article AND the author would know what particular aspect of the work had been impactful – at least what had been impactful to me. This seemed a much more useful and proactive contribution than the Favorite.

Eventually, I ventured into direct replies to attempt to join a conversation thread. Sometimes I felt I wanted to be encouraging to the poster; other times I ventured a piece of information that the poster did not seem to have. I did tread lightly – probably deleting more than half of my replies before ever hitting Send. It seemed this was where misunderstandings and miscommunications could so easily occur. My reply might be seen as patronizing – providing information that the poster was already fully aware of; my encouragement might come across as patronizing; my comment might take the discussion in a direction that the poster hadn’t intended. Nevertheless, I persevered and ventured forth, carrying on a range of insightful and practical conversations.

Then, on 24 July 2015 – just before my birthday, I hit the follow limit. Oh,the tyranny of the FOLLOW LIMIT.

At 2,000 followings, I could no longer follow any further accounts.How could this BE? I wasn’t DONE! There were SO MANY other interesting people and voices to be heard.

Every session now became a struggle. Whenever I saw some new account with interesting insights or a relevant bio, I would have to DELETE an older following to make room for the new voice.

I was wracked with guilt.

I was following accounts with egghead avatars – offline friends who must have tried out Twitter long enough to create an account, but never used it for any significant amount of time. What if TOMORROW was the day that they read an amusing cross-post or heard about some new Twitter happening and STARTED TO POST (and upload and avatar image). What if I unfollowed them today and then TOMORROW they suddenly became twitter interesting?!

The same thought process went for dormant accounts – no tweets for weeks or months at a time – what if they were just TAKING A WELL-DESERVED BREAK? They might be back TOMORROW and have something insightful to report, tanned & rested from their offline, off-Twitter vacation.

It was difficult every single time I dropped someone.

I had no choice, the follow limit forced me to drop one old for every one new. How could I pass up the new voices (over quiet), the lovingly-chosen avatar (over egghead), the blue-checked name (over an account forced to have a numeral at the end, sign often not-so-creative late-comers)?

I struggled every one of my twitter days, but I did it.

There were a few times when I seemed to be able to get a few extras past the limit, to 2,001 regularly, sometimes 2,004 or 2,006 – presumably some bug in a distributed eventual consistency algorithm somewhere. These never lasted long, because I would always have to get back under 2,000 to add even one new, losing all the extras in the process. It was a daily struggle.

Then, one day in October 2015, I was able to go beyond 2,000! 2,010 then 2,025 then 2,100 then 2,300 – oh glorious! I was SAVED! Whatever I had done to appease the Twitter gods had been enough. I had apparently achieved the right level of twitterati, my balance of RTs, Likes, modest commentary, and occasional new-topic post had allowed me to jump the shark of Twitter allowances. I was past the follow limit!

I was hungry as ever for new voices and new insights. I was still determined to be supportive and responsive. I would not squander my new-found Twitter status by being boring or quiet. I kept following, I kept RTing, I kept Liking, I posted occasional responses. It was like the early days.

Then, on December 21st, 2015 – just before Christmas, a new shock came. 5,001.

I was again stuck. No more followings beyond 5,001. What had I done wrong? How had I offended the Twitter gods yet again. I’d been so good, doing what I thought I was supposed to, and here I was RESTRICTED again. HELD BACK and having to once again cull one existing following for each new add.

I think it only took me a few hours before I finally turned to google for help in my new desperation. I found out that not only was the 5,000 limit a permanent one (unless/until I could get my own follower account near or beyond 5,000), but I ALSO learned that the limit had been increased from 2,000 to 5,000 back in October. The limit had been raised for ALL USERS – my ability to follow between 2,000 and 5,000 hadn’t been due to my good behavior, my regular interaction, my avoidance of shitstorms, my eclectic Likes – no, none of those things mattered. I had simply been part of a tide that raised all boats.

Raised them to 5,001 where I once again sit, bobbing at anchor. Every day having to determine who to drop when someone new comes along.

(to be continued)

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About er1p

Also known as "Daddy".
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