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Happiness in 140 characters: building relationships with Twitter

by Alex in

This weekend Virginia Heffernan wrote an elegy for the analogy telephone that is a must-read for anyone who wants to think seriously about how our communication channels affect the way we relate to one another as human beings:

There were fears, before voicemail, that call-borne opportunities might be missed forever, but there was no “We have a bad connection,” “I’m going into a tunnel,” “My battery’s dying,” “I have to take this” or “I have only one bar.”…Calls have become transactional, not expressive. The oddly popular option to use the speakerphone means that you never know when what’s left of the old telephone intimacy might be compromised. You certainly can’t trust that it will be there anymore, ever.

Intimacy, of course, has flourished in other places. There’s ingenuity and thrill to the pace and humor of texting, and e-mail, message boards and instant messages can be as emotionally rococo as the best of the old, gone-forever phone calls, which were written only on air. We haven’t lost intimacy. We have lost only telephones.

The ability to achieve intimacy through online communications, while very real, may prove as evanescent as the phone calls that Heffernan mourns. I first tackled the question of how to achieve intimacy on Twitter — now as big a part of my life as the phone once was — after reading a Heffernan piece 18 months ago. Here’s what I wrote then:

The truth is that a lot of my Twitter reading is driven by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and that posting to Twitter all-too-often feels like OMFT (One More Fucking Thing). But Twitter has also been wonderful for me. Reading Tweets is a source of connection to people I know and care about, and a source of inspiration from many others. And posting Tweets helps me nourish relationships I care about, and lets me process and express ideas I want to share. At its best, Twitter — and other networks like it — makes me more present in my life, not less.

Twitter can only support that kind of meaningful presence if I use it thoughtfully and intentionally, however, and much of my Twittering falls far short on that front. I follow people because I feel like I should, and the tweets of all the most frequent posters drown out many of the voices I care most about. When I dip into Twitter over the course of the day, I see whatever happens to be most recent — rather than what would be most meaningful or productive for me to read.

Heffernan’s article inspired me to take my Twittering in hand, and harness it more consciously to the kinds of relationships and activities I care most about. To that end, I spend this weekend doing Twitter triage (twiage?), and developing a system that will put the most important tweets front-and-centre. And by “important” I don’t mean authoritative or influential: I mean important in the sense of connecting me more closely to the people and ideas that matter most in my own life.

The methodology I developed for that post helped me focus my attention by organizing the people I follow on Twitter into different contexts. It’s a methodology that has served me well for over a year, helping me:

  • deepen new relationships and rekindle old friendships
  • maintain important relationships with people I see only rarely
  • meet up with friends more often offline
  • find an immediate source of encouragement and inspiration whenever I’m feeling low
  • reduce my Twitter-induced FOMO
  • be the first person to know a piece of breaking news, more and more often
  • reply more consistently to people who tweet or DM me
  • enjoy Twitter more and more

While all these benefits have convinced me to stick by the core of my approach, a lot has changed. In particular, the advent of Twitter lists has made my methodology a lot easier to adopt and a lot more portable (so that I can switch Twitter clients, which I have done every 6-9 months). I’ve also expanded my Twitter toolkit with some add-ons that make my system for organizing the people I follow even more effective.

So this week I’m going to update my 2009 post with a new how-to guide on using Twitter lists, along with some other resources that will make your Twitter experience more productive, and more supportive of the relationships that matter to you.

First posted on November 2,2010

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