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How Twitter groups can make your twittering more a meaningful, conversational and connected

by Alexandra Samuel in | | | | | | | | | | |

Friend and SoSi advisor Leda Dederich asked for my thoughts on Virginia Heffernan’s New York Times Magazine article last week, Let them eat Tweets. Heffernan riffs on Bruce Sterling’s recent SXSW keynote, and writes:

I have only lately begun to wonder whether I’d use Twitter if I were fully at liberty to do what I liked. In other words, I’m not sure I’d use Twitter if I were rich. Swampy, boggy, inescapable connectivity: it seems my middle-class existence has stuck me here.

Heffernan is just about my favourite writer on tech culture, and while I can’t concur with her subjective experience — my fantasies of wealth involve having more time to spend online, not less — her article prompted me to think about how much of my Twitter use is compulsive, rather than fulfilling. 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.

conversational-tweeting

My method used Twitter groups, which let me organize the people I follow into different categories. Grouping is a feature offered by many Twitter tools; I’m using Nambu, which lets me view different groups of tweets in different columns. That’s complemented by Nambu’s style of presenting mentions (a.k.a. “replies”), which emphasizes the conversational side of twittering.

UPDATE: I now use Twitter lists to accomplish the same thing, and Tweetdeck or HootSuite to monitor the lists in different columns.

I’ve experimented with Twitter groups before, using descriptive categories like “Vancouver” (for locals), “social media” (for colleagues), “family”, “team”, etc. This time, I used categories that cue my intention: instead of descriptive terms, I used verbs that capture how I want to relate to this person or information.

  1. Love: People I love and want to have more of in my life; or feel I could love, if we had more connection. It even includes a handful of loveable people I know entirely online. This group would make sense to nobody except me: it’s pure, gut-level filing. There’s no “it would be useful to follow this person closely”, or “I shouldn’t file a client here”. If I get a happy warm glow from thinking about this person, they’re in. If I get an anxiety twinge, they’re out.
  2. Inspire: Feeds that feed me. Some of these are people who say things that inspire me, and some are “official” feeds that inspire me (like Title of Show).
  3. Connect: People I actually know. I had a simple criterion for this group: looking at a name or handle, I had to immediately know who it was. Feeling like “oh yeah I think I know this person” didn’t cut it. This process reminded me of the advantage of having a Twitter username that has some resemblance to your real life name; I’m sure I missed people because I didn’t connect person to user name.
  4. Collaborate: People I work with directly — essentially, Social Signal staff.
  5. Meet: People in Vancouver. Following locals is a good way of using Twitter to drive me to see people and participate in events in real life. For now, I’m putting every Vancouver-based feed in here, but over time I may triage so that it only has feeds from people who Twitter events and meetups. However part of what I like about having everyone is that it will prompt me to set up my own dates, too — or to notice if someone is hanging out near where I am at the moment. The key is to let the group name — “meet” — remind me of my intention with these folks.
  6. Learn: People I don’t know personally, but learn from watching.
  7. Apply: This is a group for feeds from software applications I use regularly in my work. These are feeds that contain tips I can apply in my work.
  8. Help: This is for feeds that belong to my clients — people and organizations I’m trying to help.
  9. Present: For feeds from conferences I want to present at, or conference organizers.
  10. Inform: This is for other kinds of info feeds like events and weather.
  11. Enjoy: For feeds that exist to make me smile.
  12. Parent: Feeds from other parents who — like me — tweet about kids and parenting.
  13. Observe: This is for feeds that I am interested in as examples of how other companies or organizations are using twitter.
  14. Obsess: This is place to store feeds from people or organizations who make me neurotic. I’ll admit it: there are certain feeds I follow that often make me feel competitive or frustrated or annoyed. This is a way for me to stick them somewhere that will let me look at them less often. I may ultimately unfollow them, but I’m not there yet.

Twitter groups in Nambu

A few notes:

  • While you can set up your Nambu colums in a particular order, the columns will appear in alphabetical order once you relaunch the application. So I’ve started each group name with a number (e.g. “1. Love”) to ensure they always appear in my preferred order. After #9, I switched to letters (“a. Inform”) because item #10 would otherwise appear between items 1 and 2.
  • I’ve placed some follows in more than one category.
  • I’m sure I’ll add more people to groups over time as their tweets come in and remind me of how I want to relate to them.
  • Of course, some feeds didn’t make it into any of the groups above. That will be a good prompt: if a feed isn’t in a group (once I remember who that username belongs to) then why am I following it? If I don’t have a clear intention on how I want to relate or learn from that feed, I won’t.

This new approach to Twitter makes for an experience that is both leaner (in the volume of tweets consumed) and richer (in their impact, and in my ability to engage). Far from weaning me off Twitter, I expect that focusing my attention will make twittering more central, effective and meaningful to me.

First posted on April 26,2009

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