Follow Friday? Nah. Unfollow Tuesday

Freedom

Serendipity. n. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that “this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of “a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of….”

The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

One of the great things in life is serendipity. I love it. It’s much like emotion in that it’s hard to categorize, difficult to understand, and benefits our well-being consistently. Serendipity sounds like it’s accidental in itself, but if you look at the definition again, you’ll notice that it’s an aptitude, not an accident. In my language and my world, an “aptitude” begs for a system to be made out of it. Or, if nothing else, a pattern can emerge from it.

In a long and entertaining discussion with Steffan Antonas about the use cases of social media and specifically Twitter, we came to the same conclusion. There are many ways to use these new tools, but one of the biggest benefits is the serendipity which results.

Steffan has been able to meet some amazing people and hear some fantastic stories from people who he probably never would have met if it weren’t for social media. He’s talked with intriguing people in completely different countries on subject matters that could easily turn into best selling books. He’s made money by simply being available and talking about things that interest him with people who want his knowledge.

I’ve had similar experiences. When I meet new people in San Diego, often I hear the question, “Wait.. are you the Nate Ritter who did that thing with Twitter and the fires?”. Of course I have to give all the credit for that publicity to serendipity. I’ve also gained financial advantage simply by being known and giving away advice. It’s not simply being nice that creates that gain.

Now, since I like serendipity and finding patterns, and because serendipity has something to do an aptitude for positive “accidents”, I naturally want to put myself in the best possible position where a positive accident might occur. Call it probability if you want. In the past few years, Twitter has been a great place to be when it comes to the probability for positive accidents to occur. I’ve enjoyed the fruits of simply using social media, talking to others, and giving and receiving advice. It’s led to a greater amount of serendipity, and it wasn’t by accident.

Public Underground

However – and this is a big “however” – since the day the Hollywood celebrities started making Twitter popular, there has been a serendipity drain. In short, Twitter’s usefulness has changed. It’s turned from a useful communication tool into a popularity contest and publishing platform. I never wanted another publishing platform and I’ve come to believe the reason the “early adopters” abandon popularized things is because it’s usefulness changed. It’s not about purity. It’s not about being cool. For us geeks, it’s about utility. Masses of people, network effects and such, change the usefulness of a particular tool or service and it’s not always for the better.

So as Steffan and I talked over our fabulous mexican food, beers, and margaritas, we came to the realization that the serendipity we’ve experienced using Twitter has been few and far between lately.

In a moment of brilliance, we both decided to make today, Tuesday October 13th, Unfollow Tuesday. Today, we’re both purging who we follow on Twitter. We’re taking our Twitter experience into a different realm, the one we use Facebook for – friends. Because Twitter’s no longer helping us find those positive accidents, we figured we ought to simply use it as a different tool.

Steffan has the statistics to prove this next thought, but bare with me. We (social media early adopters) know that the number of followers means absolutely nothing. It’s not how many people are supposedly following you that counts. What matters is whether or not they listen and care about what you say (which usually includes conversation) and the serendipity which results. So, if you want to track a statistic, track how many people click on the links you post. Even better, track who clicks on the links you post. Track who you’ve had conversations with and what those topics were. Track follow up actions after you’ve posted something (and who did them).

Those are all difficult things to track right now, but you need to know who the people are who care about what you’re talking about. Only then will Twitter’s serendipity come back. Only then will the usefulness return.

Serendipity

So as I write this lengthy post, I can’t help but think that if you’ve made it this far, taking the time to read my thoughts, you’re probably the kind of person I want to know. You’re probably the kind of person who I would get along with. You’re probably not just another social media marketer. And if that sounds like you, I invite you to jump in on this conversation and let me know what you think. Let’s make this a two way street.

All the other people out there on Twitter who read the first 3 words and scanned the rest of the post to see how long it was… you people I’ll be unfollowing today. Unless you’re entertaining to me, a friend of mine (I have friends who are bored by these long posts too), or we have valuable things to share with each other, the probability for serendipity with you is too low for me to spend time on.

Today, Steffan and I are hereby invoking the Serendipity Pareto Principle with Twitter.

Cheers.

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

15 Comments on "Follow Friday? Nah. Unfollow Tuesday"

  1. Lach says:

    You are the man. We use Twitter for professional serendipity. We don’t know what’s going on in the community, but using this thing like a police scanner we can find out about emergencies before news breaks. In theory, we can get in there and have some real public information before the media’s beating down our doors, in the process we learn a lot about our connected community.

    Personally though, the s-factor has slowed down a lot on Twitter for sure. Questions remain unanswered, I rarely learn new things, and all the interesting people I hoped would join still haven’t.

    I had this same realization months ago when I locked down my profile and blocked a bunch of random folks. Twitter’s for friend stuff, but I gravely miss the s-factor of the early days. Remember meeting David Wallace? Remember business ideas we’d see? Gone. So sad.

    What’s next?

  2. DowntownRob says:

    I agree almost completely, and to a certain extent would do the same, except my serendipity is still unwaveringly positive and strong with the number of people I meet and hear from, so I’ll keep on trucking, unfollowing anyone that annoys me as I see fit. So far, everyone is still pretty interesting, or low-key enough for me not to notice they aren’t.

    – DowntownRob

  3. Brad Heintz says:

    It’s funny – by coincidence, today I did a light purge of my follow list as well. For me, it’s a matter of managing traffic vs. limited attention vs. the value I get from any one person’s stream of tweets. I still keep lots of non-friends in my list, and I still run across interesting people by following the RTs and conversations of the people I watch.

    I guess I haven’t seen quite the same value loss you have (at least not yet). The people I watch on Twitter tend not to retweet Ashton Kutcher or Miley Cyrus, and through them I’m still discovering more Rubyists and Hadoop hackers and authors and artists of interest.

    But I’m also very choosy about who I follow; I expect that unless I’m on vacation or working at something that requires 100% attention, I’m going to be looking at 100% of the tweets in my stream. (I generally don’t do this as they come in, btw, but batched every few hours.) You have to be adding value to my day for me to bother. I don’t follow advice like Guy Kawasaki’s inane dictum about following everyone who follows you – if I want 100% mutual links in my network, I know where to find Facebook & LinkedIn.

    If I’ve seen value loss anywhere, it’s the trending topics. Interesting stuff still comes up (e.g. #trafigura), but the hoi polloi have certainly diluted/polluted the trends. (Does that sound elitist? I can live with that.)

    So, that rambled. The short version: I sort of half-disagree with you – I think the effect you talk about is there, but it’s a lot in how you use the tool – the serendipity needn’t be lost.

  4. Ryan Graves says:

    Brilliant. I’ve created a separate account to “really follow” on twitter. It’s the only way it’s bearable.

    Looking forward to your results buddy.

    Cheers,
    Ryan

  5. kgsexton says:

    Hey thanks. Saw this on twitter via @bgraubart …

    But it seems everything is becoming a publishing platform … did you see this? http://econsultancy.com/blog/4771-why-facebook-could-be-the-next-big-news-publisher

    I am lamenting my old facebook as it becomes a business “tool” as well.

  6. nate says:

    I gravely miss the s-factor of the early days. Remember meeting David Wallace? Remember business ideas we’d see? Gone. So sad.
    ~Lach

    Lach, I fully agree. Meeting David Wallace was a huge highlight of the power of the “s-factor” for me. How hilarious is it that he is on the board of the very same organization that I created a twitter bot for… and we didn’t even know we were sitting at the same table sharing a coffee together until about 4 random events came together and 30 minutes into our conversation we figure that out. That’s awesome stuff and has tangible results. I’m sad to see the tool that created serendipity like that get so formalized.

    my serendipity is still unwaveringly positive and strong with the number of people I meet and hear from, so I’ll keep on trucking
    ~DowntownRob

    Rob, I don’t blame ya man. Keep doing what works.

    But I’m also very choosy about who I follow; I expect that unless I’m on vacation or working at something that requires 100% attention, I’m going to be looking at 100% of the tweets in my stream.
    ~Brad Heintz

    Brad, the way you use Twitter is the way I’m starting to use it now as well. Being choosy is the key. It betters the signal to noise ratio. And, I love that you’re unabashed about making sure the people you follow are adding value to your life. The pressure to re-follow or even follow someone because you met them once is pretty high in the crowd I run with, but I’m starting not to care anymore. I don’t add people at parties anymore. I’ll ask them what their handle is, and check their posts out later. That way, I don’t just add everyone and (literally) their dog. You’re a smart man. Better than I for keeping your stream clean and clear.

    Ryan, thanks for the kudos. I find it entertaining that people necessitate multiple accounts. One is usually for the perception and publishing, and the other is our real lives. This kind of behavior deserves a book on the subject. ;)

    Thanks to everyone for commenting. This kind of conversation makes my day!

  7. Jeronathon says:

    I find my self considering a few things after reading your post. I use tweet deck to filter the people that are really important or add value to my life and the rest which I occasionally follow up on. Incidentally the ratio is about 20/80. I am thinking about how much I really value that 80 percent or is most of it just noise.

    I remember the same thing happening to the YouTube community. Independent vloggers now have a hard time competing and great content seems to get lost in all the noise. It seems to be a recurring phenomenon in all social media utilities. So the solution seems sound. Take control of who you follow. Before twitter itself was a community. Now many different communities will develop within twitter.

  8. Awesome post Nate…and what a great conversation it was. My post will be up shortly. So here’s what I want to highlight from your post –

    “It’s not how many people are supposedly following you that counts. What matters is whether or not they listen and care about what you say (which usually includes conversation) and the serendipity which results.”

    Spot on. The people who really care about you always make the effort to read your stuff, keep up with your content etc. And it’s always a small active core who make the difference (think 300 Spartans, rather than the Persian army). Maintaining a close relationship with the people in that core is the only thing that really adds value in the long run, IMO. That’s the argument in the nutshell — and I’ve seen this bare itself out in many different cases.

    We’ve seen the studies on click through rates – across the board CTR is less than 1% for all types of users, and the CTR % ratio decreases incrementally as follow lists grow – the Sysomos data showed that that’s true twitter-wide. What’s interesting that it means that you get guys like @Jesse who created SocialToo (popular guy) who admits that even when he had 25K followers, he was only getting 20-50 clicks per link he posted – 0.2% (http://bit.ly/11FST8). I’ve seen the same in my following and I’ve tested it on dozens of other accounts – from @aplusk to @joeblog. The strategy just. doesnt. work.

    When you have guys with 25K followers risking their reputations by unfollowing tens of thousands of people, you know something isn’t right.

    You hit the nail on the head on Friday when you said “everyone on Twitter is broadcasting, and no one is listening”. It’s true and you can see it plain as day in the data.

    You know what else…I unfollowed 12K people today…and it feels amazing. I haven’t had a single spam message since and I’ve been catching up with friends easily. Bringing back that serendipity, baby!!! WOOT.

  9. I’ve been contemplating what to do with my Twitter account as well for the last month or two.

    When I first created my account I didn’t have any idea what I would do with it. It was about a year after I moved to San Diego so I decided to seek local people to follow. It was great. I met a lot of interesting people; mostly online, but some offline at meetups. Now, my (non-early adopter) friends are on Twitter and it’s just not the same. I’ve also added a whole lot of random people since, mostly reciprocal follows, and have lost touch with the original group whom I came to know, including you, Nate. I may not have conversed with everybody all that much, but I did used to read 100% of my Twitter stream. (Now, I only read 5%, if that.)

    I think I’m going to do a purge as well. I just hate deciding whom to drop. Nate, didn’t you create a script at one point to drop anyone who hasn’t @replied you?

  10. nate says:

    KGSexton, I had not seen that article, but thanks for it. I appreciate it.

    Before twitter itself was a community. Now many different communities will develop within twitter.
    ~Jeronathan

    Jeronathan, you have a great point there that I didn’t really make. Twitter is being redefined from one big group of interesting people into much smaller “tribes” (thanks to Seth Godin for the appropriate word). These tribes are mostly a combo of (a) who we already knew before we started in a social network and (b) who we met along the way until we decide to close ourselves off from the majority. That’s an interesting progression. Thanks for pointing that out.

    think 300 Spartans, rather than the Persian army
    ~SteffanAntonas

    SteffanAntonas, That’s a great analogy, and I would rather have 300 Spartans any day of the week.

    I think I’m going to do a purge as well. I just hate deciding whom to drop. Nate, didn’t you create a script at one point to drop anyone who hasn’t @replied you?
    ~Oliver Ortega Chua

    Oliver, yes I did have a script at one point. Today I can’t find it, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to recreate. It used to tell me who I talked to most over Twitter, and who talked to me. That conversation (and a few people who I manually left in my stream because they are entertaining or cover interesting news) is what I was left with. It made Twitter much more useful and fun for me. I wish I could find it today. Instead, I just leave the stream up and when I see one person post one thing that I don’t think is interesting or entertaining, I immediately go look at their full stream. If less than 1/10 of their posts hits the mark, I unfollow. I unfollow friends who post business things, friends’ companies, acquaintances who post personal things, whatever suits my interests. The thing I keep coming back to is “Is this interesting to me now?”. If not, I unfollow. Simple. I try not to worry so much about what others think. It’s not a personal slap in the face, it’s just that people talk about things I don’t really care about. RSS readers are the same way. I don’t follow certain people’s blogs… the only difference is, they don’t know that.

  11. rex says:

    yes brilliant – it is about a two way street, exchanges, friendship, win/win, and provocative exchanges that lead to positive outcomes… I find it amazing the numbers of people who don’t reply, don’t repost or retweet or respond in like fashion to invites to cross promote, to communicate and further the conversation… apathy reigns. your commentary is on the mark.

  12. nate says:

    Thanks Rex.

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