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Overfollowing on Twitter

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Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009

Just a few days after having my first experience with Twitter and “real-time search” that could be remotely characterized as useful, I’m reading in this Mark Gimein essay at the Big Money that Twitter is doomed.


The irony of Twitter is that even as it becomes more pervasive, it is in danger of very quickly becoming markedly less useful. Twitter is in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Not because of its problems keeping up with traffic—those are solvable—but because the volume of material that Twitter unleashes now puts impossible demands on its users’ time and attention. The problem, in a nutshell, is information overload. The more Twitter grows and the more feeds Twitterers follow, the harder it gets to mine it for what is truly useful and engaging. Even as Twitter reaches a peak in the cultural cred cycle, it’s time to start asking how it can be saved from itself.


The problem, in Gimein’s view, is that users are too profligate in who they follow, making the concept meaningless—the number of followers one has is no indication of the amount of people who are actually reading what you have to say, even when it comes in telegraphic blasts. This line of reasoning suggests how Twitter works to quantize communication, making the numbers in the audience more important than what’s said. Of course, that has always been true of ratings-driven media, but it hasn’t been true for our conversations.


But the genius of Twitter as a potential business is that it turns ordinary people into media companies. It lets us subject our conversations to Nielsen-like ratings, to regard our communications as a product conveying our personal brand. Then we can crunch the numerical data Twitter supplies to tweak our brand, and see what works to improve the numbers, which serve as proxy for our relevance and reach and, by extension, our right to feel important. Then these numbers can be used to sell ads as well—we can indicate to advertisers what sort of demographic we have in our followers, making it a new way to monetize our friendships, following the inroads Facebook has made in that department. In the process, we become a product, a package of manipulatable content.


Gimein’s critique has nothing to do with decrying that process of reification. He’s more concerned with effective filtering. I think real-time search makes the following/followed concept meaningless to practical information gathering—the followers number is all about status and ersatz influence measurement, not communication in any conventional sense. Twitter is less about disseminating information than it is about subjects trying to make themselves feel more real, ontologically speaking, in a increasingly mediated world.


Gimein’s argument almost incidentally indicates how fragile the illusion of self-branding is—we can fixate all we want on the numbers and the illusion of control that gives us over how popular and influential we can become, but that number is ultimately misleading. Gimein relates an anecdote of having one of his posts pushed on Google’s corporate Twitter feed, which has a million followers—it brought his own post a few hundred hits. That’s telling—the click-through percentage probably diminishes the larger the recommending pool is (niche aggregators are going to be more inherently trustworthy to its followers). But also telling is the way Gimein is willing to subject himself with no apparent hesitation to the sort of analysis usually reserved for online advertising. 


Anyway, Twitter foments the fantasy of our vast influence, our endless relevance to everyone, and enlists more or less meaningless numbers to sustain it. Following people and being followed doesn’t signify any kind of commitment, any reciprocal responsibility—it’s just an effortless way to give and receive empty recognition. It’s a devalued currency, hyperinflated. But we can use that number nonetheless as a focal point, a kind of mandala for our self-worship.


The quantification disguises the emptiness of the social relations it is supposedly counting, an operation that reiterates the kind of instrumental rationality that characterizes the neoliberalism colonizing more and more of everyday life. Despite its early promise as a social-planning tool, Twittering is becoming a self-referential operation; we project things that make us feel important and pretend that it is for the benefit of unseen (and, in fact, often indifferent) others. We get a simulacrum of civic participation minus the trouble of other people and reciprocity and responsibility. We can buy followers for our Twitter feed and then forget in the midst of our fantasy how self-defeating that is. 

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