How and why I use Twitter

Recently I copped some flak regarding my Twitter usage policies. So now we've all calmed down I thought I'd whip the storm up again by explaining why and how I use Twitter: this technique might be useful for you.

When I started on Twitter I followed quite a few people but I found the flow overwhelming. I'm not a compulsive reader and I don't like to devote too much of my scarce time to social media, so I'm never going to get through them all.

So phase 2 of my Twitter usage was to cut back to following 40 people maximum. I stayed that way for a long time as an exercise in discipline, to try to get a refined distilled stream like some sort of elite liqueur, but frankly that got boring because the stream was not diverse enough. More importantly, one of the great failing of the internet is that it doesn't actually expand the horizons of many users, it narrows them by allowing them to link up with fellow goat-fondlers, homeopathic-fishermen, Tea-Parties or Marxist-anarchists around the planet and convince each other that their value set is valid. There's a book about small isolated groups building values with no external reference or input: Lord of the Flies. One needs to follow a wide enough set of people to get some balance and variety in your tweet diet.

Nor are you under any moral or ethical obligation to read everything your followees tweet, any more than I would walk around behind my real-life friends all day to make sure I heard everything they said. That's just silly. The internet is a flowing river of information, a vast Amazon. You can't hope but to sip from it, to scoop a handful now and then. Twitter is just one current of that river and to try to drink it all is to drown, or at least to make yourself sick.

So I cranked it back up. I now follow about 900 people. And no I'm not whoring by doing that: I'm not gaming Klout or other metrics by following lots of people. I don't follow indiscriminately: I carefully select who I follow and usually I select from those who are already following me, or otherwise from those who get mentioned in tweets. I first check out what they have said recently, to make sure it isn't dominated by food, football, where-i-am-now, technological geekery, or religion. If their tweets look high-value, I follow. I do leave out those whose views completely repel me: the dippy left, the ultra right, new-agers, the puerile and the profane. But I try to be catholic in my selections - picking up a wide variety - not just IT types and especially not just ITSM wonks. Still, if you go through my followees you'll see I follow for my work interests only: there is still lots of ITSM and all IT. Twitter for me is a work information tool.
[Update Feb 2014: I'm down to following 240 because I found editing a Twitter list too cumbersome, so my only "list" is my set of followees. But that set of 240 is too small: it is getting a bit borinfly familiar (the overall stream not the individuals!). Time to add a few hundred, get more diversity.]

My formula:
  • Follow as many people as you like, thousands even. Be selective though, not indiscriminate.
  • Dip into your Home stream randomly for serendipitous finds
  • Create a private list with less people, tens not hundreds, that you are really interested in following more closely
  • Follow that list more closely
  • You might like to have two accounts to separate your work persona from your personal views, just like many of us do at work
  • Don't be any more driven by what other folk think than you would be in real life. Use twitter as you see fit.

Is this an abuse of "follow"? What does "follow" mean? Says you. I say it means I want to sometimes hear what they say. it doesn't mean I'm friends with them, or that I find them influential, or I am preparing to marry them. It means I follow them on twitter. "Follow" means whatever you think it means as you use Twitter and nobody has any right to tell you otherwise (except Twitter). It's your stream. Twitter can be a personal social network: a Facebook Lite. Or a professional network, LinkedIn Lite. Or - as it is for me - a zeitgeist radar, a random sampling of what's goin' on. So "follow" means whatever you want it to mean as an information tool for you.

How do I deal with the stream from 900 people? Simple. I dip into it once or twice a day for a random sample of what's happening. The serendipity is terrific: I pick up all sorts of high-value stuff. Often it is extremly lateral content that stimulates me to new creative thought directions, because I'm sampling widely. That would seldom happen with 40 followees - we're all on the same page. In addition to this occasional dip into the Home stream, I more closely read most of the tweets from a private Twitter list I maintain called "interesting". That is my real primary twitter stream. It is none of your busines who's on it: there are 34 people on it right now.
[Update 2014: I still have that list but it is out of date because it is a pain to maintain. Most of us aren't OCD enough to be constantly tuning these things. I just read my main stream now. ]

I do agree there is a maximum number to follow before it gets really meaningless, before in fact you are pretty clearly following for the sake of followers. But I think that number is way in the thousands. I reckon I could sustainably follow over a thousand people. I may well pass that number soon. They drop off as they annoy me too much, but at a much slower rate than I'm adding them. Once it gets into four figures I think I'll have a good clean out and perhaps halve the list. Or not... what does it matter? My Home stream is the murmer of a crowd, one which I wander through from time to time to see what I can pick up. What does it matter how big that crowd is?

The other change I made not too long ago was to split into two personas on twitter: @theitSkeptic and @rob_england. My personal views were creeping into the @theiteskeptic stream, and those views can be a bit extreme for some people. I don't much like religion - I find most of it absurd - and I detest any irrational thought, such as the anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-medecine, anti-nuclear or anti-vaccination camps. Rather than alienate those who follow @theitskeptic for work purposes, I split. The Hootsuite interface allows me to regularly forget and post to the wrong stream anyway, so I may or may not continue with the complexity of multiple personas. Overall, I think it is appropriate. Google+ circles provide a similar though more subtle mechanism.
[Update Feb 2014: I couldn't be bothered with 2 accounts. I'm back to just one. Mostly I just don't share extreme personal observations on Twitter at all. It's too crude a tool anyway: strong opinions need nuanced discussion that 140 char won't give you. If I really want to vent I use Google+ or my personal blog]

There are all sorts of other netiquette rules to Twitter. It is good if we evolve netiquette as a community. We did it with email: don't SHOUT BY TYPING EVERYTHING IN CAPS. Don't reply-all. Use BCC when sending to a distribution list of addresses unless they have all already agreed to share addresses. But look at how often those rules are still broken, just as any etiquette rules are regularly broken in the real world. Twitter etiquette will always be broken. What's more, it is still evolving. I don't think there is general agreement on what the rules are. It is clear to me we need more thought and more subtlety in what the rules are.

I get stick for re-tweeting tweets with my name in. They are usually where a client like Pink, Beetil, Citrix, ManageEngine etc have announced a post I have written for them and I retweet it to draw it to the attention of my followers. That's not vanity, that is sharing. It is also fulfilling my commitment to those clients to use my twitter presence to spread the word. It seems to me that if I left my handle out of the retweet that would be disingenuous, a form of failure to disclose my involvement in the linked article. And if I didn't retweet it I'd not be sharing content I wrote with my followers which seems dumb. To retweet the original post from my client is to make greater disclosure of the commercial link than to just tweet "Ooh look what I just wrote" without disclosing who I wrote it for.

Never mind the details of the arcane debates: the point is that expectations of twitter usage are far from settled. Even when the social rules do start to clarify, you are no more bound by Twitter conventions than you are by any other social rules. Chris Dancy and I agreed on this: Chris said

there are no rules on twitter. Seriously, no rules! You can do and say what you want. Just like real life!!!! Unfortunately, just like real life, you are being measured and excluded based on your perceived value.

..., and you can regard disapproval from the arbiters of taste with the same concern or amusement that you would in the real world. For example, I don't give a flying fox what Klout thinks because I know it is but a simplistic algorithm that cannot hope to measure true influence, or any other human characteristic or relationship.

Now if you'll excuse me I need to put my shorts and sandals on, have a beer for lunch, swear at the dog, and go play with toy trains in the garden.


Dunbar's number and the number of your twitter followees

Dunbar's number is sometimes cited as a limit on the number of people one can realistically follow on Twitter.

Dunbar's number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. It is somewhere between 100 and 230 (I reckon for "stable social relationships" it is lower: tribes fracture below 100). It was always only an average, distributed in a bell-curve, and varying from culture to culture (and research survey to research survey).

First off, there is a difference between "stable social relationships" and being interested in what people say, so whether Dunbar's number limits Twitter follows is moot. Dunbar's number is how large a group of people can remain as a cohesive social unit: the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with. There is nothing to stop you listening to many more than that.

But if we did accept the premise that Dunbar's number is a useful guideline, then the number is called into question by an interesting paper (pdf) which says the American personal acquaintance network is much larger: 90% of adults know between 250 and 1710 others. And that's only the 90% range - fell free to be non-conformist and sit out on the long tail beyond 2000. The paper explicitly points out that the internet increases these numbers still further.

Thanks to @raesmaa for the link

Still fumbling on Twitter

Thanks Rob for providing a 'formula'.

For all that I've been on Twitter for some time, I'm still grappling with the who, what, when, where and the ultimate 'why' should I bother. I'm often asked, 'how in the hell do you get the time to read it all?'. The fact is I don't and being off the grid earlier this year, even if only for 7 days was an absolutely wonderful experience. There is still much experimentation to explore what works for 'you' as the individual versus for the 'company' avatar - especially when you're not the only one tweeting on the company account. I'm a big proponent of Twitter as a knowledge source and explain to many they don't have to be following or be followed to take advantage of # searches to gain access to knowledge they may never have known about. It's certainly opened my eyes and saved me massive email dumps into my inbox from being subscribed to multiple websites, blogs, news feeds etc. Investigating other people's lists is also a great way to understand valuable players in whichever space of interest you roam in.

It's time for me to do another redefine of my follows and lists and I appreciate your blog and also the comments made by a number of people on this one that, by the way, I do follow on Twitter! :)

Flipboard with Twitter feed

I do not follow as many as you mentioned. but what i found fascinating was the Flipboard app for iPhone/iPad. It does a great job converting the twitter feeds into magazine like readable bits and pieces. i find it extremely easy to follow the twitter barrage.

Private Twitter Lists

"Private Lists – When Twitter says private, they mean private. Only the creator of private lists will be able to see or subscribe to them — not even those on the list can see private lists. That means, for example, you could create a list of your competitors and keep an eye on them without them being any the wiser."


"Recently I copped some flak regarding my Twitter usage policies." from whom? Who is claiming to be an expert at any of this? The guy at the front of the queue of the gold rush appears to be holding a shovel - he must be an expert.

It's Me

I guess some people have real jobs and don't keep up with the gossip columns.

Martin, Rob's points are a direct lift off the comments in this article from three months ago on your site

I'm just more obvious about being an attention whore.

As far as who is claiming to be an expert, I am. I am an expert at all of this, and I have the documentation, records and articles to back it up.

Any other questions?


Can't argue

Very well said sir,

You have stated your point so eloquently and it is appreciated that you used the term formula instead of rules.

William Goddard ( aka @helpdesk_info on Twitter )


Spot on Rob, I use Twitter in much the same way and concur with these views. I also like the fact that its all short and easily consummable, so it doesn't take up too much time. That's also the reason why like you I'm reluctant to the point of Ludditism about joining (or not joining..) Facebook - i.e. I want to have a life.

Facebook - yes or no?

If anyone is wrestling with this may I just say don't worry, I won't be 'liking' you. Facebook is for when 'people' want to dance on tables with their knickers on their heads.

Otherwise it's LinkedIn all the way. Who on earth thinks it a good idea to mix personal with business?


Interesting mainstream-conservative view from Babbage in this week's : holding out is starting to hurt.

Having no friends helps.

Tweeted this!

I have just tweeted this - I think it's perfectly said. I try not to let my follow list get over 400 because it feels unmanageable to me at that point - but that's just me and how I use twitter.

I've never had a facebook account, I'm quite fond of linkedin. Twitter is just another tool, and it's one I've been impressed with. As the ITSM community gets more global (and more outspoken) it's a great way to sample the mood.


PS Now I'm off to nosy through your follow list and pinch the interesting ones :-)


I hope you find some good ones. Interestingly with nearly a thousand followees, trawling them could be tough.

My "Interesting" Twitter list is private (unless it can be hacked?? Twitter is notoriously insecure). Who really influences me is my business, just as in the real world. Eg. Every mentoring relationship I have had has been private ("secret" would be too strong a word but hardly anyone knew).

Just as in the real world, you can decode some of my influences by who I quote/retweet, but just as in the real world that is unreliable and approximate. One of the biggest influences on me in a business context is Art Jacobs. Try to find him on Klout or find a single link from me to him - you won't.

Who I follow on twitter has little to do with who influences me. Even my "Interesting" list would be a poor model for my real influences, which is another reason why I keep it private : I don't want people hanging up on who is or isn't on it. Just because someone reliably tweets good stuff and has views that interest me is not exactly the same thing as influencing me... I think.


I have arrived at exactly the same set of principles. Well stated.

Charles T. Betz

Syndicate content