Real Friends Follow Less

Image by luc legay

Twitter is either an extremely powerful vehicle of community and personal engagement or a mentally derailing assault of distractions. It’s all depending how much intentionally you bring to it.
Here are three quick insights for using Twitter efficiently:

Use With a Purpose

If you check your twitter feed and are confronted by a news item, a trivia fact, a magazine update, commentary on your friend’s tooth-brushing experience, and a blog update, this stream is not even remotely helpful for anything but developing an addiction to distraction.
You must curtail Twitter with purpose. To use Twitter without any intentionality is to spray yourself in the face with a high pressure blast of contextless, random information. This can serve little greater good other than sending you down countless rabbit trails.
Twitter use, like all other data management you do, should be built on a specific question: what do I actually care about? Inability or refusal to answer this question is to inadvertently inundate yourself with data and clog the clarity of your conscious psyche.
But Twitter can still be a great asset, and an extremely powerful one at that.
So, for every “purpose” you choose to use Twitter, create a specific list, and follow this mantra:

List, Don’t Follow

For anything to make sense in life you need to sort data into workable categories. Thinking about nuclear power, Immanuel Kant, and the ingredients of Hawaiian pizza at the same time is not going to help you do much of anything — especially if you are thinking about it while you are on a hot date. Context is essential. It allows focus and focus is the first step towards productive thinking instead of swirling, garbling randomness. Unless harnessed by purpose, Twitter instantly becomes the uninterpretable fusion of this philosophical, nuclear pizza. If this happens, it’s likely to be more of a mental liability than an asset.
Focus is the capacity to choose what you are thinking about. Therefore, reading the news, a friend’s status update, a product announcement, and a host of disparate updates at the same time is the epitome of counter-productivity, because it systematically sprays your attention in a million directions at once. Most Twitter users willing, daily, and even hourly sacrifice their focus on the alter of their Following list.
Just like organizing your work-flow requires order, managing your info-flow of Twitter is best done by making lists. News, local community organizations, trivia, hobbies, etc. For each specific purpose you use Twitter, make a list. The key here is this: do not actually Follow these sources, simply list them. Then choose your time to focus on one sphere of thinking at a time. Instead of constantly changing mental gears, leverage Twitter’s capacity to integrate large volumes of streams to your mental advantage.

Follow People, Purposefully and Personally

So who (or what) do you actually follow on Twitter? My advice: real people. I only Follow friends, family, members of my local community, and a few key individuals I admire. I also keep this list under 100, because that way I can actually keep up with what these individuals are doing.
Try applying this to your Following feed: I will only follow people that I care enough about to not miss anything they have to share. In a sense, to follow hundreds of people is to devalue the very people you are following. Your likelihood of missing a real friend’s update exponentially grows with the number of other people you follow. Care more, follow less.
As stated earlier, the primary question that should drive any use of social media is simply, what do I actually care about? In summation, this question should invite us to think about Twitter in terms of people, real human beings, and therefore focus our use of the technology in a way that gives greatest value to these individuals.
(This post was inspired by applying some very general principle’s of David Allen‘s (on Twitter as @gtdguy) GTD model of life and work management to my personal use of Twitter. I’d highly recommend his books Getting Things Done and Making It All Work.)

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