Twitter, information overload, and social filtering

By Jesse Wilkins posted 05-27-2011 13:22



Over the weekend I crossed the 2,000 followers mark on Twitter. More to the point, I follow 742 people. Some of them tweet rarely if at all, but I'd guess the average is around 5-7 tweets per day. That means that my Twitter stream is around 3500-5000 tweets/day and I think quite a bit higher than that at times. 
I do a lot of public speaking and sometimes I will relate that statistic to people, typically followed by my statement that given the irrevocable choice between email and Twitter, I'd choose the latter in a heartbeat and with no regrets. 
Many of those people then ask, often with a stunned look on their faces, how on earth I manage to keep up with 3500+ tweets when many of them struggle with "only" 100+ email messages per day? 
I have two answers. The first answer is that Twitter, like many other social media tools, should be seen not as a glass to drink from but a river to dip a toe into when time permits. Lots of tweets are inane, irrelevant, superfluous, too cryptic to understand without context, etc. So I don't try to drink the entire river that is my Twitter stream. 
The second and more on-point answer proceeds from the first. When I make the river analogy, the next question is often "but don't you miss things that way?" In other words, how could I defend dumping email and then not reading all my tweets - it sounds like a recipe for missing really important stuff. 
My answer to that question and to the broader use to me of Twitter lies in the concept of social filtering. The most significant value I get from Twitter is from posts that link to longer-form resources like blog posts, infographics, white papers, event announcements, and the like. It's certainly possible that I might miss The Greatest Blog Post in the World - but it's not likely because of the way social filtering works. I have eclectic interests but I've cultivated enough of an information ecosystem on Twitter that when something good comes up, I'll see it several times in my Twitter stream as people retweet it or comment on it. 
This also has the additional advantage of separating the really interesting stuff from the more mundane: if I see  a post by, say, Chris Walker or Laurence Hart, I generally try to make time to read it. But when I see something that they both retweet, I know there is some good stuff there. And when I see it also get ticked by Cheryl McKinnon, Lee Dallas, Peter Monks, Patrick Lujan, and others in the ECM blogosphere, I know it's going to be exceptional and I'll often stop what I'm doing to take a look at it. 
The other thing is that I always keep an eye on my mentions and my direct messages, both of which serve as rough analogues to email messages in the Twitter ecosystem. So between my filtering and my social filters it's highly unlikely that I'll miss anything of any real impact - and because my interests and information sources don't overlap 100% with any given person I follow, the likelihood of seeing something that I wouldn't otherwise have seen is dramatically higher. I've been calling this serendipitous discovery and it's the other major value I find in Twitter - almost every day I see examples of people I should follow or read as an outcome of this approach. 
A final thought to tie this into social business. If you had a tool like Twitter that let you follow people you work with and get their updates, and could also follow others in the organization that you don't work with on a daily basis, and could leverage social filtering and serendipitous discovery, what new ideas, products, and services would YOU come up with?

#twitter #informationoverload #serendipitousdiscovery #socialfiltering #serendipity