I’ve been using Twitter for about four years, since shortly after Twitterrific debuted. One full Olympiad later, I have all of 37 followers. That’s probably about 12 more than I’m comfortable with, but I’m trying to be flexible.
Twitter turned out to be a nearly ideal way for me to stay in touch with the groups that matter most to me: in-state family (some of whom live in rural areas and don’t have broadband, so the short format is quite practical); friends both near and far; and colleagues in Mac-watching.
My Water Cooler
Writing can be a solitary business, but Twitter makes it almost like I’m sharing an office with my small set of followers: There’s a steady conversation throughout the day that’s more responsive than e-mail yet (unlike a phone call or an in-person chat) doesn’t require my full attention. Those other channels all have their places, but Twitter is my office’s water cooler, populated by family and friends around the world.
However, to make it work, I’ve had to mold it to my needs. I have only a few dozen followers because I keep my Twitter stream private: you can’t read my tweets unless I specifically authorize you.
For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why people I didn’t know were finding me on Twitter and asking me for authorization. I finally realized that some of the people I follow have thousands (or tens of thousands) of followers. When one of the people I follow reply to me, that puts my Twitter name in the public timeline. On those infrequent occasions when I’ve committed humor (instead of merely attempted humor), it has made some people curious enough to ask if they can follow me.
Sorry, but No. I use Twitter in my own personal way. I have some health issues (doing well, thanks for asking). My family likes to hear from me pretty regularly, to make sure I’m OK. I use Twitter for that. I can send a “good night” message at 5 AM and know that multiple people will see it. That’s a lot easier to sending e-mail messages to them or, worse, trying to call.
I also often tweet to let them know I’m out of the office for a while. Quite frankly, I’m not comfortable with the whole world tracking my location. That’s fine for people who enjoy that. But it’s not for me.
Twitter has the potential to make everyone a worldwide celebrity—which is not something I want to be. I want to make unguarded comments around my “water cooler.” I want to complain about your political party, and just as often, about my political party. I want to root for my sports teams and disparage yours. I want to get excited or mad about current events unrelated to my job and express those feelings. I don’t want to do so in public tweets that will be enshrined in the “the cloud” for electronic eternity.
If I don’t know you, I frankly don’t think you should care about my opinions. (I barely care about most of them myself.) But Twitter leaves a trail that a person with even a marginally public face—like mine—may have to defend forever. Every witticism I attempt should not have the half-life of uranium-238.
A short list also keeps Twitter interruptions manageable. I’ve had to drop some Twitter folks I greatly admire and respect because they’ll occasionally send 100 tweets in an hour. That’s too much interruption. I could check Twitter less frequently, but then it would be harder for friends and family to send me the updates I do want to see.
I also don’t need to wake up and find 150 new tweets waiting for me; that puts me in catch-up mode for the entire day, and I’m already far enough behind. And I’ve learned that once people reach 10,000 followers or so, their tweets tend to become more performance art than substance, and I don’t need to be interrupted by that, either.
I like technology that molds to my needs, not that makes me change my style to fit its designs. Keeping feeds private hasn’t always been easy on Twitter, but it’s manageable now.
In general, if I’m not comfortable giving you telephone numbers that would let you call and wake me up, I probably won’t let you follow me on Twitter even if I know you—or even if I like you. Just don’t feel bad if I deny your request. It’s nothing personal—I just don’t want to spend my online life in a fishbowl. Besides, I’m really quite boring. You’re not missing much.
[Matt Deatherage is the publisher of MDJ and MWJ, journals for serious Macintosh users. You can learn more at MacJournals.com. He and his colleagues tweet (infrequently) about Mac news as @macjournals.]