Follow you, follow me: Twitter and a scaleable attention span

A few days ago, I learned something new about the social network I’ve been using almost every day since the spring of 2008. As I belatedly followed somebody on Twitter whose input I’d been enjoying for years in retweeted form, it struck me how rarely I’d had reason to regret following people on the service.

Twitter follow buttonMost of my unfollows have involved read-only accounts that I found a poor substitute for RSS. As for actual people–and organizational accounts that interact as if there are actual people behind the keyboards–I have to discover that you’re a far more obnoxious or uninformative tweep than I’d thought to unfollow you.

(FWIW, I don’t think I’ve blocked anybody on Twitter for anything besides spamming and don’t quite understand “ending” an argument by blocking somebody who has remained civil throughout the debate. I suppose enough pointless jackassery sent my way could drive me to that step, but it hasn’t happened yet.)

And yet when I started out, I was unrealistically afraid of having too many people’s words cascade down the screen. Each new follow involved a careful consideration of how often this person would tweet, and how relevant those tweets were to my work.

I mean, I didn’t even follow the guys I shared a group house with at a NASA Tweetup. How weirdly snobbish is that?

That was dumb. I missed out on a lot that way.

I now follow more than 400 users–still far less than many other people I know–and don’t feel close to overwhelmed even though I have far more to keep up with. In retrospect, I seriously underestimated how my attention span could scale up.

It’s true that reading Twitter on the go on a phone has gotten more pleasant since 2008, and that this service imposes no visual penalty for falling behind–no messages piling up in an inbox, no RSS items asking to be marked as read.

But the most important change is in my own head. I’ve gotten better at reading Twitter quickly: recognizing the varying signal-to-noise ratios of people and skimming their output appropriately, noticing retweets from users with particularly good taste, ignoring waves of banter about pop-culture topics I don’t care about.

Twitter has become one of those specialized tasks–typing on phone keyboards comes to mind–that I’ve done enough times to have essentially reprogrammed my brain.

That could still turn out to be a tragic waste of cerebral capacity. But it is more fun to surround myself with more interesting and creative people, even if they don’t all neatly fit into a People Relevant to Tech Journalism spreadsheet.