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the unmanageable feed

As much as I enjoy having my attention drawn to who is wrong on the internet; and who thinks someone else is wrong on the internet but is in fact wrong themselves; and who has been wrong since before there was an internet; and who has no opinions that should be taken seriously; and who is on the right track but is not quite there yet; and who is right but for the wrong reasons; and who has the latest threads that are absolutely essential to read; and who has answered the latest quoted question; and who has adorable pets - as much as I appreciate being directed to all of this on an ongoing basis, I'm finding twitter to be unmanageable these days.

I was going to write this week about all the steps I've taken to make my twitter feed manageable and I guess I'm still going to do that even though it seems kind of myopic in the context of this week's anti-democracy riots and social media's role in facilitating them. This post isn't about twitter at that level; it's just about me trying to find a way to still get something useful out of it while keeping it at a healthier distance. I still hope to spend less time on the platform in 2021.

I was not an early adopter of twitter, or even a particularly heavy user for the first few years after I created an account in 2009. I thought it was kind of a poorly made system, tweeted maybe a few times per week, got tired of seeing the fail whale. After years of reading a few blogs where I read every post, it took time to get used to the timeline stream and the impossibility of catching up.

Not long after I got my account, twitter made a change to the home timeline. I think this was still early in 2009. Up to that point, they'd been showing all tweets from everyone you follow, including everyone's reply tweets (starting with the '@'). They then switched to showing reply tweets from an account you follow only if you follow both the account sending the reply and the account to which the reply was directed. This significantly reduced the amount of tweets I saw. It's the last time I can remember being annoyed with twitter for showing me less rather than more.

After library school, I started using twitter a lot more, mostly for professional purposes: asking for help or advice, trying to help others, engaging in discussions, following and passing along links, not always succeeding in staying out of arguments. I benefited a lot from people helping me via twitter, especially during my first few years as a digital archivist. I learned a surprising amount of bash from tweets.

But by 2016, I felt like I was too always online. I think I'd tweeted around 10-15,000 times by that point, not high volume by some standards but still a lot. I deleted all of them at the end of the year and took a couple of days to decide whether to keep the account. I decided instead to try to limit my use.

In the years since, I've made a series of ever shifting changes to how I use twitter that generally seemed to improve things but never felt effective enough. I tweet far less than I used to, and when there isn't some kind of crisis I read twitter less too. (But there always seems to be some kind of crisis.)

What's been most successful:

  • Arbitrary limits on tweeting (i.e. fewer than 100 tweets/month): 1200 tweets/year is a surprisingly small number.
  • Staying mostly out of conversations: I don't like sprawling threads, plus fewer conversations mean fewer notifications.
  • Turned off seeing retweets for all accounts I follow: best decision I've made. The huge reduction in volume more than makes up for missing out on some tweets I might otherwise have seen. If retweets were endorsements, then maybe I'd want to see more of them.1

What hasn't worked so well:

  • Muting words and phrases: it's a pain to manage, and language is complicated so things slip through. But I haven't seen "hold my beer" for a long time so it hasn't been a total loss.
  • Dealing with quote tweets: there's no way to distinguish between quote tweets that are just like other tweets I want to see that contain links (that just happen to be links to tweets), and quote tweets that are like retweets (that are not endorsements) that I want to see less of - even when I appreciate the quoter's added commentary. Blocking the quoted account (i.e. not the one I'm following) is partially successful in that it blocks the display of the quoted tweet, but the effect is that I see a lot of tweets that contain content I've blocked. I've blocked an awful lot of people in prominent public positions because they keep getting quoted for saying harmful and just plain stupid things.

What might be the last straw:

  • Using lists: in the past few weeks, I've tried unfollowing some people and then adding them to lists. I started with the heavy quote-tweeters, that is people who tweet a lot and quote tweet a lot. That helped but it didn't make a lot of sense to have them in one list just because of their tweeting style. So I started separating out accounts by content categories: politics news, analysis of technology, academics, etc. But do I want to spend a lot of time cataloging twitter accounts? I do not. Even worse, lists show retweets and there are so many retweets in my lists it's hard to find the tweets from the people I actually followed. It looks like I might be able to filter out retweets via the twitter API but do I want to write my own twitter client just to make my feed manageable? I do not.

So where does that leave me? With a rant about twitter long enough for a blog post, that's where. I'll probably still be keeping my account.

  1. I was into turning off retweets before it was cool