The Signal-to-Noise Ratio on Twitter

Evidence: Nearly everyone in the Valley follows (or should follow) @atul on twitter. He’s known to tip-off @techmeme more than anyone else, perhaps even in his sleep. He’s so good and consistent at it, that’s he’s amassed quite a bit of a following for someone who doesn’t outwardly promote himself as anything more than a guy with a twitter account. Even @msuster referenced @atul in one of his blogs as someone he follows but has never met, citing his reputation as a solid “linker.” I’ve been following @atul for over a year now, and very rarely have seen him tweet anything other than an link. No curation. No forced wit. Very few hashtags. His tweet is itself the curation and his way of communicating. That is, until last night. On a TechCrunch tweet headline about the Yahoo CEO and how many feel she should be fired, Atul tipped a bit of his hand, adding a subtle yet forceful “+1” to his RT. That subtle curated addition prompted one of @atul’s follower’s, @cdixon, to weigh in with a “x10,” and since nearly everyone follows @cdixon, everyone read it and it eventually become the screenshot headline for the TechCrunch article.

Memory: How did someone like @atul write a tweet that showed up on TechCrunch? When I read the article, it immediately reminded me of a social experiment I participated in graduate school. I had the pleasure of being in a graduate class of roughly 500 folks, where the majority were — and I say this with respect — quite Type-A, a bit loud, forward, promotional, very smart, driven, highly-intelligent, etc. Our class, our curriculum, and and our experience was very social. At the end of the program, classes stopped and we were thrown into randomized groups of 4-5 classmates and required to complete a project as a team, where much of the work involved interacting with other groups. As part of the exercise that year, one of the professors studying network theory gave us all these lanyards devices that had proximity sensors and microphones (not to capture our speech, but just the volume of our voice). As we were co-working for those two weeks with our forced groups and then relaxing (and complaining) with our real friends during breaks, the devices recorded the folks each person talked to and the volumes of our voices. I was in a group with a friend (not close friend) who was quiet shy, though confident, and had a very soft voice. It was often very hard to hear him around school. If you really wanted to hear him, often you’d need to stop, lean in, cup your hear, and really focus. Then, he would have your full attention, for that small moment of time. For someone I didn’t hang out with a lot, I do remember some snippets of our short conversations, and I’m convinced its because he was consistently shy and spoke softly. Well, at the end of social exercise, we received these fancy infographics that displayed our whereabouts corresponded with circles. The diameter of the circle corresponded to volume of your voice while the grayscale of the fill-in corresponded to the ambient sound around you while you were speaking for a period of time over 1 minute. When we got our readouts, I immediately ran to my friend to see his and, as expected, the few times he spoke for over a minute, there weren’t many circles (he doesn’t speak much), but when he did, those circles were entirely black, meaning that everyone around him stopped talked. They were listening.

Xtina Circles Black White

Takeaway: In piecing together these two anecdotes, it occurred to me that, as someone who relies on twitter for all sorts of information, news, and updates, that there are incentives in the short-term to be loud, promote yourself, and share to your heart’s content. But it struck me that with all the changes in the twitter interface, and the changes that are going to come, that twitter will continue to rise in importance, where more folks grow to rely on it. And, as that happens, it will become increasingly important to constantly prune follower lists. I’ve already noticed that people are un-following me, and that I’ve had to shave down my list. People are also more choosy in picking new folks to follow. The threshold will get higher and higher. (This excludes those who try to bulk up their follower rates by following everyone they know.) Sure, not each person who tweets care if their tweet is heard or not. Maybe it just falls in the forest, and no one is around. But, deep down, many of us do tweet in order to illicit a response, to get some feedback, to find a contact, to grab a breakfast or a late night drink, to hack on an idea — all as we sit alone behind our computers. It may just be that, as twitter evolves, if we really want to be heard, if we want to have more signal and less noise, we may ourselves need to increase the signal and let other people stop, listen, digest, and RT — to amplify the message and cut through the noise for us.

Thank you for reading. I would love to read any comments on this.  @semilshah