What are you doing? 10 years of continuous partial attention

Today, for me, marks a decade of 140 character updates, 10 years of paying continuous partial attention to hundreds of wonderful people around the world. So I downloaded my Twitter archive and munged it in an Excel pivot table. Here’s what I learned…

2006-2008: what are you doing?

2006 to 2008.png

Following just a handful of people, I first experienced Twitter as a text messaging service. SMS, remember that? Every message was an answer to a single, simple question: “What are you doing?”

Within a week I think I understood the archival potential…

And before the year was out, I had an inkling of Twitter’s fragility…

“the places whose main or only selling point is unspoiltness – places we go to witness or take part in something special, but just by being there we destroy whatever that quality was. The perfect village? The perfect bar? Twitter?” – blog post: Polperro

Along the way, I picked up on the emerging conventions of the platform…

My first @ message…

2009: a tipping point

2006 to 2016.png

My first proper use of a hashtag…

… and some reckons about what made this platform so compelling…

“Maybe it’s this merging of monologue and dialogue in one service that makes microblogging (or whatever you call it) so powerful a communications tool? One for those of us who, most of the time, are not very good at listening?” – Twitter: where monologues collide

Up to that point, I’d used Twitter to keep up with a particular group of remote friends and colleagues. In 2009, as I recall, the number of users in Leeds hit some kind of critical mass – it became a useful place for conversation about my home city.

In November that year, after a chance Twitter exchange, I lured the author Steven Johnson to Leeds to talk about a personal hero of mine, Joseph Priestley. It rained, and not that many people made it to the talk, but even so…

In fact, almost every fun thing I’ve been involved in since around that time, from Leeds Walkshops to the Global GovJam has been enabled and enriched by this platform…

2011-12: Re-de-centralisation

It’s far from perfect. Nervous of Twitter’s long-term future, quite a few of us tried to find more open alternatives. I managed 246 identi.ca updates before getting sucked back into the Twitter ecosystem. This single point of control in our communications infrastructure still makes me uneasy.

2012: Unfollowing all the brands and bots

“A few days ago I ran a critical index finger down my Twitter “friends” list, unfollowing a few dozen accounts that did not belong to real people… I’m delighted with the results: my Twitter feed suddenly feels so much more human.” – All brands must die (after a long and happy life)

Since then I’ve kept this rule. Sorry, brands and bots, if you have something interesting to say, I’m sure one of my real friends will pass it on.

In 2012, I left a well-paid, permanent job to freelance in the world of digital service design. I’m pretty sure those people, the people I follow, and who follow me back, made that possible.

Being myself, most of the time

Part of the privilege that comes with playing life on the lowest difficulty setting is being able to be myself on social media, without the need to compartmentalise or anonymise for fear of context collapse.  I’ve never felt the need to separate personal and professional identities or to create a closed account for family and friends. I am painfully aware that many others do not enjoy this freedom.

At the same time, Twitter’s liberal approach to multiple accounts and usernames has allowed me to play with the medium. I once spent a few months impersonating the revolutionary journalist Camille Desmoulins, mainly to improve my French language skills…

And I created a mute account so I could share my wonder at living in the future with someone who I knew would appreciate it: @my7yearoldself …

2016: Meet my awesome filter bubble

Over the years the number of people I follow has grown. There are just so many interesting people in the world. But analysing my tweets I found a core of about 30 people whose words I retweet time and again.

I made them into a list, and for the past few days I’ve been consulting this instead of checking my timeline. So far I’m liking the result. By sticking just to this list, I can have a sense of completion, without getting drawn into the endless duration of the infinite scroll.

There’s been a lot of talk over the past weeks and months about whether filter bubbles are a Bad Thing, the cause of mutual mistrust across seemingly unbridgeable divides. My take: everyone needs a filter bubble. How awful would life be without like-minded people to share and reinforce beliefs and interests? Twitter’s asymmetrical follower model and untampered timeline have afforded the possibility of curating my filter bubble in a more controlled and transparent way than other social media platforms. I hope they keep those features. The risk arises when we mistake that bubble for the whole world, with everyone outside it as the Other.

This is my personal filter bubble. Sometimes I need to step outside it, but it’s an awesome bubble to be in. Thank you all…

Many others, not on this list, have also contributed to making Twitter great for me – thank you too.

In fact, in 10 years of following fairly liberally, only twice have I unfollowed someone because their ragey tweets were polluting my timeline. Again, I am aware that others have far worse online experiences. Some of the people whose tweets I have most enjoyed are no longer on Twitter. That’s a terrible shame. The platform’s owners and users must work harder to make it a safe place.

Some facts and figures

  • 9188 tweets
  • 6871 with an @
  • 3247 retweets
  • 2661 replies
  • 2570 accounts mentioned
  • 2313 with a #
  • 1210 uses of the pronoun “I”
  • 93 accounts mentioned more than 20 times each
  • 23 clients and connected apps used to tweet

My tweets

Here’s a word cloud of my tweets – 2006-2016…

Screenshot 2016-11-18 21.15.17.png

… and finally the 14 times I tweeted just a single word…

  • Annotating
  • Walking
  • Docked
  • roflysst
  • Haircut!
  • CDG3
  • LBIA
  • Snow!
  • Asleep
  • Awake
  • Wrapped
  • Wrapping
  • North
  • Baclava!

The experiment continues.

800px-an_experiment_on_a_bird_in_an_air_pump_by_joseph_wright_of_derby_1768
An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768
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Published by

mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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