In the past few weeks I have seen several discussions on how to deal with an increase in Twitter follower requests stemming from unknown people or from ‘spammy’ sources. I think finding your own guidelines in how to deal with following and followers can be straightforward if you look at how you want to interact through Twitter.
For me social media is all about conversation. True conversation in the definition of Habermas, but also by everyone’s experience, is symmetrical. It is an even exchange of ideas, views, where both have the same level of effort to be able to take part, and the same power within the exchange. I bring that notion of conversational symmetry to tools like Jaiku and Twitter.

It means that my postings there are not public, but only visible for contacts thus ensuring that we can see eachothers postings.
It means that if you request to follow me, and there is a large unbalance in your number of followers and the number you follow, I will deny your request.

If you follow orders of magnitude more people than follow you, one on one interaction is not your goal apparantly. You’re building a phonebook, or you’re soaking up a large collage of everything that’s being posted, as a large antenna array. It’s a way of usage, but it’s not conversation.
If you follow orders of magnitude less people than follow you, you’re someone others like to keep track of. Kind of like the A-list bloggers of old. It’s the celebrity profile so to speak. You can use it as mass media then. If you also want conversation as a ‘celebrity’ it might be useful to keep a seperate, non-public, Twitter account for that, while maintaining a public one to inform people of your public actions.

If the number of followers divided by the number you’re following is near 1 chances are you use Twitter for conversation style exchanges. It’s what I do.
I respond to what others write, and write stuff that might trigger conversation. Much like particles that help freeze water quicker, or create more bubbles in your soda.
Also I seem to have different circles of people active in Twitter compared to Jaiku, different circles of conversation.

9 reactions on “Conversational Symmetry and Twitter

  1. Still, there remains one big question: At what number (even in an 1:1-situation) of followings does twitter overload someone? 😉

  2. Hi Gerrit, I’d say it’s not really a question of quantity but of quality (In general I think we need to stop focussing of the quantity you can handle, it is never enough anyway for ‘everything’, and start focussing on the quality of what you feed yourself with, even with trivia like Twitter messages)
    Also the absolute number is not the relevant scale in a conversational model I think. It is the number of parallel conversations you can handle. Most of the people in my list aren’t always conversing. Everyone is dipping in and out of the conversational stream based on time and energy. That reduces the number of actual active ‘connections’ at a given point, with the others ‘lurking’.

  3. Right. It’s (nearly) always quality that beats quantity. *But even quality is measurable.* So the question remains: At what number of followings does twitter overload someone?
    To concretise: At what number of followings does twitter overload someone’s (qualitative) conversations? And for sure: It’s a question touching each subjects capability.
    But I’m sure that there’s a median to find. A point that objectively shows you if or if not someone tries to aim for a conversational symmetry or is doing something else.

  4. I think the actual number of followers is really irrelevant, Gerrit, hence my interest in the ratio of followed/followers as an alternative. I can imagine following 2 times, 10 times, or even 100 times more people than now. Just not with the info-strategies and Twitter client(s) I use now. It will need visualization, showing me the hotspots of activity and conversations going on, and the connections between my connections. Or other ways of dealing with that scale I can’t imagine yet.

  5. Oh, yes, the absolute upper limit of attention is 24h/7d, but that hasn’t changed since the days of mammoth hunting. (see )
    Our human answer has always been to reduce cognitive overload by delegating information to the environment. With increased complexity in civilization we created new strategies to do that (e.g. the emergence of writing, and the oldest known clay tablets being records of grain stores)
    I think I am saying the connectedness caused by/created with the internet and mobile communications is the step to a new level of complexity, turning the globe into a city. It requires new strategies to cope with that (hence qualitative answers to quantitative changes) because what we can handle in terms of cognitive overhead is limited to our 24/7 attention.
    I just don’t think the number of relations/connections is a measure of that cognitive overhead. Our current coping strategies make it that way. I also think quantity and quality are very different dimensions, so see no inherent conflict in having 10.000+ connections of quality. I see the conflict in our current coping strategies, yes.
    Just as a mammoth hunter would be baffled by how we keep track of what is happening in our city, or you great-grandmother would be baffled……until they learned our new coping strategies (using print media, wireless media, notebooks, laptops, mobile phones, etc etc.) We are simply baffled by the new levels of complexity we are attaining, and struggling to find coping strategies. Clay Shirkey’s presentation where he mentioned gin and tv as the drug against new complexity levels in the industrial and post-war era respectively is really spot on. As is his conclusion that we are only now waking up to the new opportunities and strategies it can bring.
    As to (before the comment is longer than the posting) the technology being cause or effect of the changes, again I think it’s a false dichotomy. It is mutual, interdependent. That is why looking at philosophy of science/technology is of interest.

  6. Interesting post Ton. In my spare time, I’ve been trying to get a handle on different Twitter types using some basic dataviz. Obviously friends/followers ratios are one part of the equation, but sheer tweet volume has a role as well.

  7. These Links are quite interesting: “Dunbar’s number” is roughly 150, a measurement of the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”.

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