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Summary:

The stream has become the dominant form for content consumption, especially for social media like Twitter, and having a never-ending source of information can be a wonderful thing — but it can also be overwhelming and noisy. We need better ways to manage it.

By now, many of us who live our lives — or at least significant parts of them — online have grown used to the ubiquity of the “stream” metaphor when it comes to consuming content. It probably started with RSS feeds and blogs, but it has become the default for many services, and particularly social ones like Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. Where once there were individual webpages, now there’s often just a stream that scrolls off into infinity, like a highway that disappears into a distant horizon.

That kind of thing is wonderfully liberating, but it can also be distracting and noisy, and I would argue that Twitter is one of the worst culprits. I’m willing to admit that part of the problem is the way that people like me use it (or possibly over-use it), but part of it is also the lack of filters and other tools that would make the Twitter firehose easier to manage.

As media theorist Clay Shirky said so eloquently a number of years ago, the problem isn’t so much information overload as “filter failure.”

Twitter spends a lot of time and resources getting you to follow more people — recommending celebrity accounts, showing you activity in the Discover tab, and using smart algorithmic tools like @MagicRecs to show you who others in your stream are following. But it isn’t so great with features that help you manage your stream. For example, I would love an automated account that did the opposite of @MagicRecs and told me who I should stop following.

Not just a stream but a flood

Like others who adopted Twitter early and use it for their work, I have built the service up over the years to the point where it is like a second brain for me (or at least an extension of the first) and one that I have a love-hate relationship with for a variety of reasons. Among them is the fact that while an infinite river of information is a magical thing to have, the downside is it just keeps flowing, and that makes it difficult to pick things out of it that might be worthwhile or interesting.

Wave

That helps explain why some new offerings like Yahoo’s new Tech News app deliberately just give you a finite series of updates, much like you get with a newspaper. One of the psychological benefits of this approach is the feeling of completion you get — you can’t finish Twitter or the internet. That’s simultaneously fantastic and disturbing (I often find myself scrolling backwards through time on Twitter because I am convinced that I have missed something worthwhile).

Alexis Madrigal wrote about this phenomenon recently for The Atlantic, and argued that 2013 might be the year that the obsession with streams would start to wane — a prediction that comes just a few years after TechCrunch declared that everything was becoming a stream. As Madrigal put it, the downside of the stream approach is that everyone is now overwhelmed, but no one wants to admit it:

“Everyone is (over)optimizing for the stream. That makes the media Internet a very fragile place. It’s like a story of ecosystem collapse where once the delicate balances get thrown off, the biome begins to veer off in crazy directions, everything running around like Texas crazy ants.”

You can have too much of a good thing

Part of my Twitter problem is sheer volume, which is why I was interested to read Charlie Warzel’s recent post at BuzzFeed, in which he describes nuking his entire Twitter stream — made up of about 1,800 accounts he had followed over the years — and rebuilding it from scratch. I follow over 3,000 people and media outlets on Twitter, so I can sympathize with Warzel’s pain, and have often felt the desire to delete everyone and start again at the beginning. But it just seems like so much effort that I don’t do it.

Stormtrooper Facebook

I felt much the same way about my Facebook account, where I had deliberately (and, as it turns out, wrongly) accepted almost every friend request I received, even if I didn’t know the person very well. In a binge of unfriending I wrote about last year, I disconnected myself from more than 800 people, or about 80 percent of the people I was “friends” with. And I can say that it improved the experience dramatically for me — although I still get plenty of Facebook ad spam, so my problem isn’t completely solved.

Using Twitter lists is one way of slicing up your stream and bundling it into topics or themes, and in fact I would barely be able to use the service at all if it wasn’t for lists (I have a few public ones and some private ones). Apps like Tweetdeck make it relatively easy to create new lists, add people to them and view those lists as columns — but every time Twitter updates an app, especially its mobile ones, it seems to make lists harder to find and use rather than easier.

Managing the stream is too hard

It’s not that unfollowing people on Twitter is difficult — it’s just a click of a button. But first I would have to decide why I was unfollowing that person, and that would require thinking about why I followed them in the first place. I would have to look at their stream and reconsider their value, and I would have to do that 3,000 times. It’s like cleaning out the garage or indexing your photos; you know that you should do it, but it just seems so daunting that you never get around to it.

That helps explain my interest in tools that help you track who has unfollowed you, and others that show people you follow who aren’t very active. One of my favorite such analytic services is ThinkUp, which was created by former Lifehacker editor Gina Trapani and former Six Apart executive Anil Dash, and allows you to slice and dice your stream in a number of ways, to see which accounts you engage with most actively and who is providing value vs. noise (Salesforce CTO J.P. Rangaswami had some great thoughts about filters in a recent blog post).

For Twitter, one problem is that the company seems focused on adding millions of news users — and oceans of new content through deals with TV networks, etc. — rather than on making things easier for existing users, in part because building up its user base helps justify its multibillion-dollar market value. But if users ultimately just find themselves overwhelmed, that could be a Faustian bargain. The stream can be a harsh mistress.

Thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Marafona, as well as Shutterstock / ChameleonsEye and Flickr user Balakov

  1. I agree! I love all the incoming information but if it is not filtered then what good is it??? Can use what I don’t get a chance to cover. Looking for one thing in a pile of many….. Filtering is key in many areas ie, email, facebook, twitter, or whatever you look at.

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    1. I found a service that allows you to filter your content on Twitter using categories and key words. The name of the web site is freeyourbird.com. Check it out.

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      1. Nicholas Santoleri Monday, January 13, 2014

        I took a look at the web site and it looks like it will fit my needs. The site is offering a five day free trial. I am going to give it a try.

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  2. Michael Perhaes Thursday, January 9, 2014

    Thanks. I’ll add this to my stream.

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  3. Alexandra Nicola Thursday, January 9, 2014

    I think everybody agrees that Twitter over floods us with information. I for one even if I use twitter and I love it I rarely use it from the site. I usually use Tweet Deck and I watch certain queries that I care about.

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  4. It would be nice if Zite’s semantic filters could prioritize Twitter streams.

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    1. rememberingbob Thursday, January 9, 2014

      Agreed.

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  5. Bingo. I’ve been saying similar things for a while as well. But are you thinking of filters within your Twitter stream or across Twitter in general?

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    1. Both.

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  6. I love your perspective of twitter. I have a literary blog, and I’ve recently been writing about the pros and cons of the Twitter world through a writer’s perspective. I find this post so intriguing, and it’s definitely broadened my insight into the world of Twitter. Keep posting!

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  7. david chernofsky Thursday, January 9, 2014

    Hoot suite seems like a good solution to me.

    David Chernofsky

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  8. david chernofsky Thursday, January 9, 2014

    Hoot suit seem to be good solution to me

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  9. Hmmm … do you ever leave your house? once outside, how do you choose what to do? i’m not sure why you need someone else to filter your Twitter life for you,

    i mean it makes a great article and a lot of people have the same problems and complaints, but really, this is indicative of the larger social issue we have in America. People are simply not empowered with their own personal filters, called choices, and the abdication of taking responsibility by expecting a provider (or government) to make those decisions for you based on what they algorithmicly decide for your filter in order to perpetuate, in truth, what can only be their agenda.

    Personally, my politics tend to be on the libertarian side, and i like to make my choices rather than have them made for me. The systems that jive with my flow, I use, those that don’t, I find something better.

    The medical industry at some point abdicated a part of their reality to insurance companies. and now, what a mess. I don’t know your personal relationship with Twitter, but I do know this, if Twitter wants, it will use whatever creative energy is given to them to their best advantage, and that may or may not have my personal interests at the forefront of their priorities.

    Don’t be lazy, do the work you need to do to craft your digital life much like you do your regular life, but yeah, “too hard”. Whatever. So is trying to #containfukushima or even getting human beings to know that it poses the greatest risk to the survival of their children and grandchildren we have ever faced on the planet. Get over it, take control and don’t be lazy — control your own filters and life, and maybe even attend a local city council meeting or two — being a human has its challenges and responsibilities, don’t abdicate them just cuz …. what, is your real problem again?

    “But first I would have to decide why I was unfollowing that person, and that would require thinking about why I followed them in the first place. I would have to look at their stream and reconsider their value, and I would have to do that 3,000 times. It’s like cleaning out the garage or indexing your photos; you know that you should do it, but it just seems so daunting that you never get around to it.”

    “Don’t be a lazy top or you get the bottom you deserve.” – Tony Kay

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    1. Well said, we created our own problems and then look for some one/thing else to fix it! Do the cleanup work regularly and keep things under control.

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    2. Well said!

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  10. I love Twitter just like I love (and am not ashamed to admit it) television. Both allow you control over what you choose to ingest which is why I say, it’s the individual and not the medium, that should be the focus for concern.

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