Friday, May 2, 2014

Followback indies

Quick summary: the way Twitter works, following someone doesn't mean you'll see their tweets. It means that there's a chance you will see their tweets, a chance which grows smaller the more people you follow. But we could imagine various alternative systems, where the principle of chance is replaced by (or hybridised with) the principle of taking turns. I'm focusing on Twitter in this post, but I'm intrigued by extrapolations across other social media platforms. Facebook certainly uses some kind of popularity algorithm to keep certain posts near the top; what if social media were to introduce (and apologies for this mock heroic terminology, but) a principle of social justice into the attention economy?


I'm one of those followback indie writers.

On Twitter, when I follow someone, I'm usually hoping they'll follow back. When I'm eyeballing someone for a possible unfollow, I put a lot of weight on whether they're following me. It doesn't count for everything, but it counts for a lot.

Our plumage is very distinctive. The number of people we follow, and the number of people who follow us, are similar numbers. On close examination, that's because they're mostly the same people. We typically follow, and are followed by, a few thousand accounts.

Ensconcing myself in this followback flock has been a function of a certain kind of online behaviour over time. Your number of followers has more to do with who you do or don't follow than with what you do or don't tweet. This grind could have happened very gradually and entirely manually, or it could have been fully automated, but in my case it's happening fairly slowly, mostly manually, but with sporadic help from bolt-on bells and whistles. Sometimes it's a bit embarrassing. But mostly I just radiate weird swarm node pride.

Why do we act so strangely? Well, we have our reasons. Or at least I have mine. Exploring those reasons is not really the purpose of this post. But in short, joining the followback flock is not primarily about sharking up a vast host of fiercely loyal Twitter accounts with lust for blood in their eyes. It's not about treating a follower count as a game stat with a transparent meaning. It's not even about participating in a community or building an audience.

It is sort of about building a public from which audiences might be drawn. It is sort of about building a public in which little mutually attentive cohorts and gaggles may temporarily coalesce, and the most tenaciously recurring of those could just about be called little communities. And nested within that is some personal digital sociality and even a few weird Twitter friendships (?), although the infrastructure for those is really biological memory -- Twitter is not (unlike Facebook) bursting with digital aides memoire; it's not like the guy whose job it is to murmur in a politician's ear how they're supposed to know the people around them. But for the most part, in this way of using Twitter, a "follow" is just not a big deal -- it's a tentative, minimal contact on which other things might be built, probably only intermittently -- and reciprocity seems like an okay norm to attach to it.

In short, following thousands of people is more a microblogging thing than a social networking thing -- it's probably good not to get too invested in it either: at any time a tweak in the Twitter architecture might mangle those microblogging aspirations (in a way I suspect the Mute function is already doing this).

I hope that's all true. If you were to translate followback indie writer behaviour to IRL it might look pretty obscene -- so fingers crossed something was lost in the translation.


Obviously it's also swell to do the social networking thing instead of the microblogging thing. And in practice the two get very blurred and tangled.



The real purpose of this post is to talk about what it's like to follow so many people, and imagine an app which might transform the experience.

I can get a few hundred tweets a minute on my main timeline. I look at it, but me seeing what you've tweeted is like you winning the lottery, OK buster? Exactly.

On the main timeline, spamming looks less and less like spamming, more and more like talking at a reasonable volume, given the background noise.

Twitter's lists become more and more important the more people you follow.

For people who follow a few dozen or a few hundred accounts, you can get a pretty good idea of whose tweets they're reading. When that number is a few thousand, you no longer know that, because they're probably using lists -- which are often private.

Right now I have a few theme-type lists -- "Scottish hip-hop people," "carefuckers," "Tweeps Included In The Present Classification," etc. -- and it's obvious from other people's public lists that this is a pretty common approach. There's some overlap between using theme-type lists and using hashtags.

But some of my lists aren't really themed, they're just prioritised: the one I check a lot, the one I check when the one I check a lot isn't giving me my fix, the Plan C, the one I only check when there is some important work I desperately need to be doing, etc.

(Other lists aggressively interpellate obviously: "@jolwalton just added you to PEOPLE WHO CORRECTLY ASSUME THAT I ONLY EVER USE ESSENCE OF BECKHAM BODYWASH-34").

The current Twitter list functionality is a little clunky, so list membership tends to be a bit sticky -- I don't move people around as much as I'd really like to. Overall what I know about who I'd like to hear more or less from is very imperfectly reflected in the structure of my lists and my habits in navigating them.

So imagine this app, which could change all that.


Here's how it would work. Say you're following 5,000 accounts. You run the app, and it creates you five lists, assigning the people you follow -- perhaps randomly, perhaps based on your history of interaction -- across the five lists. There's a small, a medium, a large, an extra-large, and a supersize:

Confidants: 145
Buddies: 290
Chums: 580
Pals: 1160
Comrades: 2825

For this example, I chose 145 as a seed number in honour of Robin Dunbar's work on the cognitive limits of stable social relationships. (I left slots for approximately five friends IRL -- my own experience tells me five is the maximum tolerable). However, obviously all parameters should be adjustable. For instance, you might feel you would like to check more or fewer than five lists. You might want the size of the lists to rise less steeply. You might want to adjust the settings depending on whether you follow 5,000 people or 50,000. You would probably want to name the lists yourself, since the names influence what each list means and how you might use it.

So that would be the first important feature. The second would be the ability to promote or relegate an account with a quick click. "More from this user," move up to a less populous list. "Less from this user," shift down into the throngs.

Maybe "favs" could add up to automatic promotions, or to automatic relegation-shields.

One bonus feature could be a setting that keeps the list sizes stable, despite your promotions and relegations. So every time you relegate someone from "confidants," the app randomly chooses someone from "buddies" to swap places with them.

A particularly useful bonus feature would be something which automatically rotated people through the lists. Perhaps there could be a top-up of 40 confidants, freshly picked each day, ten delegates from each of the other lists. Perhaps you would have a slider to adjust the intensity of the rotation.

A particularly clever bonus feature would analyse the frequency with which these people tweet, and the times at which they tweet, and organise the lists according to the speed at which they'll fill up your timeline, rather than the raw number of accounts. Pretty amazing!

Perhaps another bonus feature could even cycle your default display in Twitter -- your "home page" -- through these lists, to make sure you give them all a pretty even eyeballing.


OK, finally, here's a variation, which loses the stratification aspect. I'll stop calling it an app. Call it an alt history Twitter, named, I don't know, Cawer. Valorising the crow. Correctly. The crow.

In this shadow universe, Cawer recognises that it's just impossible to meaningfully follow thousands of accounts without some extensive individual filtering and sorting admin, and yet also recognises it's not just creepy and/or insane to want to follow thousands of accounts, on the basis of a kind of quid pro quo, "let's slightly thicken the connection between us, against the day we may find some real reason for talking"-type basis. Cawer compensates by generating a timeline which is never more than a few hundred users -- a different few hundred, if you click "refresh" -- chosen at random, but weighted according to how you've strewn your secret online karma: chiefly, weighted by you clicking "more from this user" or "less from this user," and also perhaps a little weighted according to your retweets and favs, and perhaps with a kind of inbuilt shake-up tendency.

Cawer never expects you to read a boiling screed of inassimilable others. But it also makes sure that when you follow someone, you've really given them a little bit of your attention -- at least enough to have a chance at gaining more of it.


I feel there's more I could add (for instance, about independent publishing specifically; about prizes; about crows; about social media and wearable computing; about the permeability of the envisioned systems to marketing and monetisation; about how they would compare with various existing algorithmically personalised experiences; about how the "flock" or "horde" metaphors can mislead about the complex networked structures involved; about e-democracy; about violently being forced into cupboards; about the game theory of segregation; about the implicit life-cycles of the followback flocks: the newer inductees, less reliant on lists, supplying proportionately more attention), & I may keep tweaking this thing, so who knows?

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