Disclaimer: I love Twitter - I love being in the flow of the world with the off hand comments of hundreds of friends around the world triggering all sorts of warm feelings and thoughts about how lucky I am to know so many people in so many places.
For that very same reason, I'm working towards getting off Twitter, my "twitter zero" project, where I unfollow everyone I've been following.
It's nothing personal.
Twitter Zero is inspired by a few other "zero" projects, including Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" and Alan Gutierrez's "Reader Zero". The basic idea is that in systems where there is an infinite capacity for the world to send messages to get your attention, the only reasonable queue that you can leave between visits to the system is zero, because if you get behind you will never, ever, ever catch up gradually. Never. No matter how much time you put into it, there will always be more to do, and you will lose sleep over it.
What's that you say, you love twitter, why make it go away? For the same reason that I love weblogs (really I do; you are reading this one) and I don't read any blogs in a feed reader. And I love getting email (really I do) and spend too much of my time ignoring and deleting email.
I can't keep up. No one can keep up, actually - we look at something shiny and say "ooh shiny" and start following it because it was shiny then (and shiny once) and then suddenly you look back a week later and note to self "hm, not shiny any more, but it's a lot harder to stop paying attention to it once you're connected to it".
So, go to zero. Turn off Twitter, don't let it interrupt you any more. But still listen.
Twitter is great for ambience awareness of things around the world, perfect actually. With the new search interface you can see at a glance when there are earthquakes, what television shows are on, who's winning what football games, when the Mormon Church is having a global conference, Girl's Night Out, you name it there's some super-cool global event that you can tap into without doing much more than a few follows.
Follow follow follow follow...
I'll argue for the sake of arguing that we as human beings have a finite supply of attention for ambient awareness of things around the world; there's only so many neurons that can fire in one moment to keep track of what's happening, and my poor aging brain has some finite ability to keep track. You make tradeoffs, you have to. And the fact that I know just a little bit too much about popular television due to twitter has to be responsible for some other deficit in my life, like not getting quite enough sleep, or not cleaning the garage (or even more to the point noticing that there are parts of it that need attention).
Or paying attention to my boys. They are little. They won't be little forever. They don't use Twitter, yet - yet? - though the older one was asking about connections between the computer and my phone (he seemed to think that Bluetooth would be involved. he's eight. how do they do this?)
Attention is a precious resource. Twitter is a distraction. Email is a distraction. This blog is a distraction. Pretty much everything is a distraction on the Internet, either designed to capture an eyeball or rewire a neuron or to short circuit the brain to wallet function. And sometimes the only reasonable response to a thoroughly enjoyable distraction is to make a very visible, very annoying, very painful decision to skip this particular distraction and move on.
Before inbox zero, before twitter zero, there was Usenet Zero. One by one, a series of people who had spent a lot of time building up that network made decisions, some private and some noisily public, to give up on that network and go off and build some other network of their own.
Noisy public exits are cathartic - they let you say something that has been building up over time and get it all out of your system, and rather than try to fight the fight of 1000 tiny cuts you simply say "screw it" and let off some steam and disentangle from the world you had been in all at once. You go away in a ball of fire and are memorable for your absence, at least for a little while, at least until someone else's attention span is diverted momentarily into the latest minor earthquake or Digg headline or caribou joke or heart attack rumor.
Giving up on a network is one way to build a new network. Who notices when you go? Who actually cares? Exit stage left (in flames) is more effective at some momentary attention grab than simply quietly receding into the background.
Even though I'm giving up on Twitter feeds, I'm not really giving up on Twitter. There's too much there to ignore. But I'm changing my approach.
Rather than the passive rat-lever-pellet approach to waiting for an update from a Twitter pal, I'm going to be using the Twitter search tools as the primary point of contact. This is the "Kibo" strategy.
If you were on Usenet at a certain time, there was someone called Kibo, who was virtually everywhere. Every newsgroup you posted in, if someone mentioned his name, he showed up with a comment. That was unusual, because who could follow 1400 newsgroups and read everything.
But that's not how Kibo did it, and not how I did the same thing when I ran the Usenet newsgroup comp.archives. Instead of following the network by group, you follow it by keyword, and anyone who uses that word or set of words is part of your world. For comp.archives, it meant that every time someone typed in the word FTP, I'd find that post, and one time out of ten those were announcements of new software. A systematic effort to collect those announcements and repost them and index them followed.
That was hard in the Usenet era (I ended up hacking on emacs lisp to do it) but very easy in the Twitter era, and it's a better strategy by far. If you want to change the things you focus on, you don't need to add and subtract friends, you just need to modulate your filters.
PS. Welcome Metafilter . Do you have to be so snarky?
PPS. Some references that didn't make it inline:
Inbox Zero - Merlin Mann.
Reader Zero - Alan Guteirrez, "Burn your feed reader"
Usenet Zero - Gene Spafford, "That's All Folks"
Email Zero - Don Knuth. "I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime."
Facebook Zero - "Quit Facebook". "The decision to destroy my carefully built-up virtual image came as a result of wanting to enhance my profile."
"Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely . . . Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen."
-- from 1984 by George Orwell
"The only way to win is not to play" - War Games
"Welcome to the machine" - Pink Floyd
And maybe that's the answer: A Facebook app we'll call the Fade Utility. Untended Friends would gradually display a sepia cast on the picture, a blurring of the neglected profile—perhaps a coffee stain might appear on it or an unrelated phone number or grocery list. The individual's status updates might fade and get smaller. The user may then choose to notice and reach out to the person in some meaningful way—no pokes! Or they might pretend not to notice. Without making a choice, they could simply let that person go. Would that really be so awful?