A few weeks ago I zeroed out my Twitter follower stream and stopped following everyone. ("Twitter zero", October 2008) Then I started again, slowly, building up some carefully selected and ever changing list of people to watch. It seemed like a good plan, Dunbar number and everything, and I thought I could balance things out at about 150.
The amount of brain power needed to figure out whether I was watching someone got to be out of control, and Twitter got to be a burden again. Less of a burden than the accumulated drag of other systems that I had given up on but that still had remnant shards of a previous me, but still a burden.
As of yesterday I have switched to the "follow everyone who follows you" strategy - as close to strict reciprocity as I can. If someone is really awful I'll block them, but for the most part even the single-threaded marketing droids are bearable if they are mixed in with enough other people. At noon Eastern on a Tuesday the front page of my Twitter has 17 minutes worth of stuff in it and I'm about 1/3 of the way through following everyone, so at some point the balance will be "wait five minutes and the front page will have completely changed".
This is quite frankly a change from any of my previous tactics and I'm going to be as deliberate about it as I can. Here's a pointless numbered list of iron-clad rules.
1. To keep a conversation going you have to use the @ convention to refer to someone by name, or else the dialog gets lost. Twitter stops being a small group extended chat and starts to be some extended group distributed semi-broadcast. Checking the "replies" tab becomes part of making sure that if there's a conversation that happened between sessions you can get back to it. Every so often you get some little knot of people all online at once going back and forth at each other, but that's not what you can count on.
2. If you have anything of lasting substance to say, refer to something already written, whether it be a blog post, a delicious tag stream, or something else that is more than 140 characters long. Everything is scrolling by so fast in this world that if you need to anchor a discussion it can't be anchored in more and more twitters. Blogging becomes more important, not less, in this approach - if it doesn't fit in one line you have to refer to it somehow.
3. If you play Twitter this way there will always be something more to look at - it's a never ending game. So to keep the time commitment finite and bounded you need to figure out when to stop and just turn it off. You have to stop some time - figure out how many pages deep in the scroll back you are going to watch, and then quit. If you keep refreshing it will never, ever stop.
4. As a never ending game the scoring rules clearly change as you play it. Various "twitter metrics" have been proposed that mostly boil down to "increase the n". If my earlier explorations are accurate, the counter-tactic of "decrease the n" is just as valuable - going down to zero helped me think about the system carefully. I've never tried to follow 800+ people before, but I guess now I'll have a chance to try. There's a stable, winning strategy where the goal is to "change the n" - cycle systematically from 0 to max(n) and then back to 0, every day either turning people on or turning people off but never staying the same; the rules of that game are that at every turn you have to change the number of followers you have.
5. People love pointless numbered lists. Use them.
What you lose is the sense of a quiet place where all of your close friends from around town hang out online. What you gain is some broader sense of the world.