When Sarah and I worked at a small-town newspaper, we ran a column that asked local citizens to name five guests, living or dead, whom they would invite to a dinner party. Jesus, Elvis, and George W. Bush were the most popular choices.
What does this have to do with Twitter? When people complain that they don’t “get” Twitter, that’s it’s all noise and what-I-had-for-lunch minutia, I describe the way I use Twitter: I treat it like a party with carefully handpicked guests—like Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball.
Here’s how I do it:
First of all, I limit the number of people I follow to 100. By being picky about whom I follow, I force myself to seek a diverse group of interesting human beings from different walks of life. I might one day follow 200 or maybe 500, but I will never follow thousands of people. I’m pretty sure the only reason to follow thousands of people is to try to get thousands of people to follow you back. Today I have only 72 followers. While I would like to have more, I want people to follow me on the merits of what I post, not just because I am following them.
Back to the party metaphor: What is different about Twitter, compared to most parties I’ve been to, is that with Twitter it is easy to eject boring, unwanted guests and replace them with more interesting ones.
The other nice thing about Twitter is that it’s okay to be a wallflower—or better yet, a fly on the wall. I often go days without tweeting, but I check Twitter constantly just to see how the conversation is going. Because my “guests” are people I know personally and/or they are interesting and/or useful to me, there is always something worth eavesdropping.
So whom do I follow? Right now I am making the transition from full-time employee to self-employed contractor, so my tweetstream is dominated by people in my field and city who provide job leads, tips for freelancers and the like. But I also follow tennis players (@andyroddick, @clijsterskim), politicians (@billwhitefortx, @BarackObama), entertainers (@SarahKSilverman, @geneweingarten, @pennjillette), bloggers (@anildash, @dooce), and a few who have made a name for themselves via Twitter alone (@shitmydadsays, @sween, @mktgdouchebag). And of course, friends and family (for as long as they stay interesting anyway).
In the last couple months my austere Twitter approach has netted me one job interview, one brunch meetup, two or three web services I now consider essential, loads of entertainment and the occasional belly laugh. Could I do it better? Of course I could. My follow list is constantly evolving with the goal of finding the 100 (or 200 or 500) most interesting human beings in the world. This will only get harder—and more fun—as more people sign on.