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Tweeting Normally, Mr. Average

This week I’m at another conference, this one put on by FOSSLC. It’s an Open Source conference, which isn’t strictly related to what I’m doing but it’s good to get out there and meet people, and hear about what people in industry are saying.

I’ve had a few conversations about Twitter… of course. I’m really fascinated by how people use Twitter. I follow a little over 30 people myself, don’t actively look for people to follow, but if people follow me and I know them or they look interesting I follow them back. You can see my “twitter personality type” (and check out your own). Apparently my tweeting is now “tip-top”, how flattering! Finally an electronic device that doesn’t disparage me… my wii fit puts me down constantly. However until quite recently it was telling me that I needed more followers and I should try following people in order that they follow me back. I hate that tactic, and, by extension – things like TopFollowed and, this one even more horrifying TopLinked (do they know what LinkedIn is for? Really?!?). If that’s the future of social networking, I want to cancel my internet connection.

So yesterday, I got talking to a guy about Twitter and he said he had 1000 followers and was following about that many people and of course I wanted to know how he managed it. Following 30 people, my feed is pretty busy (especially first thing in the morning, a lot of my friends and the people I follow are on UK time). He can’t possibly be reading the time-line! His strategy: he has a search for his username running and only saw those tweets directed at or referring to him. Twitter is useful when he wants to ask a question, he gets real-time answers. But clearly given how he uses Twitter he won’t be answering other people’s questions unless they are directed at him. Perhaps his followers don’t mind, and those that answer just enjoy being helpful. Perhaps they haven’t yet reached critical mass in their own following that they need a similar strategy, but eventually, if we all try to use Twitter the way he does no-one will be answering anyone’s questions, except when asked directly. But all this is speculation. Even if his strategy sounds a little free-loader-esque, it’s certainly not going to bring down Twitter any time soon.

I also met two other people who said they “didn’t get” twitter. One had abandoned it, the other was just passively following and wondering about business models.

There was also another guy (back to him later) who, like me, had been convinced to try Twitter by the NYTimes post, “Twitter? It’s What You Make It”. Not a very insightful statement on the basis of it – isn’t the same is true of any social network? I might use Facebook to keep in touch with my friends, just to passively stalk people I barely know, to vet prospective employees, or to try and pick up far younger and more attractive women. OK the last one would be hard – but a creepy guy did add me who was clearly doing just that, looking through his friend list it was just beautiful woman after beautiful woman… I blocked him, but I was flattered to be chosen! But I think Twitter is more versitile still, especially with the open API.

I’m a typical NetGenner I guess, I use Facebook to keep in touch with my friends. I use Twitter to keep in touch with my friends too, but also to get news stories from a specific area of the paper (technology) that interests me (via @guardiantech) – so I don’t get distracted by the front page. And I follow various others who link to interesting / useful articles. But… I want the majority of things that show up on my feed to be interesting. And I’d like to be able to read pretty much everything that shows up on it. Perhaps that’s weird. But I think the truth is – no-one’s weird. I was talking to my supervisor the other day about Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World because one of the things Tapscott says is that his daughter has over 700 friends on Facebook, and that’s normal. Not normal for my circle, and in fact overall on Facebook the average user has 120 friends. Of course you’d want to adjust that for age, which you don’t have the information to do. Anyway, so I said, I don’t think this is normal, and my supervisor said, but what is normal any more? Do we know?

Probably we don’t.

So now I’ll come back to the other guy, Mekki. Before, I wrote about Average Users, which was driven by a paper I wrote about Vista. So when I saw there was a presentation on the user’s perspective of switching between Microsoft Office and Open Office I was keen to see it. And so he started his presentation and he too was talking about Average Users, so a little way in, I asked if he’d ever Googled “average users”. And he said, no, what do you get. And I said – sod all. The only definition I could find was in Wikipedia. We talk about our average user a lot but we don’t know who they are, we don’t know what they want, and we don’t know what they do. And he’d come to a similar conclusion. More – Sun had realized this back in 2004 trying to promote OpenOffice. That’s a company trying to promote use of free and open source software, not the company charging hundreds of dollars a pop. Wow. You can find his presentation and thesis here.

So we don’t know what normal is. We don’t understand average anymore. But we’re trying and, even if it makes our lives as programmers a little more difficult… I think it makes our lives as people a little more exciting.