I need to cull. I love my twitter feed and all the characters that populate it, but I really do need to cull. Several hundred voices all yammering at once is a bit too much to take in, so I need to get it down to a sensible number. A number that works.
Too many followees and it's just noise, too few and it's like an awkward conversation outside the bathroom at a party. There must be a Goldilocks figure that I can aim for, some state of socio-mathematical perfection. Twitter is too valuable to just throw arbitrary numbers at, willy-nilly.
I know what you're thinking: it's all getting a bit Beautiful Mind around here. But patterns and formulas and ratios are all part of how I think – my head is all columns and codes and colour values and kerning. Fibonacci and Euclid and Palladio and Müller-Brockmann, all muttering sweet nothings. Numbers are important.
And so is twitter. To many, it's nothing more than a distraction, a trickle of ego and innuendo. It's all about how you use it. At its very basic level, it's simply a communication tool, an open conversation. If you nurture it carefully and make sure you only follow the voices you really trust, you've got something invaluable. Where would I be without my retinue of designers, writers, film-makers, weathered friends and heroes? It's a river of news and opinion and wisdom and humour and opportunity, flowing through my working day like a big flowy thing.
It's also the most fascinating search engine you could hope for. Rather than feeding a request into the great big Google Algorithmotron, asking actual human beings is so much more effective. Sometimes you ask a simple question and moments later you're inundated with generous pearls of wisdom and links and advice from all over the world, more than you could ever hope for. It's like having your own personal fleet of flying monkeys.
I took advantage of this when one of my more abstract works, Pouring Hot Fluids Over Apple Hardware, killed my close-bracket key. Whenever I needed to use it (more often than you'd imagine … in fact, here's one now), I just turned to the helpful distractible hordes of twitter. More often than not, there'd be someone already emoticon-grinning on there, so I could just copy and paste from that. If not, I just asked for a smile and I'd get a pile of nice little sideways happy robot faces looking at me within seconds.
So yes, okay, a lot of it is just silliness. But what's wrong with a spot of the old silly? You can't plan it this way, but with the right people, silly makes for a great foundation for more sensible chat. A bout of hashtag punnery – when the copywriters get going there's no stopping them – can lead you down all sorts of useful professional avenues.
Actually, tweets have proven to be a good starting point for lots of things. I've lost count of the people I've initially met on twitter who have turned into more important connections. Some I’ve met in person (so very 20th century), some I’ve gone on to work with, some have provided unexpected support elsewhere (network of designer dads, I salute you). A couple of years ago it even led to me taking over the reins of CR's twitter account for the day. As I recall, I mostly talked about scotch eggs.
I imagine what turns a lot of people off is that it's all rather public. Social networks have made us willing inmates in a pocket version of Bentham's Panopticon, allowing ourselves to be observed by one another in lots of different ways all the time. That is, on the one hand, downright terrifying. But on the other, it's incredible – full of interaction, narratives and lovely illogical connections.
Creative industries don't benefit one jot from everyone keeping themselves to themselves. They feed off generosity and openness. And numbers. Don't forget the numbers. Which brings me back to my initial quandary: how many people to follow?
I'm advised (by somebody on twitter, of course) that "Dunbar's number" is a measure of how many effective social relationships its possible to maintain. On average, it'a about 150. Or so it says here. That seems like a sensible level of interaction to me, but it's missing a certain poetry to it. If I just cull a few extra individuals, the number will be perfect and elegant and right. That's it. I'll follow 140 characters.
I'd best make sure though. I'll ask the flying monkeys.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Creative Review