I shall now present some guiding principles on how I read Twitter. This list does not cover the posting etiquette I follow, but does get into the politics of following, unfollowing, and muting, with the aim of lessening the tension and awkwardness endemic to these actions, while keeping myself mindful of why I use Twitter in the first place.

Building lists of “friends” in a social network always begins as a fun exercise, but after a while any further manipulation starts to feel fraught, delicate, and potentially damaging to real-life relationships. I wish to describe the stance I’ve developed towards my Twitter timeline, and how I do my best to hold it separately from my true interpersonal social network.

I don’t expect these principles to would fit every use-case — indeed, I know for a fact that some friends use Twitter in a way that would run at cross-purposes to at least some items on this list. But they work for me, and I hope you find some interest in them.

  1. Your timeline belongs to you.

    All of the principles on this list follow from this one.

    Though your timeline almost entirely comprises utterances from other people, it as a whole belongs to you, and it exists to serve your purposes alone.

    If you use Twitter like I do, then your timeline serves as a primary source of information about the current and ever-changing state of your world. Keeping this window useful in a changing world requires continuous small adjustments, many tweaks, plantings, and prunings.

    The strategy of just following everyone you meet, or everyone who seems interesting, fails in short order as you cede control over what appears in your timeline to others. Inevitably, your timeline stops feeling like your own, and you may find yourself skimming over swaths of it, trying to pick out the good bits from all that noise generated by all those interesting people. I don’t find this the best way to use Twitter.

    You must instead strive to discover the shape your timeline wants in order to fit into your life, and then limit the entities you follow to those whose contributions fit this shape. This list will almost certainly run shorter than the ideal list of all Twitter-using people you feel a genuine social connection with.

    At the same time, you should continue to experimentally add sources to your timeline with the goal of widening and clarifying your Twitter-granted window onto the world.

    Maintaining this balance does present a challenge.

  2. Following is never obligatory.

    You have no obligation to follow anyone. This includes people you respect or even love, and it also includes those who follow you already.

    Some tweeting styles that smart and wonderful people employ simply don’t fit well with one’s own style of reading their timeline. I have multiple friends and positive acquaintances I don’t regularly follow due to a such a clash of styles. They tweet a lot, perhaps — or they tweet with more emotional rawness than I feel comfortable receiving, or maybe they primarily use Twitter to track a personal passion that simply doesn’t interest me much.

    I would never suggest that these friends’ use of Twitter is somehow illegitimate or incorrect. My choosing not to follow them reflects on nobody but myself, and nothing within myself except for my preferred shape of Twitter timeline. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to buy them a drink and hear their stories the next time I see them. It just means that Twitter per se simply doesn’t provide the right medium between us.

  3. Unfollowing is not “unfriending”.

    One of my very favorite core design decisions of Twitter is how you don’t receive notifications when someone removes you from their timeline. (There do exist third-party tools that will alert you in this case, and I certainly do not recommend their use.)

    If I ever find myself thinking “I should unfollow this person” more than once about anyone, I go ahead and do it. I dont cackle while doing so; it always feels fraught, like severing a connection. (Which, yes, happens on a literal level, somewhere in a database.) But I must keep in mind my firm belief that tapping Unfollow does not represent a twenty-first century cut direct. If anything, the action more resembles quietly slipping away from a conversation at a cocktail party, an act which hardly means that you no longer like the people involved!

    In both cases, you’re simply re-tuning your attention, an activity that I dare say any socially healthy individual never ceases practicing.

  4. You needn’t read everything.

    Your Twitter account is not a blog, and your timeline is not a feed-reader containing hundreds (or, god help you, thousands) of blogs. If you follow more than a handful of people, your timeline can click by at the speed of ticker-tape — or, indeed, at the rate of changing scenes on a TV channel. You no more have an obligation to read every word on your timeline than to read every word printed your local newspaper’s daily edition.

    Yes, unlike your newspaper, the words on Twitter often come from your friends. However, tweets are not direct communications to you. If you missed something truly important, you’ll still likely catch responses or reactions to it, and you can use any Twitter client’s threading or search tools to fill in the missing context as needed. (Or, you know, just ask someone what you missed.)

    For a long time, I would twice a day or more open my Twitter client, see a three-digit number of unread tweets, and grimly set myself to the task of chewing it down to zero, no matter how long it took. Around the time I started blogging (and reading blogs) again, I gave myself permission to ignore the number and immediately scroll to the top of my timeline as my first action on every visit. I quickly found that I felt no less engaged with my world, even though I spent far less time eating up every crumb of information this channel offered.

  5. Don’t mute. Unfollow.

    Even if you agree with all the principles I’ve presented so far, you may feel tempted to remove someone from your timeline by muting them, rather then unfollowing them altogether. I understand this, and I used to do this myself. But I don’t recommend it now. If unfollowing feels mean, then I would put forward that indefinite muting represents actual cruelty, even if borne on good intentions.

    When you unfollow someone, your relationship with them from Twitter’s perspective reverts to neutrality. You will continue to hear from this person via retweets from mutual friends, fans, or acquaintances. I find this effect very important: after a while, you might detect that their own use of Twitter — or yours, or both — has shifted such that they might have become compatible with your timeline once more, inviting you to give them another trial-follow. And even when you choose to leave them be, you often end up with a running “best-of” slice of their utterances, thanks to others’ retweet-based curation efforts.

    Muting someone, however, silences them totally: you don’t see a single public utterance from them, under any circumstance. Following and perma-muting someone at the same time now strikes me as symptomatic of a very natural wish to avoid seeming unfriendly, but ultimately (if unwittingly) showing this person less respect that one would by unfollowing them while remaining receptive to them.

  6. Muting people temporarily is OK.

    If someone’s livetweeting a movie, a conference, or a weighty internal dialog, but not doing so in a way that illuminates you or otherwise improves your life, go ahead and mute that person for the duration.

    Vicariously shared experience can often be quite valuable, so I advise exercising this option with caution. But sometimes, for whatever reason, we just don’t want to join a friend when they visit a certain place. And that’s OK.

    Third-party clients often let you stick a timed mute on an account. Tweetbot, for example, lets you mute someone for a day, a week, or a month. At the end of this duration, the client unmutes them automatically. I use this feature liberally.

  7. Mute keywords forever and with impunity.

    Sick of hearing about something? You can post “I’m sick of hearing about this; everyone shut up” if you want, but it won’t stop the tide — and, if you’re like me, will just make you feel worse for burping such negativity at your friends.

    Many third-party Twitter clients, such as my beloved Tweetbot, let you mute keywords in a variety of ways: by hashtag, by substring, or — if you have the chops — by regular expression. As with user accounts, you can set topical mutes on a timer, but I feel nothing but relief when I choose “forever”. Once or twice a year I’ll pull up my list of muted keywords in Tweetbot to see if any deserve a reprieve, but I rarely grant them.

  8. You can shut off anyone’s retweets.

    Sometimes you might enjoy the things a particular person might have to say directly, but find their taste in what to share via retweets questionable. Twitter lets you “turn off retweets” from any single account you follow, such that only their direct utterances appear on your timeline.

    I have to assume that most Twitter users don’t even know about this feature. I often forget about it myself, and have probably unfollowed people when I could have simply shut off their retweets — not to imply any sin in unfollowing.

  9. Practice affirmative action.

    Twitter’s flat landscape gives you an unprecedented opportunity to explore viewpoints that lay outside your own social bubble. Following people with backgrounds unlike yours lends your personal timeline more social breadth at almost no cost. This principle applies especially for those who, like me, live a privileged life with not much direct insight into the experiences of those with fewer intrinsic advantages.

    I have alternatively expressed this principle in the past as “follow people who don’t look like you.” When I come across an account (via retweets, usually) whose contributions seem possibly compatible with my timeline, and the account belongs to e.g. a woman or a person of color — to name two core identities I do not possess — I’ll often click “Follow” with significantly less internal debate than I’d reserve for a fellow white guy.

    This does not imply that accounts followed in this spirit then become invulnerable from subsequent unfollowing, should they just not work out with one’s own timeline-shape. I know for a fact, though, that proactively following people unlike myself — even only temporarily, sometimes — has tuned my view unto the wider world in only beneficial ways.

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