This post is part of 23 Things for Professional Development.
This week’s Thing is actually 3 things, all to do with current awareness – Twitter, RSS feeds and Pushnote. The first two I already use extensively, but the third I’ve never heard of. I’m therefore going to start by talking a bit about how I use Twitter and RSS feeds, and how I could make better use of them. I’ve decided to give Pushnote a miss, as it doesn’t work in Internet Explorer, which is what I’m limited to at work. I could still probably use it at home, but to be honest I don’t find the product itself compelling enough to want to spend my already limited free time on it.
I’ve been on Twitter since early 2009. I joined because I’d been reading Phil Bradley’s blog and he was posting what at the time seemed like endless posts about how great Twitter was and how much he was getting out of it, so I thought I’d give it a try. Like many people, I went through phases of “what is this for again..?”, abandoned it, picked it up again, and through a bit of trial and error found a way to make it work for me. I think it really started being useful when I was following more than 50 people, so if you’ve just joined Twitter, I’d advise poking around to find some good people to follow. Twitter is all about conversations, so you’ll get more out of it by connecting with more people.
That being said, now that I’m following more than 500 people it does get harder to keep up with everything! My main methods for avoiding information overload when it comes to Twitter are really about attitude rather than any specific techniques or tools. First, I’ve had to train myself out of feeling obliged to read every single tweet that pops up in my stream. I see a lot of people who are new to Twitter saying that they couldn’t possibly follow more people because then it takes too long to scroll down and read all their tweets. I get this, and it is how I used to think of Twitter, but I think it’s a mistake. You really need to treat Twitter as what it is: a conversation. If you walk into a crowded party, where everyone’s been there for a few hours already and there are dozens of conversations going on at once, do you go around asking everyone to recap everything they’ve said before you got there? Of course not – you just jump in, or start a new conversation, and trust that if something major happened before you got there someone will catch you up on it at some point. This is much how I think of Twitter – it’s a river of information, that you dip into as and when you can. Trying to read ALL the tweets is to miss the point – Twitter is ephemeral, it’s all about real-time information.
My second attitude shift has been to learn to be selective about who I follow. I try to follow back as many people as I can, as the value in Twitter comes from having a good network, but I don’t want to follow so many people that the ones who tweet loads drown out those who don’t tweet as much. These are, roughly, the criteria I use to decide whether or not to follow someone back:
I follow back if:
- we’re already following a few of the same people – indicates we probably have interests in common, and we’ll be able to see more of each others’ conversations;
- they’ve got an informative, witty or entertaining bio. A link in the profile also helps, e.g. to a fuller profile or their blog; or
- their tweets are about something I’m interested in.
I don’t follow back if:
- they’ve got nothing in their bio, haven’t tweeted, and/or their face is an egg. Basically, if there’s nothing that would tell me about who they are;
- they’re profile is set to private (unless it’s very clear from their bio who they are and what they’re likely to tweet about);
- they’ve tweeted nothing but links – I like to see a little bit of content they’ve written themselves, even if it’s just commenting on the links; or
- I can’t see anything in their bio or recent tweets that looks like we’ve got interests in common. Not that I want to limit myself to following all the same types of people, but if they’re only tweeting about subjects I have no interest in, then I probably won’t get much out of following them!
Those are really just the snap judgments I make when I get a notification that someone has followed me. Obviously they’re not perfect, and I do sometimes come back and follow people later on – e.g. if I see their name popping up in conversations between people I’m already following, or if they @reply to me. I always try to follow people who are talking to me – I think it’s a bit rude not to! Although, I have only found out recently that if your account is private and you @ someone who isn’t following you, they don’t see it. So if your tweets are protected, and you’ve messaged me and I haven’t replied or followed back, I’m not ignoring you – I just haven’t seen your tweet!
Ned Potter has written some great guidelines about what to do when you first join Twitter that fit with a lot of my own criteria above, so if you’re new to Twitter I’d recommend reading these. Much of it is stuff I got totally wrong when I first joined!
I am an RSS feed junkie. I started using Google Reader in 2008, shortly after starting library school, and I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it. I currently subscribe to 158 feeds, mostly LIS related. I usually read my feeds on my phone while on the train to and from work, and sometimes during my lunch break too. I use the NewsRob android app on my phone – this lets me read my feeds while offline, and also gives me most of the functionality of Google Reader, e.g. sharing, liking and adding notes.
RSS feeds are an invaluable tool for me, but once again it can get difficult to read everything with the amount of feeds I follow, particularly as some of them are very high volume! I weed my feeds regularly, using the “trends” function in GReader to find any “dead” feeds, and see which ones I’m not reading as often, and remove them. I also add new feeds pretty often – usually after I’ve followed a link in Twitter to a new blog that looks interesting – so the actual number I’m following stays pretty static.
The main technique I’ve learned to keep information overload at bay is similar to my attitude shift with Twitter – I’ve just had to teach myself not to read absolutely everything. It was harder to do this with Google Reader than with Twitter. Twitter is ephemeral by its nature, so it’s easier to learn to ignore when necessary. RSS feeds on the other hand give you big chunks of text (or video, or images, or whatever) that just sit there until you’ve read them, so it does feel like more of an obligation to read them all. I used to be somewhat allergic to the “mark all as read” button – I hated the thought that I might miss something, so my feeds just kept piling up until I’d read them.
I’m not sure exactly when the shift came, but now “mark all as read” is my best friend (and the “unsubscribe” button is a close second!). I used to have hundreds of unread items in my reader, and even more starred items that I’d fully intended to come back to, but never did because I was too busy trying to read all the new stuff. Now, I rarely finish a day with more than a couple of unread items, often there’s none, and I am slowly but surely getting my starred items under control too. I still have a few blogs that I will always read every post from (thewikiman, Bethan’s Information Professional blog and Undaimonia all spring to mind), but generally I scan through the titles of new items, read the ones that look interesting, and mark the rest as read. I trust my network to bring any other interesting or important stuff I’ve missed to my attention – if something is really unmissable, it’ll pop up on Twitter at some point!
I also use Google Reader to share interesting stuff I’ve come across. You can see all my shared items here, and you can choose to follow me if you use Google Reader. If not, all of my shared items get posted automatically to Twitter using the Reader2Twitter application, so if you’re following me then you probably already see most of them. I like being able to share stuff directly to Twitter like that – it reaches a broader audience, and judging by the number of @replies and retweets my shared stuff gets I think people generally find them interesting.
So those are my current awareness techniques! What do you think – am I missing anything? Does the “dip in and out and ignore the rest” technique work for anyone else?