Twitter as a Social Filter

On: October 14, 2010
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About Joris Pekel
I’m a MA. New Media student at the University of Amsterdam. In november 2009 I graduated as a bachelor theater, film and televisionstudies at the University of Utrecht. After that I started an internship at Kennisland where I worked on a project called Images for the Future. My main interests go to: Social media and how they can or can’t be useful, online copyright, Creative Commons and privacy issues. Other than that I’m an improv-theater actor and music lover (check out my famous Dutch eclectic-farmerband “Skitterend Mooi!”)


Because of its simplicity, people have found many ways to make use of their Twitter account. On a personal level, by sharing their daily thoughts and things that annoy them, for gossip purposes, by following celebrities, or on a professional level, by showing the world what they are doing and generate attention for their products. On a personal level, I use Facebook, I am not interested in celebrities and I don’t have any professional interests. Still, I’m a heavy Twitter user. For what? For filtering.

The sentence “I think it is stupid, I don’t want to know when people are going to the bathroom” is heard many times when I talk about Twitter. The microblog service that asks people ‘what are you doing?’ And yes, this questions is the reason a lot of really uninteresting answers appear online. But if people complain that Twitter contains only useless information, is it the fault of the medium, or their own network? By a click of a single button you can start following people. With the same ease you can ‘unfollow’ them and you never have to read about their uninteresting lives ever again. If you do this consistently, you will end up with an extremely helpful tool that can help you solve the so much discussed problem of the ‘information overload’.

I have had a Twitter account for almost a year and I think I use it almost everyday. Still, I don’t consider myself to be a ‘heavy user’. I post a tweet maybe once or twice a week. At first, I really did not know what to do with my account. Why would I use this medium when I already have a Facebook account to connect with my friends and let them know what I am doing? The big difference between other social networks, like Facebook, and Twitter is the easy way that you can connect with people. Where Facebook is mainly used for people who actually know each other, or at least met once in real life, Twitter allows you to connect with anybody you find interesting. So that is what I started to do…

I now follow 125 people. Some of them hardly post anything, others several times a day. Of these 125 people, I think I have met 30 of them personally once in my life. The rest of it are people who publish interesting stuff or online magazines like BoinBoing or Mashable. I also follow a lot of museums which share updates about their latest expositions. By following people which share links that I find interesting, I get my own personal recommendation feed. This way they do the filtering for me in such a way that an RSS reader could never do. RSS allows me to follow different blogs or magazines. It is very useful to see if they have a new blog entry. At a glance I can see what articles I have not read and which I have. What the RSS-filter does not do, is filter articles for my particular interest. It just shows every new post on a blog and lets me choose if I want to read it or not. The reason I nowadays prefer Twitter over RSS is that it is not just a mechanical filter. It becomes a social an a human filter. It saves me a lot of time filtering headlines of articles because other people have already done that for me.

In a way, this type of use has more similarities with the times before web 2.0, where we could just recommend interesting websites or articles to each other by sending an email or a news letter. This system worked very well in the beginning of the internet, but soon there was simply too much information to do this manual and the RSS feed was invented to help people to keep track of all the new things appearing online. By selecting categories the user is able to filter the content pretty well, but it still has no idea what I am really interested in, it can not figure out what I think. Here the human mind is still superior to the machine.

By realising this, social filtering is something that has been of many peoples interest for a couple of years. For example the website StumbleUpon, which lets you browse to random websites according to your selected interests. When you stumble on something you like, thumbs up, if you do not, thumbs down. This way the system gets smarter every time somebody stumbles and can also find out more about what the personal user likes. Together with the community you try to make a selection of the good sites through the millions of bad ones out there.

By using Twitter as a filter, an even more personal one appears. You let your information flow depend on the users you follow. In my case, 125 people are responsible of what information I get to see on a daily base, apart from the daily news feed. This has the risk of missing out on some stuff, but if it is interesting enough, I trust my network to retweet other peoples links so I still get access to it.

This is yet another reason why Twitter is so much greater than people generally think it is. And it’s not at all addictive. So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out whether Richard Florida has any new tweets and share this post with the 75 people which find me interesting…

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