It’s quite common to see people on Twitter celebrating a milestone of the number of people following them, or to urge for themselves or for some deserving cause the attention of a few more people to push them over the next threshold. That is clearly a measure of something, but it’s not completely clear what, or against what standard success should be measured.
I want to celebrate a different kind of milestone. A couple of days ago the number of accounts I follow reached 500. It’s been quite a long slow process getting there. I am by no means one of Twitter’s older residents, but there is 4½ years of slow accumulation, a fraction under ten new accounts followed each month.
I hope the people who follow me feel they get some value or pleasure from doing so, but the value I get is not from them but from the people I follow, who inform, educate, ask, inspire, irritate, answer and challenge – and best of all converse. Some of those 500 have no idea who I am. Some of them are machines. Some of them I think of as friends and have to remind myself that I have never met them. And some of them are long silent, sometimes for reasons I know, often for reasons I don’t.
By happy chance, the 500th entry on my list has a deeper significance. Back in 2009, I was well past the process of hearing about Twitter and dismissing it as the latest west coast fad which would never catch on with normal people. Then I found myself in a room for a workshop which Emma Mulqueeny had generously organised for me, with a bevy of interesting people, among them Ben Hammersley. There was some kind of transport disruption and several people were running late, and I slowly realised that Emma and Ben were better informed about what was going on in general, about what had happened to some of our missing people in particular, and were having a silent conversation about all that and, for all I knew, seventeen other things as well, right under my nose. I joined Twitter that day, and Emma and Ben were two of the first of my five hundred.
Also in the small group in the room was my colleague Beccy Russell, who somehow missed the clarion call of Twitter that day. This week she has started a new job at BIS, adding to the list of smart people who do digital things there (and where to welcome her they are starting their impressive digital fortnight). That’s prompted her to join Twitter, allowing me to be her first follower and she my five hundredth followed. And so the cycle turns. She hasn’t broken her duck yet – but you might want to follow her to be ready when she does.
Two small afterthoughts:
1. There are some who argue – or used to argue – that being followed on Twitter brought some obligation of reciprocity. I have never understood that argument. There are people I like and respect but who tweet a lot on subjects which don’t particularly interest me. Or who tweet a lot at a rate I can’t absorb. There are lots of people whose tweets I might be interested in whom I have overlooked, some of whom might be following me. I make no judgement and intend no slight in that.
2. The language of ‘followers’ jars on me. It implies leadership and hierarchy in a way completely at odds with the networked relationships which are the best of Twitter. And to make matters worse, there is no good word for the reciprocal relationship: ‘following’ doesn’t really work, ‘friend’ which some seem to use is nonsensical. But ‘followers’ is the universally used term, so I have given in to it.