I’ve recently realized that for some time I’ve been looking for an excuse to stop using Twitter. I haven’t been enjoying it much as I once did. As soon as that realization hit me, I immediately saw what the problem has been: muting.
I started using Twitter in 2009 and, for the next two years or so, felt like I was taking part in an amiable conversation. I didn’t have a lot of followers but I knew that somebody didn’t have to be following me to see my tweets. As far as I was concerned, I was having a long, rambling chat with the world.
At that time, I didn’t know of any metrics that would tell me how far my tweet had reached. I recently went back to look at the earliest of my tweets for which metrics are now available and was surprised to find that they were typically seen by just 4 to 6 people! I know from retweets and favorites (as they were then called) that they weren’t always the same 4 to 6 people.
Some time around 2012 or 2013, I started to drift away from Twitter and eventually there was a whole year during which I didn’t tweet at all. I didn’t delete my account or forget my password, but tweeting just didn’t appeal to me. I only came back to it properly when I had a self-published book to sell.
Things were different. It no longer felt like a conversation. Or rather, there were clearly conversations going on but they were being carried on in the middle of something else — something which looked like a lot of bots tweeting or retweeting statements which weren’t intended to draw any response. They didn’t seem to be intended to do anything except to assert their presence.
It took a while but I eventually concluded that the problem is due to muting, which was introduced in 2014, during my year-long break. The stated aim of muting is to allow A to stop seeing B’s tweets in A’s timeline, but without either unfollowing or blocking B, so B won’t know that anything has changed between them. In other words, it was designed for sneaky or temporary unfollowing. I think of it as pretend-following; and with the benefit of hindsight I can’t imagine how any of the decision-makers at Twitter ever thought anything good could possibly come of it. Here’s what did come of it:
As I said, I reactivated my Twitter presence because I had a self-published book to sell. There are a lot of people with books, self-published or otherwise, which they try to sell on Twitter. Typically, they’ll tweet something containing hashtags (#selfpub #amwriting etc.) calculated to attract people in a similar position. Those people follow them and they follow back. Everybody ends up with thousands of followers, the majority of whom they’re also following.
Obviously, nobody wants to follow thousands of active tweeters. You certainly don’t want them in your timeline. Lists can help you manage the flow if you’re actually interested in what all these hordes are tweeting but lists need to be set up and maintained and they don’t keep the firehose flow out of your timeline. So? So you mute them, of course. And they mute you for the very same reason. The result is not so much a dialogue of the deaf as a huge and growing series of unheard monologues. Since there’s no actual dialogue, you have no expectation that anybody will want to answer your tweets or that you might want to engage in any meaningful conversation with theirs. So you set up a bot to emit your precooked pablum at times when it’s likely to be overlooked by more people than at others. Your pretend-followers do likewise.
But in the middle of this, some real conversations, ones you might want to be participate in, are still going on. Those conversations are why I resist the temptation to just quit Twitter and be done with it. It was my first “social” network and for about six years my only one (unless you count LinkedIn). I’m not yet ready to block it. If only there were a way I could mute the whole damn thing.