July 7, 2015: The Chrome extension for Twitter was installed, and I had time for a quick shower before cycling to work. Without letting myself think about it too much, I pressed MASS UNFOLLOW, saw it was working, and ran to the shower.
When I came back about 15 minutes later, the plugin had done its work. I was no longer following anyone on Twitter. I was scrubbed clean, and so was my feed. Sterile. Time to start over. And I had a plan.
My life on Twitter
Let me back up here. Establish my non-egg Twitter streetcred.
Since joining in 2009, I have
- Written about best practices for sharing art on Twitter,
- Currently help maintain 3 accounts (@FlyingTrilobite, @Symbiartic, @INVIVOcom),
- Have started Twitter accounts for everything from group blogs to retail,
- Launched the wildly successful #SciArt Tweet Storm, and,
- Have even blogged about how being on Twitter should be a citizen's responsibility.
A slide from my presentation about social media to the Association of Medical Illustrators last year:
While I'm not on #TeamFollowBack, I follow new people easily, especially if they are involved in science, art, or illustration. I also unfollow regularly if someone has odious social opinions, or retweets too many churn accounts like @HistoryInPics or @IFLScience into my feed. It's good hygiene to use tools like ManageFlitter's free service to unfollow dormant accounts, and cull people you followed back who have since unfollowed, and you never engaged with.
New people on Twitter sometimes think you have to try and read everything by everyone. I sipped from the firehose. If I didn't like the taste, I'd unfollow someone.
But it wasn't enough. More and more I was enchanted by the idea of just nuking my feed from orbit and starting over.
Scrubbing it clean
I looked at a few articles for people who have done the same. I decided to use this Chrome Extension, which once installed, places an alarming MASS UNFOLLOW button on your profile page. That was the button I pressed before hurrying off to the shower.
The idea was never to ignore people, or spurn friendships. I always knew I would rebuild my feed. How much? How would I start? I had a couple of back-ups. We maintain a 600+ science-artist list on the @Symbiartic account, so I wouldn't need to re-find artists to check in on for the purposes of this blog. I also decided not to delete my own lists: I keep a couple of recreational ones for videogames and movies, as well as Toronto politics and #blacklivesmatter.
Even so: what would happen if this was a failure, and I never re-found all those interesting people again?
Building a better feed
Though I already had a plan, I considered a few more ideas. I've learned a lot about social justice from being on Twitter. I've discovered artists and scientists who pique my interest daily. So: refollow equal numbers of artists and scientists? Attempt to follow more racially diverse people through some ratio?
I never planned on following an even sample of society as far as opinions and viewpoints: I wasn't going to follow harassers and the harassed in equal measure. I wasn't going to follow American Tea Partiers and European Greens in equivalent numbers.Would my new Twitter feed be an echo chamber reflecting my own opinions? Maybe in some ways, but ultimately that's impossible. I want Twitter to interest me and introduce me to novelty.
I stuck with my original plan: follow equal numbers of men and women.
Follow Follow Follow
First, I re-followed my unused, real-name alt-account, then my wife, and my work accounts. I refollowed my co-bloggers, my editors, and my boss at my full time job. Then I was ready to start following equal numbers of men and women.
I decided that if I didn't know the gender of the Twitter account, or if it was for a large organization or website, I would consider it male. Although the editor-in-chief of Scientific American is a woman, @mdichristina, I considered the magazine's account @SciAm male for the puposes of my following numbers. A few sites, like @Skepchicks I considered female. I started out worried that unconscious bias on my part (I'm a white, cishet man) would lead me to follow more men than women.
Turns out following an equal number of men and women on Twitter is pretty easy to do. Almost like the numbers are equal in the real world.— Glendon Mellow (@FlyingTrilobite) July 8, 2015
It was much, much easier than I had expected.
I also tried to be mindful of following more diversity. Instead of checking in on my #blacklivesmatter list or my Toronto politics list, I follow a number of those activists and writers in my main feed. I also began following more Native Canadian and American writers, artists and activists than before. I am using my lists less, and learning more from my main feed.
Part of my plan was to increase the number of artists I follow to be closer to the scientists and science journalists. I thought maybe going through my Instagram and searching for some of the same artists (children's book illustrators, tattoo artists, videogame concept artists, sciart peeps) would be easy enough.
But no! Most of the artists who post on Instagram post directly from Instagram to Twitter. Which, since Instagram is owned by Facebook, means Twitter only posts their comment and a link. I want to see the art in my feed! Come on, artists!
It only takes a couple of seconds to copy and paste your comment into Twitter after posting on Instagram. Or you can use IFTT (If This, Then That) to make your Instagrams magically appear on Twitter. It's worth it! Everyone knows images increase engagement on Twitter. Get this done, people.
There were a couple of downsides to mass unfollowing. A number of people tweeted their worry that they "weren't interesting enough" to make the cut as I re-followed people. So I spent some time reassuring people. In most cases, they were people I was happy had spoken up.
My Twitter follower count is small enough for a blogger on a network like Scientific American that I'd like to see it grow a lot bigger - I have important things to say and kickass paintings, people! When I pressed the MASS UNFOLLOW button I was almost 6,000 followers - and the number started to steadily decline immediately after I unfollowed. Seems a number of people use services for a daily report of unfollows, and they reciprocated. Ah well. If I'm interesting to them, they will follow me regardless. I didn't keep track of who or how many, but I'd estimate between 150-250 people unfollowed me in the past few weeks. As of about a week ago, the number of followers started climbing again.
Never look back
In hindsight, I am so glad I did this. The inital flurry of re-following the first few hundred people was amazing. I felt like I was re-discovering their voices, and their frequency in my feed was heartwarming.
Have I gone too far in my post-zero following spree? I'm still following less than half the amount I was before. Some of the initial excitement when I follow someone is gone. But as I noted, I am using my lists less and my main feed more. I'm learning about science. Seeing amazing art. Reading about different life experiences. And hopefully all of that will amount to my own retweets and tweets improving too.
Edging ever closer to Twitter Utopia.