Is Twitter Telling You Only What You Want To Hear?

by Thomas MORADPOUR on December 24, 2010 · 23 comments

My morning newpaper is now Twitter.

The other day, I noted that my morning ritual had changed since I embraced Twitter – I now really enjoy an early 30mn in the day, with a cup of coffee , and Twitter as a modern-day version of the newspaper. I tweeted this observation and got a good dozen of answers from my followers, all telling me they were like me. Truth be told, I’ve never had a newspaper habit, but I now love getting my news via friends and peers, from those 500 of so people I chose to follow. From memes to jokes to marketing news and blogs, it’s my daily source of most relevant inspiration, information and entertainment.

For many, Twitter, Facebook, or bookmarking services now serve as news sources, all with a major advantage over traditional media. This advantage is best described as the Social Filter. No need to crawl yourself through the endless clutter of ‘all the news fit to print‘: simply read what trusted sources post or repost, and you are guaranteed to find news relevant to your interests. Some people even argue that a serious user of such services should never subscribe to any publishers directly (be it CNN, Mashable or Chris Brogan), but rather set their sights on readers of these sources who will retweet only the best pieces.

It’s all a huge ponzie of social news that Dick Costolo and Mark Zuckerberg are preparing for us.

OK, this is what I do. And it works well… Much too well in fact.

Here’s the big downside of Social Networks as sources of shared news and opinions: you like everything. Everything is relevant to your interests, consistent with your established opinions, fits your view of the world. It hit me while reading yesterday’s post by Seth Godin, titled “Three ways TV Changed Everything“. I’ll quote the segment that really got me thinking:

The mcw (million channel world) bring silos, angry tribes and insularity. Fox News makes a fortune by pitting people against one another. Talkingpointsmemo is custom tailored for people who are sure that the other side is wrong. You can spend your entire day consuming media and never encounter a thought you don’t agree with, don’t like or don’t want to see.

Think about it. Can you spend your entire day on Twitter, reading tweets and clinking links, without ever encountering a thought you really disagree with? I went back in my timeline yesterday and realized how right Seth was.

The Social Filter is highly polarized.

There is no evil plan at hand here; just human gregariousness. Everyone I friend on Facebook is… well, a friend. I picked all my trusted sources on Twitter. Chances are that if you are reading this, you are probably connected to me via one of these two (@ me on Twitter if that’s not the case.)

How did I pick you?

  • either I already knew you,
  • you said something I thought was clever,
  • you shared a story I found interesting,
  • or you were recommended by someone I respect.

Photographers will appreciate the ‘polarizing’ filter analogy – it’s a filter that lets light rays come through only from a particular direction. As a Social Filter, my twitter-following-list is highly polarizing because I populated it with people I agree with in the first place. So there is really no surprise that I only see opinions and news I agree with: it comes only from people I agree with, from one direction only. Mostly.

Why this is bad: if we’re 106,000,000 and we all think alike, we’re 105,999,999 too many.

Well, unless you’re a real fan of Fox News or another news outlet tainted by a particular view of the world, you may like to get multiple perspectives on any issue; you want to have the opportunity to weight both sides of a debate to form your own thoughts; and seeing news that are sometimes unexpected and different from what you’re used to will broaden your perspectives. If I’ve learned anything from holding a “global” marketing job, it’s the value of diversity – situations, points of views, opinions. What’s the point of having access to 106 million Twitter users if you only listen to the ones who think like you? You just end up talking and listening to yourself.

So what should we do about it?

Simple – we need to find our contrarians, our antagonists. We must seek sources of divergence, value debate and disagreement. Have as many zaggers to our own ziggings in this so-called Social Filter of ours. This is why I value the point of view of someone like Dan Perez (@danperezfilms), who won’t hold back when he does not agree. Or that of Olivier Blanchard (@thebrandbuilder), who posted a major rant yesterday about social media conventional wisdom and his frustration at not being able to impact more of its practitioners. And this is why I will be most happy if at least half the comments to this post tell me the thousand ways I got it wrong (so long as the other half wishes me a Merry Christmas!)

We can all start today!

Here’s my plan. Let’s make #FollowFriday useful again, as opposed to this self-serving clutter of @mentions.

Instead of recommending someone because you agree with them, or like them, find someone who bugs you, who shared something you did not like or did not agree with. And explain just that. Let’s cherish #zaggers in our timeline and make it a point to hold on to those who make us cringe… and challenge our established points of view.

Trust me, you’ll thank me later. You can even say that person you disagree with… is me ;-)

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  • http://socialmediaforsmartpeople.com/back-channel-conversations-social-media-manners-smmanners-chat/ Michele Price

    Tom, I love your approach. Wonder how many folks will get their nose in a snit since 140 characters not a lot to share WHY you didn’t like something and not have it taken out of context.

    To be loved for being a contrarian hmmmm #FF

  • http://www.terametric.com Taariq Lewis

    Excellent piece.

    I think it’s true. If the filter on which you depend are already biased to your point of view, there’s risk of reinforcing positive bias. I like the Fox example. They make $$$ playing on this aspect of human nature.

    I look forward to learning how this will continue to evolve.

    Cheers,
    Taariq

  • http://www.twitter.com/marketinghelix Jeremy

    In this case, the person I disagree with is you, Tom. In a friendly way, of course. :-) Just about the Fox News part. Does everyone really think that all those millions of people would be watching FNC if it were really as one sided as it’s made out to be? Are the American people that dumb? Am “I” that dumb? I watch it, and I don’t see the “pitting people against one another” that Godin describes in your quote from him. Yeah, there is a conservative bent to much of the commentary. And yeah, there are a select few right-wing “blowhards” (hi, Sean Hannity). But you also have thought-provoking analysis shows like “The O’Reilly Factor” and just plain news reporting. Sure, Bill O’Reilly can be a polarizing figure, but he has A LOT of liberal guests and even FNC commentators on his show. There is almost always a presentation of both sides. Plus, I think it’s a pretty universally accepted notion that the majority of the American media outside of FNC features a somewhat liberal bent. So are those outlets also “tainted’ as you described FNC?

    I’m still learning the ropes on Twitter, but personally, political viewpoints really mean nothing to me when I’m determining whom to follow. I’m looking for information, discussion, give-and-take, networking opportunities, common interests, humor, etc. If Glenn Beck wants to be my social media “friend,” then great! I will never agree with him politically, but he might still provide some useful thoughts outside of the political arena. I honestly never would have considered the issues you discussed in this post, because I’m not analyzing peoples’ viewpoints when running down my Twitter feed. I’m simply seeing what kinds of connections there are to be made, and how we can potentially help each other, either now or down the road.

    So, look for your contrarians if you want (btw, you’re not following me @marketinghelix), but it’s my opinion that you should just be examining the aspects of the relationships that I described above. But in general, in life, I do agree that we should seek out alternative views of the world. Unfortunately, I think that many folks, both on the left and the right, are doing that less and less these days.

    In case you were wondering, there’s a (D) on my voter registration card. :-)

    –Jeremy

  • http://carolweinfeld.com/ Carol L. Weinfeld

    It’s important to follow “zaggers” so that we question our own points of view. An additional option is to follow people in a different sector of business than our own in order to learn new information and different opinions.

  • http://www.lesarchivistes.net Neil Tamzali

    Actually, I agree and disagree at the same time.
    I choose my followings very carefully, so that I have a very broad overview on everything. I try to have an eye on the French twittosphere, which is pretty self-centered, and on the “rest of the world’, especially the US, the UK and the Canada. By curating my sources and the content I read, I don’t waste time with pointless blog posts, or non-exclusive info.
    But on the other hand, I must go on developing my critical mind, so that I don’t rest on “my laurels”, and ever look for THE amazing source or the out-of-the-box thinker.
    One of the biggest drawbacks of an exclusive Twitter-provided daily monitoring is this “Social Filter” you’re mentioning.
    That is why I try to keep contact with various media such as magazines which I sometimes buy randomly, even if I have my favorites :)

    It is a good way too keep an open mind and try not to be blinded by the lights of the “all-digital”, because we must not forget that most of the posts we read are digital, written by digital fans, on a digital support. Who said “oriented” ? ;)

  • sumner musolf

    It’s so much more convenient… more comfortable… to only associate yourself with either those you agree with wholeheartedly or those that you may disagree with slightly, but within your tolerance level. It’s easier for me to unfollow someone after they say something I vehemently disapprove of, rather than waiting to see what other kinds of rubbish they’re going to say. Trying to illustrate the way I think seemingly comes across as ignorant, because all I typically get is ignorance in return. I’d rather just end the “Twitter relationship” altogether – same way I can just change the channel if I don’t like what I’m hearing on the television or radio… or stop reading the article in that magazine or newspaper if I don’t like the topic, the author, the point of view, etc.

    Is it more important for me to be aware of the differing perspectives on any given matter, or is it more important for me to hold steadfast to my beliefs, forsaking all others? Seems to me that in order to truthfully balance what you’re suggesting, Tom… we have to walk an incredibly fine line. That seems to be what life is these days – walking fine lines.

    Great post. Provocative and insightful. Thank you for sharing, sir.

  • http://xeesm.com/jackinesses/ Jackie Coughlan

    Oh, I am so guilty of reading Twitter instead of the newspaper or even the news HEADLINES since I joined. And I seem to know about as much of what’s going on as the real-news-readers I talk to. I get a lot from TechCrunch via Twitter, too.

    That said, I started my Twitter journey with a core group of really high level people that I aspired to be like, strangers all, and of course potential business contacts, as I was job hunting at the time. As the list grew quite organically and I really *listen* to those #fridayfollows (the non-spammish ones), and also paid attention to who my friends were interacting with, I followed a few people who turned out to have really different views from my own.

    For example, on Christmas day I had quite a few “God is great” or “bible verse” retweets in my stream, and I’m an atheist. Also, I have several teapartiers retweeting some “liberals are ruining America” stuff out to me, and I am a total leftist. I thought about this hard and came to a simple conclusion: If they are following me, there is a chance they might be following me BACK (as in, I first followed them, then they responded) so if they follow me *in general* I do not unfollow. Even if I disagree with their message. I value the potential relationship and exhange of ideas.

    However, if someone doesn’t follow me and they post stuff I disagree with, I feel no guilt for clicking the button. JustUnfollow.com has been good for this kind of weeding out. So I do agree that over time my stream is veering waaay over toward being people I mostly agree with.

    On the other hand, the #usguys stream has been great for rapidly introducing me to truly diverse people from different walks of life.

    As for the ramifications, not so sure. You definitely have me thinking about this topic from new angles. Appreciate the great post very much.

    Jackie

  • http://www.southfloridafilmmaker.com Dan Perez

    Tom,
    Your intention is noble and I almost agree with your (and, remarkably, Mr. Godin’s) observations. However, I find it hard to believe that we totally agree with even a hundred followers. I believe we disagree more often than we think – question is: Do we do anything about it? Do we challenge it? I think in most cases, we do not.

    Why? Well that goes against “twitter etiquette”, yes? We’re all here so we can throw our arms over each others shoulders in one big circle whilst singing Kumbaya, roasting marshmallows over one monstrous bonfire and getting high off the social media bong, right? To call out your fellow tweep’s blog post or tweet, no matter how absurd, would go against the rules of twitter. Better to just not say anything, yes?

    This is why there’s so much banality on social media. It’s not that we always agree – just that we fail to publicly disagree with everyone because we’re afraid (“What if @ChrisBrogan or @BrianSolis unfollow me? I’ll be a social media outcast! Noooooo!”). We want to be liked by everyone and because of that, we keep our mouths shut and/or our noses brown, sucking up to the social media “elite” despite the fact that if we really took a look at their accomplishments and experience, we’d find them pretty unremarkable.

    In my relatively short time on twitter, I’ve found social media to be similar to real-world corporate culture in that we all wanna be liked, we suck up to the “big dogs” and we mostly keep our mouths shut – no need to rock the boat, yes? I’m not here to be controversial nor do I antagonize for the sake of being an antagonist – I’m here to speak my mind (isn’t that was social media is all about, anyway?). I have a great family, loyal friends and an impeccable business reputation in my community so I don’t feel any need to kowtow to anyone online…and in some crazy way, I think people have started to appreciate that.

    Cheers.

    • http://www.twitter.com/marketinghelix Jeremy

      Dan:

      I detect a twinge of bitterness or envy in your post – not sure which. You say that most of the social media elite is unremarkable, that much of the content can be described as banal, and imply that we shouldn’t be afraid to “call people out” when we disagree with them. The question is, what would be the point? Social media is no different than any other platform we’ve been exposed to in the past, save for one thing – it’s accessible to everyone. But television, radio, books…there’s always been an abundance of “experts” and an overload of information, some helpful, some not. The idea is, you have the choice to tune in or not to tune in. Nobody’s shoving the information down our throats. If Seth Godin posts a link on his Twitter feed and I don’t want to hear what he has to say, I can choose not to click on it. Or, better yet, I can just not follow him in the first place.

      There’s certainly nothing wrong with healthy debate in any medium. Establishing a back and forth dialogue can be productive and informative for everyone involved. I’ll just speak personally though…for me, the consideration is not about Twitter etiquette, wanting to be liked by everyone, or sucking up to “the big dogs.” It’s just about maintaining a professional image. Why am I using social media to begin with? Because I am launching a business and associated blog, and want to build an audience. If I start arguing with people about politics, that would betray the image that I want to project. If I spend my time calling people out and antagonizing folks I disagree with philosophically, my appearance will not be that of a marketing strategist, but one of a blowhard know-it-all. Is it worth it to me just to get my opinions out there. No. If I’m sitting having a discussion in my living room with a bunch of people, and I want to demonstrate why I’m right about a particular issue, that’s one thing. But in the business world, social media is an extension of your corporate (or personal) brand, and it’s just not the appropriate medium to air out your grievances. If you’re only using social media for personal reasons, then that’s a different story…you can sound off all you want. I, personally, just want to soak up information and learn, engage folks in discussions about small business and marketing, and eventually, position myself to be able to help others in their entrepreneurial plights. I don’t need everyone to know I’m on the right side of every argument in order to accomplish that. I just need them to find me credible, engaging, and most of all, professional.

      –Jeremy

      • http://www.southfloridafilmmaker.com Dan Perez

        Jeremy,
        “What would be the point?” That we can.

        Don’t know where you’re picking up “envy” or “bitterness” from my observation. Perhaps, you should re-read my original comment more thoroughly. I’m just telling it as I see it – you don’t have to agree with me. Moreover, if you think introducing a contrary observation is “unprofessional” then I’m glad I’m not in your business. There are certain debates I never involve myself in: mostly politics & religion. But if I feel obliged to challenge someone’s “public” blog post or tweet based on my “personal” experiences (not “grievances”), then I will. If you translate that as coming off as a “blowhard know-it-all”, then I’m also glad I’m not one of your clients.

        I’m not sure about you, but I do the majority of my business in the real-life offline world. There, my reputation is impeccable and I have an affluent client base that pays me for my creative opinions. Sometimes my opinions are contrary to the client’s but I’ve learned that they respect me for being confident enough to speak up and in many cases, they’ll put their own ideas aside in favor of mine. After all, I am the expert in video production, not they, yes?

        If you want to nod your head to everybody, that’s your business. I’d rather do what I do as just being a “yes man” doesn’t appeal to me (nor my clients). Besides, I usually don’t find those types of people to be very credible, engaging, or strategic. So let’s just agree to disagree, yes?

      • http://www.twitter.com/marketinghelix Jeremy

        Dan:

        I guess I was just countering your notion about the reasons why people opt to not voice contrarian opinions. While you might see it as wanting everyone to like you or brown-nosing, others may have specific, logical reasons for keeping quiet.

        It depends on how you present your thoughts and the topics of discussion you choose to sound off on. If you stay away from politics and religion, then I imagine you’re less likely to get yourself in trouble. Likewise, if you’re chiming in about your particular area of expertise then yes, obviously your opinion is more likely to be valued. While the mere act of introducing a contrary observation is not, in and of itself, unprofessional, there are many people out there who might develop a negative image of someone who gives the appearance of always trying to prove they’re in the right. It’s not about whether I think you’re coming off as a know-it-all. I may be a very reasonable and open-minded guy. It’s about the 1000′s of other people who are viewing your thoughts simultaneously. Again, it depends heavily on presentation and subject matter. Yes, I might be inclined to give alternative views on things related to marketing, but there are other areas that I might leave untouched. Since I’m utilizing social media for business purposes, I’m unlikely to weigh in on things that do not pertain to my line of work. If there’s something you feel so strongly about that you can not keep quiet, maybe it’s more appropriate for a direct message or e-mail to that specific person. At least that way, you’re not broadcasting everything to the entire Twitterverse.

        The exception would be, as Jill suggested, a personal Facebook profile. That arena is somewhere I interact in a more familiar manner, and I don’t equate my “reputation” on there with my corporate image. Even if you do the majority of your business and professional interaction offline, don’t be fooled into believing that your appearance online is irrelevant. Any corporate Web site or social media account you create for business/networking purposes, is part of your professional identity, whether you intend for it to be or not.

    • http://www.mantywebdesigns.com Jill Manty

      It’s not always Twitter etiquette or brown nosing that keeps people from responding. A lot of times when I disagree with someone in social media I say nothing because they’re not interested in changing or being challenged. So why expend the energy? For the most part, people believe and think what they want to believe and think.

      Now I understand that’s not “engaging” as defined by some. But my form of engagement may not necessarily look like theirs. When I see something I disagree with, I use it as an opportunity to explore my view first- why do I disagree with them? Should I research the other side more? Should I shift my view? Should I dig in?

      In some cases, what I discover makes it worth speaking up and voicing an opposite opinion. Generally, I’m more likely to do that among people who know me (I’m much more contrarian on my Facebook page, or my Facebook friends’ pages because, for the most part, those are people I actually know and who will judge me favorably if I come off a little strong).

      Regardless of how much time I spend with people on Twitter, to a large extent they’re strangers. In spite of any false sense of intimacy, we don’t really know each other. I’m not willing to shoot down those fledgling relationships by speaking out about things that, in the long run, really don’t matter a whole lot.

      That being said, I always enjoy hearing what you have to say. You often call out articles where I’m more likely to just roll my eyes. But your way of interacting is just one way- and the other ways are not cowardly or banal. They’re just different.

  • @samfiorella

    I’m a firm believer that Social Media is about conversations and so you can’t limit or reject someone’s part of the discussion. Without the comments, there is no discusison, thus no medium.

    As Tom posts: “if we’re 106,000,000 and we all think alike, we’re 105,999,999 too many”. Those that debate or challenge a point are just as valuable in a dialogue as those that agree with your post. We’d never advance if we all simply accepted what we’ve read, have been taught or are told without challenging it.

    Debate is healthy and should be welcomed provided that all participants do so for the sake of furthering the dialogue and bettering the collective wisdom of the group and not for slandering others or moving to personal attacks when other’s don’t agree.

    We can’t experience the world through ‘rose-colored glasses’. We must open ourselves to those that disagree. This applies to both those that are usually agreable AND those that are generally contrian in nature.

    Great post Tom. Love your idea of changing the focus of #FF.

  • http://Lefreddie.posterous.com Lefreddie

    Nice post Tom. The rebelious me would love to agree. But…
    Like you twitter and facebook have replaced my morning shot of news.
    And I have to say for the better. Because my daily doseof inspiration has gone up.
    And it seems to me that in this daily learning world we have enteeed we are not just looking for contrarians but for people who can take a subject in a new, fresh untapped way. And who can do so with no ‘langue de bois’ or no PC as u would say in the US.
    So I’m not sure I’m looking for someone to oppose. You are surrpunded by them at work and in bars. Seems to me that socoal media is where groups of people wo are really engaged are figuring out what they’re doing, how it could be better, and fighting the dark side who wants to pretend this is all unesseray BS.

    So whereas contrarians shouod be welcome, isn’t it more important to have straight unrestraint conversations, unfrightened of public ‘oh dear’ness coming from daring.

    #ff has become a little too joky and useless, the one #ff is by far the best. But more than contrarians, isn’t it better to have igniters. People who can put a thought that sticks, a thought that burns in your mind?! Contrarian or not…

    I hope I contradicted just enough, keep posting and provoking ;) )
    Freddie

  • http://socialmediaforsmartpeople.com/back-channel-conversations-social-media-manners-smmanners-chat/ Michele Price

    What I would like to understand is how is this post any different than the other 100,001 I have read about how follow friday could be used more effectively?

    Hell I even wrote one, though not this long. My question is- folks read them and still tweet the follow friday drival, so who exactly are we talking to anyway? Who is making any changes in their behavior? Who is taking a stand to stand out vs be another soldier in a same ole march.

  • http://www.tommartin.typepad.com tom martin

    Tom

    I think you hit the key rationale for why things like newspaper, magazine and TV news should NOT die. While flipping through the newspaper may not be as efficient as reading a Twitter stream, it does introduce a certain level of discovery. You may trip across a story or a POV that you wouldn’t normally see (because no one on your twitter stream really follows that kind of content).

    It’s this incidental discovery that is the real power of news periodicals… wish more of them would realize that and focus on it vs just trying to push their POV on the world.

    I like your idea… but fear you’d simply get a second signal in your stream.

    Instead of another hashtag maybe an alternative solution is to simply dive into Twitter’s home stream or use Search.Twitter each day or once a week to dip your toe into a part of Twitter that you don’t normally frequent.

    I’ve used this approach successfully to not only find out about new trends, topics but also to just discover things that I would have never imagined.

    Great post as usual… thanks for sharing it.
    @TomMartin

  • http://www.michelehinojosa.com Michele Hinojosa

    I agree here to a point, however I don’t think there’s quite the distinction between social and traditional media that is claimed. What news programs you watch (including, but not limited to Fox News), what newspapers or magazines you read, and even just what country they come from all give you a different view. An American paper vs. Australian vs. British vs. South African vs. Canadian vs. German vs. Japanese will all give you a different view of the world, yet we choose from them, limiting the contrary viewpoints we’re reading. Social isn’t really different here, it’s just a new medium for similar behaviour.

  • http://www.PerTalks.com Ken Rosen

    Tom,
    Sorry to offer another existence proof of your point…but I completely agree. The most tragic, balkanizing force of the last 20 years may turn out to be cable TV and internet. It is simple–and worse, typical–to go for weeks seeing nothing to challenge one’s world view. And when the goal is to stand out within one’s bubble–rather than across all potential bubbles–the power and importance of verifiability also decreases. Our cultural ambivalence about knowing what is true is almost surely not the recent phenomena it sometimes seems; however, it certainly is reinforced by discussions in an echo chamber.

    Carol, above, mentions the importance of tracking zaggers. Of course, she is right. Yet getting any more than a small subset to do it seems a far-off dream.

    Nice piece Tom. Cheers, Ken

    Performance Works
    http://www.PerTalks.com

  • http://www.twitter.com/galactic Cristian Gonzales

    Wow, there are a lot of comments on this piece.

    Nice convo spark Tom.

    I’ll keep my comment short. Something I was doing for awhile was only looking at my #UsGuys stream for convo, content, etc.—I found it to not be a good decision for me. #UsGuys tends to have people that share similar thoughts to my own. Great in some respects, but not so great in other respects. Like yourself, I like to hear differing opinions, POV’s, etc.—and I’m not going to find that on a hashtag with like-minded people.

    So I hop into #UsGuys when I can, but I try my best to look outside of that to make sure I am hearing thoughts and convo from alternative corners.

    Hope you’re having a great vacation!

  • http://www.312Digital.com Sean McGinnis

    Great post Tom. My sense of things is that this need for self-reinforcement is simply a carry-ver from other parts of our lives. We all long to be validated by others we find intelligent – its been a strong part of human evolution for some time now. This drive has created cliques in real life, in media consumption, in religion and in politics.

    I’m not certain social is or should be any different.

    I agree with the point that Seth is making, and you are reinforcing, that when you go beyond 3 main networks and start to fragment into millions of channels and info sources, its much easier to switch off content you don’t agree with. Again, I’m not sure how to counteract that.

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