There has been a very healthy discussion about the choice made by Joel Drapper to do a drastic unfollow on his account.  There are many who agree with Gerald Weber who doesn’t think his current follow strategy is good.  While I don’t want to open up the discussion of whether or not this was a good plan, I have been thinking about one suggestion that keeps coming up in the conversation.  This revolves around the use of TweetDeck (or another 3rd party application that supports groups).

rockstarThe idea is to use TweetDeck so that you can create groups and use filters.  You can set up groups for the people that you wish to follow closely and still get tweets from the others that you follow.  You can also set up filters to eliminate tweets that contain certain phrases or links.  This will allow you to see the special friends without all the noise, but still allow you to have the tweets from others to scan through once in a while, looking for nuggets.

This makes a lot of sense, until you start to examine the numbers.  The numbers it just don’t add up.

In Joel’s case, he was following over 13,000 people before he cut it back to 100.  Some of the people recommending the TweetDeck route are actually following over 60,000.

So, lets do some math and see if Ashon Kutcher or Oprah should start following their millions.

Crunching the Numbers

I’ve used TweetDeck and DestroyTwitter a fair amount in the past few months.  They are both similar in the way that they handle updates and groups (DestroyTwitter now supports groups for those who did not know that).  The reason that they are so similar is that they are limited by the Twitter API.  There are 2 steps that they must go through.  When I’m talking about TweetDeck in the rest of this discussion, remember that DestroyTwitter works in the same way.

Step 1 — Getting Tweets from Twitter

When you first start up the application it will issue an API request to retrieve the most recent tweets from your friends (i.e. the people that you follow).  They will also use API requests to load @replies and DM’s, but we’ll ignore them since we’re interested in the raw tweets.

Every few minutes (depending on the limits you’ve set) they will issue another API request looking for the updates from your friends that are newer than a specific status.

There are two important limits to keep in mind.  First, each of these requests will return a maximum of 200 updates.  The application can request more (or less) than the default 20 but the absolute maximum is 200.  Second, you are only allowed 100 API calls in one hour.  This includes calls to get @replies, DM’s and some other calls, but not searches or sending your own tweets.  We’ll see how these limits affect us in a bit.

Step 2 — Processing the Tweets in TweetDeck

Once the tweets come in, TweetDeck applies filters to remove updates that contain terms you’ve told it to ignore.

It will also look for tweets that come from the people that are in groups you’ve created.  These tweets will be put into the group panel as well as the All Friends panel.

The reason for this is simple — Twitter itself does not support groups and there are no API calls to get tweets from a specific group.

Any tweets that don’t come into the All Friends feed will not show up in a group.

Now, the Math

So, we’ve seen that a tweet has to come in through one of the API calls before TweetDeck can put it in the group for you.  If it doesn’t get picked up it doesn’t make it to your screen.

Suppose you’ve set TweetDeck to fetch updates every minute (using 60% of your API limit).  As long as your friends are producing 200 or less updates in a minute you’ll never miss a tweet and everything will be great.  All of the tweets of the close friends will be picked up and placed into the appropriate group.  All the bad tweets will be filtered out and you can scan through all the rest.

But how realistic is it to expect less than 200 updates in a single minute?

In my experience I often see 15 or 20 tweets come through my All Friends stream.  I am currently following 775 people.

Lets see how this scales to Joel’s numbers and the rockstar numbers of 60,000.  We’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that the relationship between the number of people that you are following and the number of tweets they produce is linear.  That is a reasonable assumption.

Friends Ratio to LoneWolf Multiplier Tweets/Minute (Peak)

13,000 13,000/775 ~17 340
60,000 60,000/775 ~77 1540

Joel was following almost 17 times as many people as I am now.  The tweets per minute is 340 which means that Joel’s friends were possibly producing (at peak times) 140 more tweets than TweetDeck could retrieve from Twitter through the API.  Roughly 41% of the tweets wouldn’t get through — probably including those from his close friends in the groups.

The numbers for the rockstar level are even more extreme.  At 1540 tweets per minute an astounding 87% of the tweets don’t show up.

If you set your limits to less than 60% (i.e. check for updates less often) these numbers will be worse.


So, should we be using TweetDeck to allow us to follow every reasonable person who follows us as people have recommended?  It depends on what you want from  Twitter.

If it is important that you see most of the tweets from close friends then you are better off to only follow those close friends.  Use searches to find information from the stream if that interests you.  You can still receive @replies from people you don’t follow and you can @reply to them as well (even if they don’t follow you).  TweetDeck is still a good tool although you won’t necessarily need to use the group features.

If you want to be (or at least appear) sociable and follow everyone that follows you (except for spammers of course), then TweetDeck is a good solution.  Just keep in mind that you are not going to be able to see everything as your friends count grows.  A rockstar might see less than 15% of all the tweets that their friends produce at peak times.  Groups and filters won’t change that.

Personally, I will continue to use TweetDeck as a tool to help me follow Twitter.  I fall into the 2nd category and I’m willing to miss tweets in order to follow people that are outside my close circles.  I’m not yet at the point where I’ll miss much, if anything.  If I ever get up to following 13,000 we’ll see how things change.

Update May 26, 2009

It seems that Joel is not the only person to discover that following thousands of people on Twitter is not really what they want from Twitter.  My good friend Seth Simonds has done the same unfollow and start over in recent weeks although he is following back in higher numbers than Joel.

[Rockstar image above is from the header image created for the Star Struck WordPress theme by FreeThemeLayouts.]

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6 Comments on Why Following Thousands with TweetDeck Won’t Work

  1. Shawn Hickman says:

    I am flip-flopping to both sides of that argument, because they both make sense. I can see how following 16,000 can be a little overwhelming and hard to do, but I also see how following a mass amount of people can be a good thing. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to use twitter (besides spamming). Just use it the way you want to, and be happy.

    When it comes to the tools you can use for Twitter, there are a lot of really good ones but not any that are great. I have to use a combination of tools to get things done. I don’t think Twitter designed itself for a large amount of people, but things change and hopefully improvements will be made. Nice write up!

  2. Dave says:

    You can use a hybrid solution. I find that many of the people that I am truly close with (5-10% of the people I follow) are also my friends on Facebook. While my numbers are still small and haven’t hit the mathematical limit that you have reached, you can still look to Facebook to keep up with your closest friends. Not an ideal solution, but helpful nonetheless.

  3. Tim Baran says:

    Spot on and insightful post. Love the ratio experiments that you presented – can’t argue with math, right?

    I’ve weighed in on this debate (perhaps, discussion is a better word) between @JoelDrapper and @the_gman. I def don’t auto-follow. In fact, after a week to a month of following, if I don’t relate to a particular person I’m following, I un-follow. And, I I’m never upset when someone does the same to me (and they have) – it means they’re being diligent and looking for meaning and purpose on Twitter besides big numbers.

    I’m not disparaging “big numbers” It’s quite important as it relates to influence – hey, if you have 70K followers and me only 100, an RT is golden.

    But claiming that very large numbers can effectively be managed by TweetDeck or any other app is something I’ve come to accept, even though, like you, I cannot imagine how?!? I accept it because as you also decorously pointed out, it really does depend on what you want from Twitter.

    How about straggler vs follower? 🙂

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!


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