Twitter Is A Cocktail Party

by Jon Reid – follow him @jonmreid


Photo by SanFranAnnie

The Cocktail Party Effect: We’ve all experienced it, and cocktails are not required. All it takes is a room full of people, with many conversations taking place at the same time. This creates a noisy environment of simultaneous talktalktalk, yet somehow amidst the hubbub, we are able to pick out interesting conversations nearby, ignoring the rest as background noise.

This “cocktail party” of simultaneous talking is a near-perfect description of Twitter: just replace “talk” with “tweet.” It is what makes Twitter such a fascinating place, giving you the chance to meet interesting people you’ve never encountered before.

It can also be overwhelming. Most people can naturally focus on individual conversations in a crowded room, but this involves auditory processing, where our brains process what we hear. To do the same in a textual environment is not an innate ability but a learned skill. And the more people you follow, or the more prolific they are, the more important it is to develop this skill — because if you try to read each and every tweet, you will eventually drown.

When I got started on Twitter, I initially followed 10 people. 10 became 20, and 20 became 40. Everything was new, and I eagerly read every tweet in my timeline. Then 40 became 80, and around then I found that I could no longer keep up with everything. So let me share with you some tips for coping with your growing “cocktail party.”

Track Unread Tweets


Photo by Ross and Lori

Most Twitter clients keep track of which tweets you have read and which you haven’t. This is both a good and bad thing.

First, the good: If you use Twitter’s web interface to do your reading, you will waste time scrolling down the timeline until you reach something you recognize. “I think I read this before,” you will say, and read other tweets around it just to make sure. This is a waste of both time and effort; why not let your computer keep track of what you have and haven’t read? Most Twitter clients will do this for you. Any time you save in managing your tweets is more time to actually read them.

Now, the bad: At first, having a program prominently display the number of unread tweets will remind you of something else you’re used to: your email inbox. Just as unread email cries out to be read, your initial tendency will be to treat unread tweets with the same importance. Don’t. Even in the early stages of Twitter use, it is good to establish a mindset that Twitter is something you will use, not something that will use you. Your life was perfectly fine before you discovered Twitter, so don’t succumb to the tyranny of unread tweets.

Mark All as Read


Photo by Tomás Rotger

When you walk into a party full of conversations, you don’t run around asking everyone, “What did I miss? What did you say? Tell me everything!” No, you pick up the conversations from that point. Why not do the same with Twitter? Since you’re now using a Twitter client that keeps track of unread tweets, find the “Mark All as Read” button. Now, go ahead:

Click it.

“I couldn’t do that!” you protest. The only reason you’re reluctant is that unlike a real cocktail party, you can see tweets in the near past. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to. Remember, don’t succumb to the tyranny of unread tweets. Just let them go. “But won’t I miss things?” you ask. Sure, but if something is important, you’ll hear about it. Trust the Twitterverse to bring it to you.

Time permitting, you can always go back and review recent tweets. But now the pressure is off, and the count of unread tweets will reflect anything new that comes in. When I start up my Twitter client in the morning (or after being away from the machine for a few hours), I follow these steps:

  1. Read anything that was sent directly to me via @reply or DM. In a party, that’s like people calling your name.
  2. Click “Mark as Read” for a fresh start to mark “when I entered the room.”
  3. Scroll back to scan tweets of the past hour or two.

Learn to Scan


Photo by inhisgrace

Picture yourself in a crowded, talkative room. The “cocktail party effect” is your ability to pick out and follow a single stream of conversation even though many people are talking at once. When you do this, it’s like the other voices “blur” into the background, while the conversation of interest comes into “focus” in foreground.

Can you do the same with Twitter? Yes! It’s called “scanning.”

If you are an experienced driver, you are already doing something very similar. Do you remember your first few months of driving? Every car, every pedestrian, every single thing that twitched had your attention; it was exhausting! But after a while, you learned to relax into it. Your eyes are generally centered but are not tracking any one thing; instead of focusing, you allow things to blur somewhat, flicking your eyes occasionally and using your peripheral vision to be aware of anything unusual entering your field of vision.

Scan tweets in a similar way: First, relax your eyes until the words just begin to blur. Then as you scroll, allow your eyes to “catch” anything unusual: a word, a phrase, a particular person. At that point, quickly determine if the tweet is interesting. The key word here is “quickly” because if the tweet is not interesting, you want your eyes to switch back to unfocused scanning.

Fast scanning does require the ability to “chunk” words, that is, to recognize words from their shapes without assembling them from their individual letters. If you are unable to chunk because you are dyslexic or are reading your native language, you will have to depend more on the following tip.

Trim Your Input


Photo by mrmac04

If you have implemented the tips above but are still overwhelmed by the sheer number of tweets, then it’s time for more drastic measures. Everyone at the “cocktail party” of your Twitter timeline is there because you invited them to the party. By controlling who is there, you can make your party less noisy, or simply smaller. You’ll have a better experience if you trim your input. There are a couple of ways you can go about this:

One way is to use a client like TweetDeck or Nambu which lets you define groups of the most important people you follow. This basically shows a subset of your timeline, as if you were following fewer people. You will still want to use scanning to find the interesting tweets. Then use any remaining time to scan the larger timeline.

Another way to trim your input is to be more ruthless about unfollowing people. There are two reasons to unfollow someone: Either because (as far as it relates to you) they tweet more noise than signal, or because they simply tweet too much, burying other people’s tweets.

Let’s face it: Most tweets will simply not be interesting to you. If you follow somebody whose updates are almost all irrelevant, that increases the amount of scanning you have to do. Looking at a person’s tweets, consider the cost versus the benefits and whether it is worth unfollowing them.

Or if you follow someone who tweets too often, their tweets will dominate your timeline, making it harder to keep up with other people’s tweets. I had a close friend of mine unfollow me! At first I was surprised, but then I realized that he followed less than 50 people, most of whom post updates fairly infrequently. Compared to the rest of his timeline, my updates were simply too much.

“But I couldn’t unfollow anyone,” you protest, “because I might miss something!” Yes, you will miss things, but there is a cost to those things. If you are willing to pay the cost, fine. But otherwise, let it go. Again, trust the Twitterverse, because if something is significant, it will be retweeted and you’ll still know about it.

In Summary

So those are my tips for not being overwhelmed: Use a Twitter client that tracks unread tweets. Click “Mark All as Read” for a fresh start. Learn how to scan so that you don’t read every tweet. And if necessary, trim your input with some careful unfollowing. Follow these tips. and you will have a better “cocktail party.”

I leave you with a haiku not of the tips, but of their underlying principles:

Let go of the tweets

Good things find their way to you

Trust the Twitterverse

Twitter is sometimes like sipping from a fire hydrant! How do you keep from being overwhelmed? Share your tips and principles in the comments below.


  • June 11, 2009
    Tom Webster

    This may be a sin of omission (and not commission) but you really should credit Jim Tobin and Lisa Braziel at Ignite Social Media with this one since they wrote the book on it.

  • June 11, 2009

    This was very insightful! Thanks for the advice to “let it go.” Social networking should be enjoyable, and most of the time it is, but suddenly you’re connected to all these people, and you worry that something important will slip through the cracks. Trusting the “Twitterverse” to keep you informed sounds like the right strategy.

  • June 11, 2009

    Thanks! A link to this dropped into my timeline earlier today ~ whilst I was modelling a web app that showed twitter timelines as a cocktail lounge. Strange.

  • June 11, 2009

    Tom – They may have written a book with a similar title and topic… but that doesn’t mean their names need crediting on a post that was written that’s not really the same thing. That book is about social media in general. Jon’s post here is about Twitter. You can’t copyright individual words, only complete works.

  • June 11, 2009

    Hey I really like the cocktail party theme. Yes what’s been said here really makes sence.
    Thanks for passing on some great tips.

  • June 12, 2009

    Interesting point, but some of us do FAR better with Twitter than at a real-life cocktail party. For me, it’s because I process information far better visually than audibly. In a crowd, the noise of many conversations just runs together into an overwhelming, indecipherable roar for me, even if I am trying to focus on talking with one or two people right there with me.

  • June 12, 2009

    The same “cocktail party” expression was used by Seth Godin in his explanation why he is not on twitter. I guess he was referring to a bad cocktail party whereas you’re talking about how to make the most of the cocktail party. Nice post, some good info.

  • June 12, 2009

    Tom, I’d never heard of the book. Looks interesting.

    KLR, another way to put it: Social media was made for people, not people for social media.

    Adam, maybe it’s serendipity!

    Jan, I hope my tips are helpful. Pass them on. :-)

    Julia, that’s interesting. Maybe you need to arrange real-life Twitter parties!

  • June 14, 2009

    Try this for a more off-the-wall approach to your Twitstream!

  • June 16, 2009

    “…don’t succumb to the tyranny of unread tweets.” worthwhile advice, I will pass it along to the Twitter flock in my trees.

  • June 16, 2009
    Joe Cassara

    Yes, Twitter is just as useless, loud, and full of meaningless conversation as a cocktail party.

  • June 21, 2009

    great stuff,maybe people could put cell phones to better use by taking pictures of missing children, milk cartons are a thing of the past. i take them on my cell, from nancy grace show, they are very clear. then if i have reason to think i see the child ,i check my photo album, and.when they locate child i delete picture, better then sex texting

  • June 22, 2009

    Anna, I wonder if Seth Godin’s experience of cocktail parties is similar to Joe’s (11th comment): “loud, meaningless.” Just as people have different likes and dislikes in social settings, the same is true of social networking. Rather than trying to drag folks to a party when they “hate those kinds of parties,” we would do better to relate to them in the ways they prefer.

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