I’ve been “hanging out” on Twitter for about three weeks now. My interactions with it have evolved quite a bit over that time.

When I first got on, my attitude was “what’s the point?” That became “okay, so this is the best part of Facebook minus the dumb applications and a lot of FB’s cool-but-useless user interface.” But along with this functionality came a challenging signal to noise ratio. How can you decide who to follow? It’s certainly not by popularity. Some of the most followed accounts are little more than posts of the form “(hook text) (external link) more on (topic) at (posters_site).” In other words, “Here’s something vaguely interesting on a topic we cover. Hopefully the first link will generate the expectation that our site has even more useful information, and you’ll start using us as a source.”

If that’s all Twitter had to offer, I’d be gone by now. But despite the noise, there’s quality in the signal when you find it. I have interacted with people with unquestionable intelligence, people with expertise in interesting areas, and people with humour and insight. Twitter is also undeniably a superb source for news, both global and local.

The other problem is that few of us are consistently brilliant, so even on an individual level there’s no telling how many mundane posts you’ll have to read before encountering the gem that makes it worthwhile.

So I have developed a list of user types for Twitter that I use as a guideline when deciding who to follow:

  • The “I am a Channel” type is interested in their follower count above all else. Every post they make returns to a gateway on their site, so they can pump up their traffic stats. Some are more subtle, but the ultimate goal is to make their web properties a destination.
  • The “monetize” type is intent on convincing you that they know how to monetize your online presence. Inevitably this leads you to a pitch for their e-books and/or training courses. Somehow I get the feeling that these people are all modern equivalents of the “Make $1 Million from Classified Ads” artists. why do I get the feeling that the way you monetize is by selling e-books telling people how to monetize?
  • The “I am a social media maven” type — which is distinct from an actual social media expert — is a variation on “monetize”. All you have to do is buy/subscribe, and they’ll show you how to get to the top of the social media heap. By and large, these folks would fare far better if fewer of them appeared to be laid off auto workers living in their mother’s basements. The ones who seem to have some class wind up being the ones who value connections above all else. As I’ve said before, there’s something unsettling about “hook up with me on LinkedIn as a trusted source, even if I don’t know you from a serial killer”.
  • The “random link” type finds purportedly interesting information and tweets it with a useless explanation, as in “wonderful (link)”. I suppose that somewhere out there, the simple act of posting makes the link worthwhile, but in my experience so far, 85% of the links go to stuff that is old, dull, boring, or just plain not interesting. A complete waste of time. Explain what’s interesting about the link, please.
  • The “topic feed” type usually picks a well-defined topic to post about and either relates facts about that topic or posts links with information relevant to the topic. Focus is the key to success here. If the topic is pig farming, it no good can come from posting random comments on abstract art.
  • The “expert” type goes one better than the topic feed. These are people with a real interest and some expertise in their field, and they regularly post observations and insights along with the “topic feed” fare. A significant number of posts from these people reference original content that hey have compiled or authored.
  • The “personality” type is someone who has a real world profile and is using Twitter as another channel for communicating to their audience. Think Obama.
  • The “community” type is a member of a smaller community that uses Twitter to keep up to date. This is what Twitter seems to have originally been designed for. Some of these communities have “personality” types, who have a significant profile in within the scope of that community.
  • The “shared mundanity” type posts nothing but tidbits from their life. As in “listening to x while doing y”. There’s a fine line here. Much of the charm of Twitter is getting a snapshot into other people’s lives, but we don’t need the whole film; odds are that you’re just not that interesting. If none of these posts have any meaning, if they don’t transcend mere observation, then the unfollow button is not far away.

The real challenge here is that most people exhibit a mix of these types, and probably a few more that I haven’t identified yet. Twitter is all about constructing your own community and becoming a part of it. It’s social media at its most fascinating.