What the frak just happened to my Twitter who-I-follow list?

For me, Twitter is an information and awareness channel, a source of valuable worldwide intelligence into the zietgeist of now. Until it stopped.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

What the frak just happened?

That's what came out of my mouth about three hours ago (it was more colorful, but this is a family show). I was looking at my TweetDeck river and I realized there were no updates from any of the people I follow. Then I realized I wasn't following anyone.

No one at all.

Most tweeters compare themselves against each other by the number of followers they have. There is some validity to such comparisons, because it can give you a rudimentary measure of online popularity. For writers like me, it's also valuable having followers because Twitter tweets are another way of getting the word out about new articles.

But for me, the true gold has been in the list of people I follow. This list has been carefully crafted. Oh, sure, I often follow back random people who follow me. But where my who-I-follow list has true value to me are the relatively obscure, fascinating influencers, doers, thinkers, mockers, leaders, users, testers, and developers online.

These are people I follow because I get news and insight from them. In my slightly-secret counter-terrorism role, I also follow a lot of key government agencies, personnel, and systems so I can have a good drum-beat on what's happening across the world.

At about 9pm, that constant stream of information dried up. It just went away.

Here's the weird thing. I've always generally just tolerated my incoming Twitter feed, feeling like I could just quit any time I wanted. I've always considered the whole Twitter thing slightly foolish, an affectation of online life. But when the incoming flow of information, opinion, and comments went away, I felt the loss.

It turns out I actually need Twitter.

Not just as another marketing channel for my opinion, but as an information and awareness channel, as a source of valuable worldwide intelligence into the zietgeist of now.

Here's what I think happened. I am not just a Twitter user, I'm an experimenter. I use a bunch (way too many, apparently) of Twitter support tools, tools to follow back people who follow me, tools to cross-post to various other services, tools to track users, tools to post to multiple accounts, and so on.

One of those tools went rogue. I think I know which one it is. I'm not telling you because it's an alpha project and I should have known better than to use my main account on an alpha project, but that's a lesson learned. Somehow, that software unfollowed me from everyone I followed.

Yes, of course, it could have been a hack. It could have been someone who got into my account. But I don't think it was, primary because there were no nefarious postings, just a mass exodus from the who-I-follow list. I immediately changed my password, so that means all those services will have to be individually paid attention to, and that's how it should be.

I also used another one of my tools to immediately follow back everyone who was following me. That should get a good chunk of the accounts back on my follow list within a few days.

What I won't be able to do is find those really neat people I followed who didn't choose to follow me back. There are some fascinating people who, for whatever reason, didn't reciprocate, and because there's no real history or backup function in Twitter, there's no way to get those people back on my list, except for discovering them over time once again.

This is a definite failing of Twitter. There should be a way to export your list of people you follow, back it up, and snapshot it at any given time. For those of you out there playing in the Twitter API, go to it. This is a needed tool.

This is also a good reason to follow back everyone who follows you. If any of your followers loses his or her who-I-follow list, the fastest way to rebuild is to follow back your followers.

Anyway, after a few hours, I'm following a little more than 500 people and while I'll probably never find some of the more obscure accounts I was following, I've learned some valuable lessons. The most important lesson of all is the one that's the most surprising: I actually, tangibly value Twitter, not just as a fun Internet curiosity, but as a real, important part of my daily information consumption.

That, in and of itself, is a valuable lesson.

Who do you think would make an interesting follow? Suggest it below and I'll do my best to check all your suggestions out. Also, feel free to follow me at @DavidGewirtz. I'll do my best to follow you back, if you do.

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