The Fire Hose vs. The Stream

There are two recurring questions that I find myself answering. The two are different but related:

  1. “Why would I want to know every little detail about what my friends are doing from Twitter/Facebook/Friendfeed?”
  2. “How do you not get overwhelmed by all the people you follow/friend?”

My short answer is I don’t treat it like a fire hose I have to drink down, I treat it like a stream I dip my feet in every so often. To explain this statement, I need to first talk about friends and travel.

I was born in Vancouver, spent my formative years in Hong Kong and then returned to Vancouver for the last two years of high school and college before moving to Austin for my first job. All this moving was a mixed blessing. I was able to experience many different perspectives and made a wide range of friends from all over the world. On the other hand, there were few friends that shared my experiences throughout.

Whenever I visited Hong Kong, which is roughly annually, I meet up with my childhood friends. Conventional thinking would say that, because we haven’t seen each other for a year, we’d have a lot more to catch up on than say, someone here in San Francisco that I saw just the day before.

Anyone who has experience with this can tell you that it simply isn’t true. When you’re apart that long, conversation topics feel like they need to be a minimum level of significance to be worth discussing: career changes, marital status change, buying of property, perhaps a new family member, etc. A sample conversation might be like this:

Friend: “So how’ve you been?”

Me: “Great. Things are going well. I got engaged!”

Friend: “Congrats! You still doing that computer thing?”

Me: “Yeah. Still at the same place. You still at the same firm?”

Friend: “Yeah, 3 years now.”

Me: “Wow…”

Friend: “MmHmm…”

In contrast, the friends you see every day or every week are the ones you can talk to for hours. Why? Because any topic is fair game. You don’t feel like you have to filter out the more mundane topics because it’s such a significant event to be catching up with the person. How was that movie? Did you go climbing yesterday? Did you see that crazy YouTube video? No topic is too trivial.

So how is any of that relevant to the information overload of Twitter and Facebook?

To me, Twitter and Facebook updates represent the mundane, everyday conversations that I could and would have with everyone if I could. By seeing the stream of updates from my friends, I have much more context into their lives, and a feeling that I can converse with them about smaller things. To use a clichéd term, I feel more connected to them.

When I see these friends, even after many months apart, I still feel like I’ve been talking to them and keeping up with them to some extent. Conversations flow more naturally and are much more rooted in the present than trying to bridge the gap since we last interacted in person.

I disagree with the fire hose terminology because it’s not something that is pointed at me. It really is a stream of information which I can look at anytime I feel like. When I don’t dip my feet in, the stream flows on, I’ve missed some updates, and it doesn’t matter.

We can look at it a different way, too. Whether we know it or not, each of us probably have at least 300 people we know and like enough to want to keep in touch with. If you saw each of these people for dinner one friend a night, you would see each person once a year. One solution is to simply forget most of these and hang out with the same dozen friends week after week. Realistically, there are far more than a dozen interesting and inspiring people worth interacting with regularly.

So going back to the original two questions:

  1. “Why would I want to know every little detail about what my friends are doing from Twitter/Facebook/Friendfeed? ” Using it helps me stay closer to more of my friends in a way that’s impossible to scale with in person interactions alone.
  2. “How do you not get overwhelmed by all the people you follow/friend?” I don’t try to read everything.

Don’t drink from the hose. Dip your feet in the stream instead.