The dirty secret of social media is that as helpful and joyful as it can be, it is a time sink too.

Last year, I took two long breaks from all things digital to be fully offline. But this solstice, I took the quiet in a new direction. As I wrapped up client work, I thought to sharpen my digital tools, and I'd like to tell you about my first, and probably most ambitious, step: rationalizing my Twitter lists.

I don't know about you, but my lists had grown haphazardly, sort of like additions to a New England home. In short, my lists lacked alignment with the "cloud" of people I care to keep in touch with on Twitter.

Level Setting: Twitter List 101

Twitter lists are how you can "parse the cloud" of everyone you've followed on Twitter. It is how you can segment people you share friendships with, future clients, and sources of knowledge from people who have Twitter accounts.

You can have up to 20 lists, and you can choose to make them private or public.

When I add people to my public list of digital agencies, for example, they get a nice alert—and gain visibility, since others can find them via my list.

Software programs and applications also have access to those public lists. I use my digital agency list to fuel a daily roll-up of tweets with links via a service called; I call my "publication" the Digital Agency Daily.

Until now, most of my lists have been my secret (i.e., private) filters for watching the cloud of people I pay attention to. Members aren't told when you add them to a list; in fact, you don't have to be following them to keep an eye on them this way. Useful, right?

The Scoop Is Here

OK, here's how I, just one guy, use lists every darn day. Since I tweet about digital business strategy, and that's my work, you'll notice that my arrangement of lists is really driven by what I need to do to connect for business purposes.

1. Focus on relationships and revenue

Focus: These are the people I want to keep connected with for this year's and next year's success. They're active clients, prospects, and people who refer me to opportunities.

Coworkers: The connection to the future and to success is apparent here, too. These are my current coworkers, so what they are up to—and the corporate account that represents our work—influences our livelihood.

Fans: Everyone should have a core group of engaged advocates; and, if you do, having this list lets you be their fan in return.

Friends: These are real-world people I have dinner with, introduce to my kids, or connect with outside of work. No current coworkers are in here, though some former ones are. As it happens, my Facebook friend list matches this list. I've kept Facebook mostly for fun, and old friends and digital marketing only rarely mix.

Contacts: Great people I've met through tweeting, speaking, or otherwise in passing. I want to keep in touch with them, but they are a bigger pool and they can flow into and return from those other relationship groups.

2. Listen, and share Knowledge

Industry peers: These people are a lot like me, so they are the very best filters and sensors of the next thing that people like me should be tuned in on. Yep, it's pack thinking, so pick your pack with care.

Industry luminaries: They're not as important as peers to me, but some people change industry mindsets when they take a position. I watch a few of them here, even though my peers will often tip me off when there's big news.

Industry and world topics: I have lists of privacy advocates, digital strategists, and publications that I follow when they tweet.

3. Track the Tribes

Those you teach: Because I teach, I track discussion about my class and the broader program it's a part of. I want students to tweet questions, interact, and share on Twitter. I do this by hashtag for students, but by list for colleagues and graduates.

Your local tribe: Do you follow a sports team—or a political party? My friend Andrew follows his favorite NY Jets players, and he's gotten to know them and even to visit with them casually, in 140-character bursts. It's good to be able to check their pulse when you want. I track people who are part of the Boston social media scene; they're a tribe I want to keep close to, and members who are coworkers or friends show up in those more prioritized lists, too.

Industry practitioners: I have a huge list of tweeting lawyers. It's an industry I've worked in, and it's great seeing what this cloud is buzzing about at any given moment.

The kitchen drawer: Some people are interesting because they live in your city, or they are great to learn from or to watch, even though there's no professional connection. I keep a list of digital marketers who live in other countries, for example; that's helped me to broaden my network, and be less focused on life in just my time zone.

Yes, This Helps on G+!

Anyone notice the overlap between this sort of organization and Circles on Google+? Yep, until we have real social CRM, at least we can have a somewhat uniform way of sorting whom we reach, how we reach them, and why. The work I did on my Twitter lists cascaded right over to my G+ organization.

How to Move Twitter List Members Around

With my structure sketched out, I spent about six hours using TweetDeck to pull up lists, delete those from lists they should leave, and to reassign them correctly. I'd love to hear how others do this.

Is there really a "return on cleanup" (ROC)?

I was happy to immediately find that the people I added to my lists were great to reconnect with. I'm finding better opportunities to connect with others in real time, and to learn as events take place.

* * *

I'd love to hear how you handle your lists, so tweet me or comment below. Or, if like me you've put this work off for a long time and you're now thinking about doing a list rehab, let me know. I'm always glad to talk shop with others who are working on creating their own systems.

There's nothing like watching your cloud with a clean list. See you on Twitter!

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Dave Wieneke is digital strategy lead at ISITE Design and a faculty member in Northeastern University's graduate program for Digital Media. He blogs at UsefulArts. Reach him via Twitter or LinkedIn.