Saturday, January 24, 2009

Question: Why bother with Twitter?

Seattle P-I Food Writer Rebekah Denn writes in with this question about Twitter:

"My problem with Twitter is that I feel like I'm just adding (and getting) another layer of noise. I get a lot of information from my Google Reader - I probably have 50 blogs on it. What's the advantage to following the same people on Twitter? Won't I just be finding out, say, that they've posted something that I'm going to see on my reader soon anyway? Do I want to know the low-level chatter?

"...I see the attraction of referring people back to your blog... but is there any reason to do that on Twitter rather than Facebook (which, ironically, feels less in-your-face)? And would I annoy people if I do both?

"If you can make sense out of that as a question, have at it! Maybe I'll try some sample tweets and just see how they're received."

Thanks for the question Rebekah. I couldn't see the value of Twitter before I started using it either. It seemed stupid. Yet another way to tell people an incremental update about the boring stuff you're doing? Who needs it?

But then I read a great New York Times Magazine story on Twitter by Clive Thompson -- one of the best writers around on social media, technology and society.

He writes: "For many people — particularly anyone over the age of 30 — the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb?"

After trying it though, he writes, users discover that "each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting."

This (and most everything he said in his excellent article) intrigued me. After reading his story, I decided to try it.

As Clive promised, Twitter has helped me reconnect in a daily, quick and easy way with good friends I was only finding time to call a few times a month. (Granted, this effect is more striking when you and all your friends have iPhones.)

Twitter's been great on a professional front too. I've met a bunch of people in the journalism and blogging community I never would have met, and keep up with what they're all thinking and saying to each other. Sure, I could read their blogs, but my Google Reader is maxed out, and who has the time to read lengthy essays? This is the ultimate in MTV-generation short attention span theater -- every thought is an elevator pitch, just 140 characters in length. Who doesn't have time to read two sentences?

True, as you note, you can follow many people on their blogs, but not everyone. Many nonbloggers are on Twitter, so Twitter is the only place you're going to hear their thoughts.

True, you can follow a lot of people on Facebook, but many of the people you might want to follow aren't your friends (yet) so you can't very well friend them on Facebook or LinkedIn to see their updates.

Twitter is a great little niche tool that lets you hear the latest epiphanies of people you think are smart and cool -- even if you don't know them.

Geek that I am, when I started using Twitter, I started following a high ranking developer guy at Amazon as he mulls his latest ideas on technology.

When the stock market started to crash, I found a trader who was Twittering and followed him for the emotional side of the story, to hear his heart pounding from 3,000 miles away. He followed me too for a while, and learned a bit about the newspaper business. For months, we never spoke (direct messaging is one of Twitter's tools) but we overheard each other's conversations, and learned about a part of the world we knew nothing about.

When the last hurricane hit New Orleans, I did a search for New Orleans on Twitter and found some New Orleans locals to follow to get the latest news. I prefer the news in their personal stories to the "news stories" coming out of the Times Picayune.

Also, if you do follow your favorite bloggers, you will find that many are tweeting different stuff than they are blogging -- often the story behind the story, and how they personally feel about stuff, which is cool, and a new side of the story. So no, it's not the same, usually, and not repetitive.

But yes, Twitter, just like Google Reader, can turn in to too much noise, an overwhelming and therefore not useful tool you don't enjoy. The key to getting the most out of both tools is in the management.

I'd suggest you start slow, follow some friends, follow a few of the people you find interesting. Add new feeds as you go, and when the conversation moves too fast for you to follow, get into your follow list and delete the people you won't miss.

You'll notice right away that some of the folks you're following are boring Twitterers. Dump them. (Buh-bye, Bonnie Fuller.) Some will be interesting but crazy prolific, filling up your inbox. Dump them too. (Sorry, Robert Scoble!) Keep tinkering with the mix of the people you're following until you get to a point where you find your Twitter feed fascinating, and can't wait to see what everybody's saying.

One payoff, if you respond to people's tweets and get to know them, is that you get to meet cool people you might not have met before, and you get to be a part of important local and national conversations you never could have otherwise been a part of.

If it wasn't for Twitter, I can't imagine how I would have ended up exchanging notes with King County executive Ron Sims. Mark's been chatting with Mavis Staples' recording label about what a rip off it is that she didn't perform at the inaugural.

In ways you can't imagine until you start to use it, Twitter opens doors, helps you make new connections, and keep track of conversations in new ways. If you haven't tried it, I encourage you to give it a month. No, it's not for everyone, and in the end you might decide you don't like it. But then again, you might be surprised at the unexpected coolness of it.

So Twitterers, did I get this right? Did I miss something? Why do you use Twitter?


  1. Okay, I officially love this blog.

    But, are you tweeting these headlines? I got it from my reader. Hm. Must need both.

  2. Hey Katco,

    You're right, I haven't been tweeting them but I will -- I'm posting them now to Google Reader, which automatically posts them to the Twitter. I'm worried about redundancy, so let me know if it's too much, and if so, what you'd suggest.
    Thanks for the suggest!

  3. Really important not just to consider Twitter a place to share links or get them. The conversation part is important but so is the impromptu aspect of just tossing out what you are up to - in the context of why you think people are following you - as @westseattleblog I keep the personal stuff way down because I know nobody gives a rip (although I can't resist the occasional asides about 2 am baking) but I seldom throw out a WSB headline because we have a separate feed - @westseattlenews - for that.

    Also, and some of my fellow neighborhood-news-site operators do this as well, Twitter is a way to throw out a line or two about something you may never publish on the main site - maybe something heard on the police scanner, something seen in passing, or as I did at one point tonight, passing on something I'd been hit with in e-mail that wasn't West Seattle-specific, a campaign to get a Tacoma woman named "White House farmer."

    As for the people we follow .. different styles and different reasons. One is a "get rich quick" networker who I follow because her tweets laden with blatant business-building insincerity are good comic relief. And yes, it is still so in its infancy that as Michelle mentions, you can follow your county executive and engage in a conversation ... I was at county HQ and saw him in person earlier this month and that's what we talked about in our brief conversation - he still gushes over having followed my husband's live-tweeting of two big local high-school football games last fall.

    It reminds me a bit of IRC in the mid-'90s, still kind of innocent and free-ranging and a cozier community than the Internet at large. For now.

  4. I agree with you Tracy. I've been sharing my GoogleReader reads on Twitter, and try not to post too many of those, because I don't want to seem automated. I do a mix of Reads and personal comments, but worry constantly that I might be too bot-like. That's why my initial impulse was NOT to tweet this blog's headlines. Maybe I'll just do the occasional one. Too bad you can't get an exit interview from people when they dump you to find out why your Tweeting wasn't working for them.

  5. Thank you, Michelle and Tracy! It makes more sense the way you both describe it. (Funny, I remember reading that article when it came out -- it resonates a little more today.) I have officially tweeted (or, as my husband said, 'good thing they don't call it a twit.')

  6. Excellent! Feel free to post your Twitter account here so PrintToOnline readers can check out your Twitter Feed.

  7. Thanks! Like.... "follow me on Twitter at"?

  8. I find Twitter probably my most useful social media tool as a journalist.

    It helps me:

    1. find cool blogs on my beat (parenting) that I wouldn't have found otherwise.

    2. find out what is buzzing (what topics keep get retweeting.

    3. Helps me let readers know about my blogs.

    4. Helps me connect with people writes blogs in my niche to use as sources, guest bloggers, etc.

    5. helps me connect with my readers and get to know them, their interests, their needs.

    I use facebook, myspace, niche social networks, too. But twitter is so immediate, so fast and so easy. I update my facebook status with my tweets, but I draw more traffic to twitter from my blog than facebook and myspace combined.


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