What’s the point of Twitter? Who would spend time updating what they’re doing and what’s the point of doing it?
Those were the first questions I asked myself when I looked into Twitter. I asked myself those questions because, honestly, that was what the marketers of Twitter used on their landing page.
It’s a horrible way to market Twitter. Because when you get on Twitter, you realize that very few people actually use Twitter that way (or solely use it that way). Or at least, very few people of the A-list twitizens and the people I follow do. Here’s the truth of it: unless you’re doing something really interesting or unique, most people don’t care.
Which is why I think it’s a horrible way to market Twitter. How many of us either are doing something really interesting/unique (or think what we’re doing is interesting or unique) or would be willing to take the time to announce that we are doing it? In fairness, the early adopters of Twitter probably did care what each other were doing. Maybe they were techies or marketing mavens or used Twitter as the marketers describe.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Normally I would start talking by explaining what something is before I move on to other points to consider, but that’s my point – Twitter is one of those fascinating services that bends to the will of its users. The developers basically gave us a way to connect with other people, 140 characters at a time. What we do with those characters is a different matter entirely.
Here’s how it works. You sign up – it’s free. You get 140 characters to say whatever you want – these 140 character blurbs are called “tweets.” You follow other people, and when they tweet, it shows up on your page. When they follow you, your tweets show up on theirs. That’s it.
The Many Faces of Twitter
Back to my original question: what’s the point of doing this? There’s no real way to answer that question. Here’s something I can answer: How are people using this service?
Here are some of the ways people are using Twitter:
- Updating their friends (followers) about what they’re doing
I know, I complained that it’s a horrible way to market the service, but some people use it this way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but most people don’t care about your love of tomatoes. General rule: if it’s mundane enough that you normally wouldn’t tell your friends you’re doing it, then don’t tweet it.
- Engaging in conversations
Conversations abound on Twitter. Sometimes it can seem like a lot of people talking past each other, but there are also times in which you jump onto a conversation that turns out to be really fruitful. I think of it as a virtual watercooler – many of us show up when we’re taking a break from working to catch up with our friends and followers.
- Marketing and self-promotion
Give people a channel to spread information, and they will market their wares. Believe it or not, it can actually be an effective channel due to the opt-in nature of following people. If someone has chosen to follow you, there’s a good chance that they may be interested in your product, whether that be your blog, your ebook, or the conference you’re organizing.
- Coming up with ideas
Stuck on an idea? Trying to get one? Twitter is a great place for this. More on this after the jump.
- Feeling the pulse of the Internet
The Internet is a busy place. It’s also really scattered geographically. Twitter unifies a lot of what’s going on because so many bloggers and internet types use the service.
- Organizing Tweetups
If you follow people from your area – or follow and are followed by people that are interested in things you’re interested in – it’s pretty easy to organize events. The viral nature of Twitter means that an effective information push can reach far and wide.
- Sharing news and information
There’s an interesting mix of news and information that gets spread on Twitter. Sometimes it’s interesting local news, sometimes it’s the random information that people are researching and writing about, and the big news always bubbles to the top of the Twitterverse.
This list is not exhaustive, and I’m sure people will use it in new ways tomorrow.
Twitter, for Creatives
Having a place to connect with other creatives and discuss your ideas is critical for creatives. It’s too easy to get stuck in our own worlds and spin around in circles when what we really need is to talk about those ideas.
Furthermore, Twitter is inherently an idea generating space. The diversity, the wealth of ideas, and the willingness of Twitizens to talk about interesting ideas make it such that it’s the first place I turn to if I’m needing to immerse myself in an idea culture. The fact that so many other creatives do the same thing is what makes it such a powerful tool. It’s like a support group you only attend when you need the support or want to offer support.
As I mentioned above, Twitter can be an effective marketing and self-promotion platform. I know that both terms make a lot of people cringe or feel dirty, but the fact is you have to get your work out there for the world to see. Every one of your followers has opted in to see what you’re doing, so it’s also not like you’re cold calling. You’re just saying “look what I just created” – and that’s enough.
I can’t help but note how effective Twitter is at helping you and your ideas achieve critical mass. Every person that follows you spreads your message. If you’re using Twitter to discuss your ideas and help other generate ideas, then every helpful or idea-laden tweet is seen not only by your followers, but potentially their followers, as well. It’s a slow build-up at first, but at a certain point, you don’t really have to try to get people to see your stuff – you just say “Look!” and they come.
So, returning to the question: what’s the point of (you, as a creative) using Twitter? To help you come up with ideas, connect with others, and help spread ideas.
Why You Wouldn’t Want to Use Twitter
There’s a dark side to Twitter. It’s all too easy to become immersed in what’s going on, to the point that you spend your creative work time tweeting. It’s even worse than instant messaging in this regard because people you’re not IM’ing can’t walk into your IM chat, but people on Twitter can (and usually do).
I struggle with this some days. I enjoy idea play entirely more than I should and walking into an idea playground can be dangerous for me. There have been a few times where I wore myself out maintaining conversations, playing with ideas, and being too plugged in, in general. As with most things in life, moderation is key.
In theory, you can get around this problem by only logging in and tweeting for set times. If you have a spare 15 minutes and want to see what’s going on, then log in. Do not show up to Twitter without having some constraint unless you want to see a few hours go by before you know it. This is especially the case if you have people you’ve made strong connections with on Twitter. Again, imagine a watercooler where everyone there is someone you’d want to chat with.
Some of the Twitter apps make using Twitter easier to use, but they come at a cost, too. Tweetdeck, for instance, allows you to put twitter users into groups and sorts them for you. +1 for usability. That functionality also makes it harder to log off because the tweets you’re watching are more relevant to you and are probably from people that interest you. -1 for distractions. Unfortunately, the only way you’re really going to be able to make sense out of 100+ followers is by using an app – it’s too much information to process without one.
I’m just going to advise you to be mindful of how much time you’re putting on Twitter. It’s easy to go overboard – but there are very good payoffs if you’re mindful of how to use the service. Remember: Twitter can help you in critical phases of your workflow, but it’s not your work.
My twitter username is CharlieGilkey. Feel free to follow me – I’ll probably follow you back. Welcome to the conversation!
Excellent post. I just wanted to say that I began using twitter because I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Tweeting with other NaNo’ers has really helped with the motivation to keep writing every day. Also, if I run into plot problems or writing frustrations, it is an instant support system.
A side benefit has been the way it keeps me current on news and information. Also, finding interesting and helpful bloggers like yourself.
I am still getting the hang of Twitter. I don’t post daily, but there have been some days I’ve engaged more than others. I try to do a combo of promoting my site and blog, giving general updates (including problems or challenges) of my website, and engaging with some of the people who I follow and who follow me. Some days, I just don’t know what to say!
Carlas last blog post..Barack Obama speaks about our addiction (to oil) on ”˜60 Minutes’
Mike Stankavich says
Ah, it’s good to hear that I’m not the only one that finds Twitter somewhat difficult to classify. I don’t have a problem with somebody tweeting “I’m cooking chicken for dinner and it smells good”, but since I’m not a poet, I generally can’t make mundane routine interesting enough to overcome the signal to noise ratio. And I don’t really want to.
To my surprise, thinking about what to tweet turned into a form of introspection for me. I realized that almost everything I thought about tweeting was some sort of technology activity that I was undertaking. I know that I geek out fairly often, but it was an eye opener to realize that it was the only thing I felt able to tweet about.
I’ve kind of stepped back a bit from tweeting until I have a better feel for what kind of a tweet-persona I want to build. I’d hate to be a one dimensional techo-geek. For what it’s worth, my current twitter ID is miks2u, but I’m thinking of changing it. Charlie, maybe you can give me some pointers on how that worked out.
This “What is Twitter for?” blog post was worth the read.
I especially liked your analogy of a virtual watercooler and the advice to set up some boundaries with it. It’s fun and can get crazy and distracting.
I think your advice about tweeting the mundane is right on the mark however I am guilty of mixing mundanity (look, a new word) in with informational tweets aka marketing & networking. Bottom line, Twitter + technology = connection.
Thanks for another good read Charlie.
Myndes last blog post..One little Yes at a time
Dan Schwartz says
As a newbie to Twittering still, I really appreciated your points made here and how to make it effective. I wish Twitter would change the title of “What are You Doing” to something like “What do you have to say for yourself” or something more generic.
It’s still a relatively small universe of people using it, but its a great way to communicate. Thanks for the useful post.
Dan Schwartzs last blog post..Appellate Court Upholds Judgment Against Lawfirm for Its Employment Contract With Associate
Good post! I just started twittering a while ago, and I have been waiting for a long time, because I just didn’t see the point of it. I’m still not shure if it really will provide value.
I find it fascinating to see how people are using it. I like it when people just tweet once or a few times a day. Some people just can’t stop, and sometimes I really wonder what they’re doing other than twittering and following other conversations on twitter. Especially those who excuse themselves about not being able to tweet for a while because they have something to do. Come on, isn’t that becoming a bit pathetic?
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Hi Charlie – Like you, I wondered what all the fuss was about. I thought Twitter could develop into a faster, more frenzied time suck than IMs used to be. I still think it could be, save for all the other activities I have going on.
But…the surprise was that I also found it useful to keep up with people I’m interested in. I doubt I’d ever shoot for a thousand followers or follow a thousand – way too much for my one brain cell. But you can see how it’s like the telegraph must’ve been back in the day.
And..if not for Twitter, I wouldn’t have that handy URL tip you gave me, nor a new friend’s blog to read here! Thanks!
Betsys last blog post..AS IF
Mike Stankavich says
After handing out my twitter id earlier in comments to this post, i decided to change it. my new ID will be kwyk, which aligns with both my oldest domain kwyk.net and my business name kwyk.net, inc.
Angel Cuala says
My Twitter followers are increasing daily, but they rarely visit my blog even I post them there regularly.
Twitter is a mixture of people, and just any social site we got to find readers that may be interested in our posts.
Just my 2 cents.
Angel Cualas last blog post..Media – Does it really care for our Children?
I have recently become addicted to Twitter. All of the many facets of it are amazing, keeping up with friends, instant news coverage, crazy net finds, coupons.
Jazzys last blog post..Uneaks.
Andre Kibbe says
I love this post, I happen to think the “What are you doing?” question, from an involvement standpoint, is brilliant. I don’t think Twitter would have taken off as quickly if they left the input open-ended.
In CPR classes, one of the first things they teach you is not to tell the crowd of bystanders to call for help; you’re told to point to an individual in the crowd and tell that person to call. Otherwise, everyone just looks at each other, waiting for the other shoe to fall.
That may seem like a tangent, but the point is that giving users a concrete question to answer, even a mediocre one, is more likely to elicit a response that offering no focal point for discussion.
Of course, it would be terrible if Twitter never evolved beyond its “intended” use, but I think the elves at Twitter knew that users would bring new ideas to the table, which is why extensibility is baked into the platform. They seem to be aware of how technologies get repurposed by communities in the way pointed out by William Gibson: “The Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined. The microcassette recorder, originally intended for on-the-jump executive dictation, becomes the revolutionary medium of magnizdat, allowing the covert spread of suppressed political speeches in Poland and China. The beeper and the cellular telephone become tools in an increasingly competitive market in illicit drugs. Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity.”
My favorite use of Twitter is the track command that lets you follow any and all tweets on a given keyword. It’s a great way to put your ear to the ground on a particular topic.
Andre Kibbes last blog post..Springpad: A User-Friendly Notebook
@Tamara: I’ve heard and seen other NaNoWriMo tweeps online, too – just another brilliant way to use Twitter to actually connect with other people. In a similar vein, the Twitter community helped me finish up “Hyperconnectedness” on Monday. Without them, I doubt I would have posted it that day – or ever. Thanks for the compliments!
@Carla: Most days I don’t know what to say until I get on it. Then natural conversations happen. Twitter has become the way I wake up to the world – though I wonder what that does to my concentration. :p
@Mike: You’re anything but one-dimensional. But you do a lot of techno-geek stuff that many of us would find interesting to keep up with. Having friends on the cutting edge and keeping you abreast of what’s going on is amazing. My point: serve as the guy that meets us halfway. We all will be better off for it.
@Mynde: Connections, indeed. Hyperconnections would be closer – but I couldn’t say that before I wrote Monday’s post. Sidestepping philosophical arguments about friendship, I can definitely say that I’ve made much better connections with people using Twitter. I look forward to seeing what people are thinking and working on. It’s a community in every important sense of the word.
@Dan: One of the great things about Twitter is how it’s both large and small at the same time. The decentralized nature of following and being followed yields thousands of micro-communities, yet as it catches on from the early adopters to general culture, we’ll get a slice of almost everybody. I’m following Shaq, Britney, and Merlin Mann. Where else can you do that?
@Hugo: I couldn’t help but evaluate my Twitter patterns after this comment. Sometimes the shoe fights…
I think, though, that people use Twitter while they’re doing tasks that they can multitask on. For example, when I’m writing, designing, or reading, I shut it off. If I’m processing email or in-between meetings, I’ll jump on.
Regarding excusing oneself: many of us are involved in several conversations at once. It’s about like when you need to leave a party after you’ve started a few conversations. It is interesting to note the different rules of etiquette and how new forms of communication assume old rules of etiquette that may not imply. I’ll definitely have to think about this more.
Thanks for the insightful comments! It’s also nice to see you took the plunge!
@Betsy: I think a lot of people go through Twitter plateaus. At first, it seems hard to follow 25 people. Then 100 people seems unfathomable. I’m not yet to 1000, and to be honest, I’m not counting – I hope I never will. But it’s great for new connections and finding other people like you with great blogs and stories to tell.
@Angel: I thought the same thing at first – it didn’t seem worth the time. But once you reach a certain critical mass, it pays off. Twitter is one of my better referrers nowadays. Just start conversations and help people. The rest will come – trust me.
@Jazzy: Tell me about it. Finding a middle ground is difficult.
@Andre: I’m going to have to start paying you for the brilliance you add to this blog, Andre. I always love your alternative perspectives.
While I agree that giving an indexed prompt to someone is key, I worry about the prompt given and how it was given. It takes a certain type of person to think that what they’re doing is interesting. It took a bit for me to figure out that the more valuable things for me was in the other uses – had I been told that up front, I would’ve bought in earlier. Better-written marketing copy would go a long way.
Mike Raleigh says
Thanks for the thoughtful explanations. Helps a lot!
Thanks for writing this post! I haven’t started with Twitter yet, since I didn’t really understand how I would use it, but I may try it out now!
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Jocelyn Ireson-Paine says
“Updating their friends (followers) about what they’re doing”.
What’s wrong with email for this? That way, your messages aren’t dumbed down to 140 characters.