27 January 2009

Is there room for all of us on Twitter?

So no one is really asking about social media in my circles, even though I'm ready to talk about it. Because I haven't gotten to talking about it with many folks, I haven't been able to bounce a lot of my ideas about it off others. And to be honest, I am not finding Twitter as helpful for this kind of conversation as I had imagined it would be back when I started out with a couple of followers a couple of months ago.

Like so many things, I fell wholly into my discovery of Twitter and couldn't go back to the way I'd seen the world before, seemingly in an instant. Where once I had seen only grass and trees, shrubs and dirt, now I felt I could see everything beneath the surface as well: tendrils and roots of all kinds, animals' warrens and dens, great clumps of aspen roots and enormous mushrooms reaching underneath all. Rocks and gravel and clay and water and air and heat.

So I thought when I posted tweets, the 140-character (maximum) posts on Twitter, I would have more chats with people I didn't know. I simply presumed lots of people would respond to lots of the same things I am interested in, and many conversations, many threads would result.

But this has not quite been the reality.

First I see how, like in any new community, it takes a while to find one's tribe, and I feel closer to this but don't feel I have quite found many of mine yet. I started with a couple of people I know, and then reached out and followed some folks in journalism, film, art, and music. I followed some news feed sites (some were appalling -- I thought the BBC would be great and then all this perversely awful news kept crossing my screen, so I unfollowed them. I looked around my neighborhood to see which local people looked intriguing to follow. Lastly I discovered the social media kings and queens (some self-anointed, others well deserving the titles). I started encouraging friends to sign up on Twitter. Some of them did. Some of them understood it, and others remain mystified about what the fuss is about. There is still a fairly low signal-to-noise ratio in the tweets that cross my screen, but I have been directed to many more interesting blogs this way and now am starting to get a clue about other social media tools out there.

Now I have various constellations of favorite people I follow, and I've started winnowing my "Following" list. I weeded out the banal ones, the gross ones, and the mean ones. When people add me to their list, I check them out, and often follow them, although I've gotten far more selective than I was when I first signed up. I follow a lot of folks who follow me, although lately I've gotten far more discriminating, and will look at recent tweets. If everything is banal and the person is posting about going to the post office or what they eat and drink all the time, I probably won't follow them back. Or if it's just a spam channel for some business and only tries to sell, sell, sell me on their product or service, I am no more willing to follow that "person" than I am willing to have a TV blaring at me in my living room.

I loved the blog post (http://blogs.zappos.com/blogs/ceo-and-coo-blog/2009/01/25/how-twitter-can-make-you-a-better-and-happier-person) about how Twitter can make you a better, happier person, by the Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh (@zappos on Twitter), who's a social media favorite because of the way he and his company use Twitter and social media (specifically, just about everyone in the company uses it, a lot, and it makes them amazingly accessible and accountable as a result). I responded to him on Twitter after reading it that I'd been contemplating writing a similar post, about how Twitter's brevity and atmosphere has encouraged me to think of punchy, upbeat things to write about, and now I feel like I don't have to because he did such a great job on his post. (Here's a great example of a tweet from Tony, posted a few minutes ago: "24 hours in NY, back in SF. Flight attendant said she saw Zappos CEO on TV. I said "Me?" She said "No, saw CEO. He was much more eloquent")

To me it's fascinating that Twitter has influenced me and my writing and outlook so strongly and quickly. I tend to tackle big, thorny subjects and see dark sides of things, and I'm sure some of my posts have reflected this. But mostly I've joined the chorus of cheerleaders, of people trying to shine beams of light on little pet topics. Some of my cheeriest posts have been about the following:

  • Films I've watched

  • Film festivals/film series I work with

  • Friends' projects (films, etc.)

  • Music (what I'm listening to most, favorite podcasts, new releases)

  • My writing

Here's a graphical representation, a word cloud of my most-used words in all my posts on Twitter (derived using http://tweetstats.com and then http://worldle.com):

Sometimes I feel like I've just joined a chorus of cheerleaders, and I wonder if that's a good thing, or if I'm one of those people just adding to the noise of the universe. But I don't think so, because everyone who posts wants to shine a light on something, even if it's their bad mood or where they decided to go for lunch today.

And because I can't resist an investigation of the underside, not just the bright and shiny surface, I do still question whether there's room for introverts on Twitter. Or do most introverts avoid Twitter altogether because they can't imagine other people wanting to follow the thoughts that tumble around in their own heads? I follow one novelist (@mcory) who writes about depression because he experiences it, which I find a brave thing to do online, out loud (but I haven't told him that yet). Given my own tendencies toward mild mania, I have also warned people that Twitter can be a scary place in the way it attracts you to a whole new set of rabbit holes, many of which seem to lead somewhere compelling.

Yet I do believe there is room for all of us on Twitter, each us with all our quirks. It's a little like having cable TV and choosing just a few high-quality channels to watch, where you have to resolve that instead of channel surfing all the time with the hope you'll run into something good, you'll just watch a few consistently excellent channels, or tune in only when you know something interesting is on. (Clearly, I need to investigate some of the many Twitter-related tools available for helping organize datastreams and for allowing me to pay more attention to the most interesting/useful tweet streams). I am also positive Twitter is and will continue to be an important tool in community building, and has more to teach us about how we relate to one another and how what we say affects others.

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