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What Twitter Is… To me…

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. If you know me, you know that. I spend so much time on Twitter that I had the distinction of being labeled a “nuclear followcost” – in other words, it is really, really annoying to follow me because you’ll actually see me saying something.

So yesterday morning on my way past her office, I stopped to talk to a coworker. She mentions that she just signed up for Twitter. But, she explains, she hasn’t done much with it since she’s not exactly sure what the point of it is.

Twitter is Every Conversation Taking Place Anywhere in the World

In a nutshell, that’s it. If someone is talking about anything – from a good book they read to an interesting article in a magazine, from doing the dishes to the political situation in Darfur – that conversation is taking place on Twitter.

I like to refer to the Internet as the digital water cooler because I see it as a place to have any discussion. Unfortunately for actual water coolers, they are place and time limited. You can only have discussions with the people around them while they’re there. That puts restraints on the people available as well as the topics you might cover.

The Internet has none of that. You can consume and produce your part of the conversation at your convenience. You can read blogs, leave comments, form communities or anything else on your own terms. Twitter is the ultimate representation of that.

Twitter is Egalitarian

On Twitter, you can say whatever interests you, but you will be saying it to a very small audience because Twitter is an egalitarian society – everyone starts with zero followers.

While there is a class of people that are obsessed with the number of people who follow them, I think they miss the larger point. I think the much more relevant number on your stats is the number of people you are following.

It would say more to me that you follow 10,000 than it does that you are followed by 10,000. Twitter is a pull technology. I have to actively choose to pay attention to you. I believe the important number is the count of people you choose to listen to, not the number you can talk to.

Frankly, I don’t follow a lot of the “high value” Twitterers. I don’t buy that they have more to say.

As an example, look at this list of the 10 most influential tweeters in DC.

@PJRodriguez and I were discussing the list over lunch yesterday. He pointed out that @barackobama and @algore are almost completely without merit on this list. Why? Barack’s Twitter account has had nothing to say since the day before the Inauguration. Gore rarely tweets at all, and when he does, has little of consequence to say.

The Politico’s argument for including them is ridiculous – “that spigot could be a powerful communication tool should he choose to turn it back on.” By that standard, people not actually on Twitter could be counted as influential because of the unrealized potential of their influence. If Jesus returned to earth and started tweeting, he’d surely be #1, so why isn’t he on their list?

But What Does This Have to Do With Listening?

To me, listening is more important for three simple reasons:

  • I listen to people who listen to others – I could honestly care less about David Gregory, and much of that is because David Gregory could clearly care less about hearing from me. He has 72,000 followers, but only follows 84 people. Are you really telling me that out of 6 million people on Twitter, only 84 of them have something interesting to say? It’s elitist and bullshit.
  • I find that most people are interesting at least part of the time – I follow as many people as I can, and keep Tweetdeck running on a separate monitor. I scan it frequently throughout the day. I do so because I am constantly finding items of interest and engaging in interesting (to me at least) discussions with people about randowm topics. I would probably spend more time on the public timeline, but it’s a bit too overwhelming.
  • The information I get from “low value” Tweeters is generally more interesting than what “high value” tweeters offer – Many “low value” tweeters talk about things they find interesting. Many “high value” tweeters talk about themselves.

Are You Saying There is a “Right” or “Wrong” Way to Use Twitter?

Absolutely not. That would be like telling people there is a right or wrong way to be interesting, or to be friends, or to think. Use of Twitter is as individual as the users. I hate seeing comments like this one:

For normal humans, though, there is really no need to follow more than a few hundred people.

That’s douchebag-speak for “I don’t follow more than a few hundred people, so if you do, you must be defective.” It’s the same braindead logic that inspired this article.

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. ‚ÄúTwittering stems from a lack of identity. It‚Äôs a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity…

[A]grees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

That’s such a boneheaded thing to say. Do you apply the same logic to talking to friends? Do I only have friends and talk to them to stave off my own insecurity? If that’s the case, what does that say about these pseudo-intellectuals and their cocktail party circuit? Are they just circle-jerking each other to feel better about themselves?

Ok. The answer to that is probably, “YES!”, but you see my point.

What Twitter Is To Me

I made earlier mention of the digital water cooler and the fact that it is time and place limited. What exactly do I mean by that?

In the real world, I could pop into the office next door and talk to a co-worker about my hobbies and my interests. Or I could talk to my neighbors and the other parents at my kids’ school.

But there is a good chance that my interests won’t be their interests. There is a good possibility that their interests will bore me to tears.

By using Google Alerts or Twitter Search, I can find people talking about things that interest me. Bands that I like, hunting tips, movies, politics… whatever. When I want to talk about these things, I can join a conversation with others who share my interests.

That conversation could be with someone a half a world away, who I may never meet, but I will find fascinating anyway. And for the duration of that exchange, they may be the most fascinating person I know.

That, to me, is the power of Twitter. It is the ability to make deep, and yes likely brief, connections between people on meaningful topics. It serves to remind us that we’re not alone, and we all have something interesting to contribute to the human conversation.

Written by Michael Turk