I Think I Get Twitter

August 4, 2009

When people in the coaching and consulting world started buzzing about Twitter, I tried hard to be part. I tried to learn how it worked and how it was useful for gathering information, sharing information, and keeping in touch with colleagues. I complained early on that I didn’t see what had everyone so excited. I think I finally get it now– what it’s about, that is, but not why people are so enthusiastic.

One pretty good analogy for Twitter is a party line on the telephone. Maybe few know what those were, and even fewer experienced them. Back in the last millennium, especially when telephones were being introduced in areas and continuing in rural areas for decades, a cluster of homes shared one phone line.

It’s kind of like how we have several phones in one home these days, and if you pick up the handset or press talk while someone is already making a call you hear it. With party lines, each house had one phone, but all the houses in the cluster shared the line. If you picked up the phone to make a call, you might find someone was already using the line and you had to wait. Incoming calls were distinguished by a unique ring pattern for each home.

Twitter is the blog version of a party line. Actually, it’s the micro-blog version. If you don’t know the basics of how a blog works… I’m not going to explain it here! You can Google it.

Anybody who has an account on Twitter can post to Twitter. Each post is limited to 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation. There is a master Twitter stream somewhere that shows all the things the millions of users are posting. Thankfully, that’s not what you see when you log in to your account.

When you log in to your Twitter account you will see the posts you’ve made, any replies to your user name or posts that include your user name, and the posts of people you follow. You follow a person by going to his Twitter page and clicking the “follow” button.

This means Twitter is like a huge 24/7 social gathering. Imagine a charity fundraiser using several meeting rooms at a decent hotel. There are activities in some, quieter places to talk in others, a buffet set out, and people clustered around. When you go in and find out someone meta-cool like Barbara Winter is there, you say, “Thank goodness I know somebody here,” and you go nearby. In Twitter-speak, that’s following her. You hear parts of conversations and decide you’d like to get to know some of the people she’s talking with. You do that by following them.

You hear a famous person like Paulo Coelho is at the gathering so you start following. You get to listen in as he shares his ideas with people. You wonder if other cool people, like Ken Robert of MildlyCreative.com, might be there. You look around, which at Twitter means use a search function, and there he is.

It’s all going fairly well, until you notice people trying to talk to you that you’ve never met. Okay, it’s a social networking site, so I expect to meet new people, but some of them are those pushy guys and gals with forced smiles and canned enthusiasm, eager to tell you again and again what they’re selling. Others are sure they have the answers and are happy to pontificate, never listening to others or joining a conversation.

Worse yet, some people pay others to attend the event dressed up as them and try to meet as many people as possible. That’s a rough analogy, but what actually happens is people use a robotic system to send posts to their accounts, appearing to be interacting when in fact they’re not involved. They just want to build up a large list of followers so they can get a lot of people to buy something when they’re ready to sell.

Twitter still intimidates me quite a bit. I will log on while I’m replying to e-mail or reading e-zines. Basically I’m stopping by the party for a while to see what’s new. I find that many of the people I follow have put up a half-dozen posts each, or even more, that point to interesting blogs or online articles in e-zines or newspapers. It seems to me I don’t even have time to read two or three of the dozens offered. I can’t imagine how people have time to read so many things, choose which to recommend, and then post them with a concise introduction.

I was pondering this the other day, feeling pretty inferior to the Twitter acrobats, when I finally “got it.” I had come across an interesting article or blog post for three days in a row and posted each one to Twitter. I had reTweeted, or passed along to my followers, a couple of great articles recommend by the people I follow on Twitter, and I was eager to do so.

People who enjoy reading about and researching their areas of interest on a regular basis, especially on the internet, are great at using Twitter. They set aside long stretches of time to review material, they set up Google alerts on topics that interest them, and they settle in and read. When they like something, they can put a quick intro and a link to the article or blog in a Twitter post. But it starts with setting aside the time to read and delve into topics in an intentional way.

These are the folks who have something new and interesting to say at a dinner party or networking event or organizational meeting. They listen to other people’s stories, they read interesting stories, and they search for compelling new ideas and points of view. They’re the ones you gravitate to at any large gathering of people.

For them, and for the people who follow their posts, Twitter is a marvel. It allows these people to share their wit and charm and warmth and curiosity. That is where the power of Twitter is – as a tool in the hands of connectors and communicators.

It’s still insufferably irritating in the hands of the self-absorbed attention grabbers and pushy sales people. But isn’t that the truth of every party, networking event, or other social gathering?

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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