Writing can be solitary work, but not when you write a tech column. Feedback pours in so quickly — by e-mail, on blogs, in online comments — that it’s almost real-time performance art.
For the longest time, my readers kept nagging me to check out this thing called Twitter. I’d been avoiding it, because it sounded like yet another one of those trendy Internet time drains. E-mail, blogs, chat, RSS,Facebook. ... Who has time to tune in to yet another stream of Internet chatter?
True, there’s nothing quite like Twitter. It’s a Web site where you can broadcast very short messages — 140 characters, max — to anyone who’s signed up to receive them. It’s like a cross between a blog and a chat room. Your “followers” might include six friends from high school, or, if you’re Barack Obama, 254,484 of your most tech-savvy fans. (Incidentally, he hasn’t sent out a single Twitter message since taking office. Where are his priorities?)
Meanwhile, you sign up to receive the utterances of other people. Eventually, your screen fills with a scrolling display of their quips — jokes, recommended links, thoughts for the day, and a lot of “what I’m doing right now” stuff.
Even so, I was turned off by the whole ego thing. Your profile displays how many followers you have, as if it’s some kind of worthiness tally. (See also: Facebook friend counter.)
Then one day, I saw Twitter in action.
I was serving on a grant proposal committee, and I watched as a fellow judge asked his Twitter followers if a certain project had been tried before. In 15 seconds, his followers replied with Web links to the information he needed. No e-mail message, phone call or Web site could have achieved the same effect. (It’s only a matter of time before some “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contestant uses Twitter as one of his lifelines.)
So I signed up for a free account name (pogue) and stepped in.
It’s not easy to figure out what’s going on. Most people are supportive and happy to help you out. There is, however, such a thing as Twitter snobbery.
One guy took me to task for asking “dopey questions.” Others criticized me for various infractions, like not following enough other people, writing too much about nontech topics or sending too many or too few messages.
Determined to get the hang of it, I searched Google for “Twitter for beginners.” There were 927,000 search results.
(Of course, you get a staggering number of results when you search for anything on Google, which is why it’s such a lame trick when journalists use Google tallies to prove their points. But I digress.)
Most of these articles are lists of rules. One says to use Twitter to market your business; another says never to use Twitter to market your business. One recommends writing about what you’re doing right now (after all, the typing box is labeled, “What are you doing?”); another says not to.
One of these rule sheets even says, “Add value. Build relationships. Think LONG term.” Are we talking about Twitter, or running for Congress?
My confusion continued until, at a conference, I met Evan Williams, chief executive and co-founder of Twitter. I told him about all the rules, all the advice, all the “you’re not doing it right” gripers. I told him that the technology was exciting, but that all the naysayers and rule-makers were dampening my enthusiasm.
He shook his head apologetically — clearly, he’s heard all this before — and told me the truth about Twitter: that they’re all wrong.
Or, put another way, that they’re all right.
Twitter, in other words, is precisely what you want it to be. It can be a business tool, a teenage time-killer, a research assistant, a news source — whatever. There are no rules, or at least none that apply equally well to everyone.
In fact, Mr. Williams said that a huge chunk of Twitter lore, etiquette and even terminology has sprouted up from Twitter users without any input from the company. For example, the people came up with the term “tweets” (what everyone calls the messages). The crowd began referring to fellow Twitterers by name like this: @pogue. Soon, that notation became a standard shorthand that the Twitter software now recognizes. The masses also came up with conventions like “RT,” meaning re-tweet — you’re passing along what someone else said on Twitter.
If you asked me to write my own “Rules for Twitter” document — No. 927,001 on Google — it would look something like this:
DON’T KNOCK IT TILL YOU’VE TRIED IT Of course, this advice goes for anything in life. But listen: even my own masterful prose can’t capture what you’ll feel when you try Twitter. So try it.
If you don’t get any value from it, close the window and never come back; that’s fine. Despite all the press, Twitter is still largely a geek and early-adopter phenomenon at this point.