Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Prodigal Twitterer

This is the first of a series looking at specific social networking platforms...without the delusion created by confusion or hype.

What *is* Twitter?

Is Twitter worth the effort?

Is Twitter good for my business?

How do I get a big following quickly on Twitter?

I don't *get* Twitter.

Over and over and over, the same questions. On LinkedIn, on Facebook, in conversation, everywhere. There are, at last count, something like 35 billion articles on how to use Twitter and how not to use Twitter and why to use Twitter and how to make a million dollars on Twitter.

They all fail at one thing - explaining anything about Twitter.

Let's start from the beginning.

Blogging is what I'm doing right now. It's writing an entry in text that can be as long or short as I want, about anything I want it to be about. You can read it, you can comment on it, you can email me about it. It's two-way communication, but in a sort of stilted way. Much like a lecture, during which the audience can ask questions. It is two-way, but there are some limits on the conversation.

Twitter was designed as a "micro-blogging" tool. Like the status on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, a million other Social Network sites, you are given 140 characters in which to convey a thought. The idea was to throw a thought out into the forest and see if it hit a tree. Those trees would be "following" you, i.e., people who wanted to know that you were in the airport, drinking an Irish coffee, or talking to a client about something.

Humans being what they are, followers have a habit of talking back. Microblogging quickly became terse conversations. Then they became longer conversations, with lines continuing to two or three "tweets" worth of 140 characters.

The next thing you know, these micro-blogs became a chat.

Like chat, the idea is that you enter a room made up of other people who have some interest in common with you. These people are the people who "follow" you or whom you "follow."

Here's a chat I own (click on the picture for a larger version):

This chat lives on IRC. IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, it's way older than the web, or Twitter or anything that most people think of as "The Internet."

On IRC, you have to use line commands to do what you want, because it was created before graphic user interfaces and buttons to click. In short, to be on IRC, you find a server, then a group on that server, that is talking about stuff you care about.

The people in that group - the groups on IRC are called "channels"- presumably also care about the same stuff. The conversation goes along in text lines, with links out to other media.

Now here's a shot of Twitter as seen on my Tweetdeck screen. Tweetdeck is a third-party application that allows me to create groups and manage my conversations a bit. It's not the only one, it just happens to be the one I use. (click on the picture for a larger version):

Fundamentally, Twitter is a gigantic "channel". Instead of predetermining your interests, you walk into the world's biggest cocktail party. You find people who are interesting to listen to, you talk with them and, hopefully, people find you interesting to listen to in return. Soon, your "channel" is built of people you follow and people who follow you.

And this is where it all starts to fall apart.

Let's return to the cocktail party metaphor for a second. Say you're invited to a cocktail party by an acquaintance. You know they are at the cocktail party, but they are not the host and you don't see them at first. How do you enter the party?

1) You stand in the door and scream "I'm here! Someone talk to me!"

2) You lurk around the edges of the party never conversing with anyone, mumble a few lines than no one else can hear, then leave, annoyed.

3) You turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself and ask them how they are related to the party.

4) You get yourself a drink and listen to a few of the conversations that are already going on, then comment when you have something to add to one of them.

There have been studies that confirm that most people on Twitter follow the first path and tweet once, then leave when no one replies to their "tweet."

The second technique seems to be the most common among otherwise social media literate people and most companies. They don't have a plan, just join, don't tell anyone they are there, seek no one out and call it a loss when no one comes running to follow them.

The third option is hard for most normal people. Unless you're used to sales or public speaking, it's just difficult to know what to say and when to say it.

The fourth is so amazingly rude it makes most people cringe - and yet, on Twitter, it's *exactly* what you should do.

Despite the fact that articles say that most of Twitter is babble, I want you to think once more about that cocktail party metaphor. Walk around the room and you'll hear conversations about kids, business, sports, art, illness...a veritable Babel of babble. Because other people's conversations are mostly not relevant to *you.* It's not babble to them. It is to you, because it is not your kids, you business, your bum knee.

So, what should you do to make Twitter more conversation and less babble? (In the geek world, we refer to that as "signal to noise ratio.") Exactly what you should do at a cocktail party. Find the person who invited you first, and listen to the people s/he talks to. Then introduce yourself and start a conversation.

The more you talk with people, the more will talk with you.

You can follow them, the people they follow and the people they talk with, when it intersects your interests. Use Twitter Search and Google to find people to Twitter with who have similar interests, and don't be afraid to jump into a conversation - that's how your network grows.

The last point here has got to be this - you canNOT game the system. You cannot build a useful, relevant network by doing anything that guarantees 10,000 followers a day. Yes, you can get 10,000 followers a day - it's very easy. Just follow 11,000 people and about 10,000 will follow you back. What, exactly, will you have gained? The same thing if you walked around that fictitious cocktail party handing out business cards indiscriminately to every single person there. A lot of people will know who you are - but they won't know *why* they should know you. In the end, that's no better than standing in the door of the room screaming "I'm here!" There's next to zero value in that.

People who think Twitter is a game changer, people lured by the hype, are playing the wrong game - talking with people is the game and it has *never* changed. Not since the snake sold Eve an apple.

Talk with people, not at them and soon enough you'll *get* Twitter. Start with me, I'll be glad to talk with you! You can find me at

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