John Bucher on Starting to Twitter in Vancouver
If Twitter sounds like punishment, it's because it is. But the social medium has its virtues too.
I'm the BCBusiness digital editor, which means two things: 1) I watch over most aspects of how this website appears to you [complaints here], and 2) I am, by necessity, a conflicted soul.
It's a question of constitution. Editors are generally conservative: They fit language to established modes of understanding it. But digital types must embrace the technologies of the moment. Where a traditional editor asks, "How can this new thing be like the old thing?" a digital editor asks, "What's the new thing, and how do I start?" And therein lies the conflict.
I made my first Tweet on February 11, 2009. The digital media team had been on my case to start. "What kind of digital editor is afraid to tweet?" they said. They had a point. Tweeting doesn't sound like something any grown man, editor or not, should fear.
The truth is, I was suspicious – perhaps even afraid. It's a technology thing. I don't own a television, I've never bought an iPod, and my brand-new cellular phone is just my third ever – a record among my friends. The reasoning is simple: If the gizmo I've got serves me well enough, why change it? New technology represents humans' steady march into the future, and there's no guarantee the future is going to be kinder, sweeter, warmer, or more comfortable – although you read such promises on gizmo boxes. That kind of suspicion carries potential hazards, though. Shunning technology, while an admirable gesture for an oil painter or humanities professor, will lose a digital editor his job.
Tweeting, if you belong to the uninitiated, is micro-blogging. If that's less than clear, think about it like this: It's millions of people, all over the world, on their computers (and, increasingly, iPhones and similar gadgets) posting 140-character updates about what they're doing, thinking, reading, and watching. Twitter enables, more than any technology that precedes it, your entry into the chattering collective mind of humanity – or, at least, that portion of it inclined to tweet.
Sound like punishment? It is. But it has its virtues, too. And so, as I approach my two-monthiversary in the Twitterverse, let me share with you what I've learned.
Twitter goes fast
On my desk sits one of my favourite things: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. It's a book of writing about writing, and it's tiny, as all such books should be.
Writing about writing is one thing; now, even the compacted gesture of blogging about blogging seems passé. With people tweeting in ten or so words about Twitter, we are collectively a figure skater in a spin. We draw ourselves tighter and, as we do, we get smaller, spin faster. Is this the future? And, if so, what's going on? Don't ask me. All I feel is velocity.
It goes fast, so let it be fast – and don't fret. You can't keep up. Information no longer comes to us like milk – left in small bottles on our doorstep, quietly in the night, by someone whose name we probably know. Today, information is a river. It courses all day and night, whether you're watching it or not, and its sheer volume makes the milk bottle look as tiny as it is. Or was.
There's lots to be gained by swimming in the river, but it's possible to get swept away, too. My advice: Jump in and paddle around, enjoy its benefits, and climb out regularly. I've spent hours at a time on the computer, tweeting, and until you pull yourself away from the electrons dancing on your screen, the narcotic rush of immediacy, you forget what a gratifying act it is to stand up, drink a glass of water, and stretch your legs.
Twitter is a cocktail party
This entails lots of good and bad. As at a party, there's an incredible amount of ambient noise on Twitter, where chirpiness and good humour prevail. And, as at a party, it's important to find the people you're interested in talking to (or eavesdropping on), because getting stuck by the punchbowl with some windbag will just make you want to go home.
To bring order to the clamour, I use a service called TweetDeck, which is a big improvement on the native Twitter interface. It organizes all my updates on a single page. In one column, I can keep an eye on the hundreds of tweets flashing past from my "follows"; in my other, slower columns, I can read cherry-picked news feeds and updates from people I care about. In this way, the general cocktail party is still going on, but I can make all my VIPs stand in one section.
Twitter authenticity is paramount – and surprisingly easy to establish
It's funny that the further we get from face-to-face communication, the more the rules of the game mimic it. In real life people are put off by shills, boors, and bores, and so it is on Twitter. The people I've "unfollowed" – and, believe me, unfollowing someone is a tiny, thrilling assassination – I've cut loose for having odious opinions, for trying too hard to sell whatever they're selling, or for being dull. Just as you'd edge away from them at a party.
The existential questions that trouble us in real life extend to Twitter: Am I here? Am I real? Do I matter? The best way to establish authenticity is to begin by affecting none. Just be who you are. "But what if," asks the bore, "being a bore is really who I am?" Then try to be more interesting. Nobody likes a bore.
You hear a lot of stuff about Twitter's being part of a sea change in new media, and maybe that's true. There are a bunch of good business reasons for using the service, but these are too tedious to talk about. To me, Twitter's most interesting feature is its bizarreness. You're talking simultaneously to many people and to no one – and it's easy to feel suffused with the all-at-once anomie and connectedness of that gesture.
Hmmm, "anomie and connectedness of that gesture" – not bad. Think I might tweet that.
As BCBusiness digital editor, John Bucher is the curator of this site. Now with over 12,000 followers, the award-winning BCBusiness Twitter channel is ranked among Vancouver's most popular and influential.