When I first heard about Twitter, I was horrified. Of all the weird and wonderful internet applications I’ve come across, this sounded like one of the more banal and pointless. But recently I’ve been forced to eat my words. I’m a convert. Here’s why…
What is Twitter?
If you’ve never heard of Twitter, this is the basic idea. You sign up for account at Twitter.com Whereupon you’re faced with the question What are you doing? and a box where you can type your answer in not more than 140 characters. When you’re done, hit the update button and your ‘Tweet’ (yes, they really call them that) is published on the Twitter site.
Each time you add a Tweet, it appears on the same page, which also has an RSS feed so people can sign up to ‘follow’ you. As an example, here’s my Twitter feed.
You can also ‘follow’ other people and have their Tweets delivered to you. Here’s the feed of people I’m following.
Why 140 characters? Because that’s the maximum number of characters in a standard text message on a mobile phone (or SMS message on a cellphone as I believe they are known over the pond). So not only can you follow people on the Twitter site, you can also send and receive Tweets on your mobile phone – i.e. you can be connected to Twitter anywhere with mobile phone reception.
Why on earth would you want to do any of that?
Good question. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do it, so I didn’t, for ages. Even when people I respect were enthusing about it. Over a year ago I remember Russell teasing me about being behind the times, but as far as Twitter was concerned, I was happy to be a Luddite. It sounded like a combination of all the bad things about digital communication rolled into one, with none of the plus points.
Over the past year I’ve become increasingly mystified by the number of apparently sane and intelligent friends and acquaintances urging me to join them on Twitter. To the point where, like Facebook last year, I got the distinct impression that if I didn’t join in, I was missing out on something.
So I gave it a go, and discovered I was wrong about Twitter. It’s amazing. Much more exciting than we thought Facebook was going to be. And even harder to explain to people who haven’t tried it. But I’ll have a go.
To explain why I was wrong, I’ll list each of my objections to the idea of Twitter and in each case give my actual experience of Twitter as a counter-example.
1. What’s the point?
This was the first hurdle. Why would anyone want to know what I’m doing right now? To be frank, my life isn’t exactly an action adventure. I can’t imagine anyone being interested in the mundane details of what I have for breakfast or which supermarket I shop in. Maybe if I were David Bowie or Seamus Heaney, but even then the novelty would probably wear off pretty soon. After months of trying to persuade people that blogs can be more than narcissistic online diaries, why would I want to start writing one in bite-sized chunks?
I was wrong about this in two ways. Firstly, the ‘What are you doing?’ question is a bit of a red herring. Lots of people don’t answer it. Instead they post thoughts, questions, links and replies to other Twitter users. That’s right – people reply to each other’s Tweets. Then they reply to the replies – put the Tweets together, join the dots and you discover that you’re having a conversation. Now you may be familiar with the idea of blogging as a conversation (which it is) but this is much quicker, quirkier and more spontaneous. While there can be hours, days or months between some exchanges via blog comments and trackbacks, the Twitter conversation is practically live, with replies coming within minutes or even a couple of seconds of the original Tweet.
The second reason I was wrong about this is related to the first. Because Twitter is a live conversation, the content of what you say doesn’t have to be earth-shatteringly interesting every time. Next time you’re hanging out with a group of friends, take a minute or two to just sit and listen to the conversation. Chances are a lot of the remarks would sound pretty mundane out of context – but they serve to keep the conversation going.
Grant McCracken has thought about this a lot harder than I have, and describes it as ‘phatic communication':
This is communication with little hard, informational content, but lots of emotional and social content. Phatic communications doesn’t get much said, but it has social effects so powerful, it gets lots done.
In the world according to Grant, even the humble cat blog can become philosophically and socially acceptable:
When I use Twitter or Facebook to say that I am entertaining my cat, no one, I’m pretty, sure gives a good God damn that I am entertaining my cat. But they are reminded that they have someone called Grant McCracken exists in their network.
Grant picked up the notion of phatic communication from Mark Earls, champion of the idea that human beings are herd animals. Maybe Tweets are the digital equivalent of all the snorts and grunts and trumpetings and flicking of tails by which herds of animals maintain contact and cohesion as they wander the dusty savannah. Digital savannah, anyone? EDIT: since writing this post Mark kindly sent me this excellent article about Twitter, which he wrote for Market Leader last year. It includes this observation:
Twitter is curiously comforting, like being part of a flock of birds on neighbouring roosts, twittering away.
I’d like to say ‘great minds think alike’, but in the Herd universe thinking is overrated and most behaviour is based on imitation. i.e. I probably copied the metaphor from Mark.
2. It will be one more thing to keep up with, like e-mail and blogs
This was a big one for me. Anyone who’s read my e-book on time management will know how challenging I’ve found it to keep up with the deluge of e-mail that comes with running an increasingly web-based business. So the idea of adding yet another stream of digital communication to my e-mail and blog feeds was about as appealing as a hole in the head. How on earth did people manage to keep up?
But the thing is, you don’t need to keep up with Twitter, any more than you need to keep up with everything that’s said by your friends when you’re not there. Unlike e-mail, there is absolutely no pressure to respond. Unlike subscribing to someone’s blog, there is no expectation that you will keep up with everything they write on Twitter. Because it’s a live conversation, you can join and leave it whenever you want. It’s impossible to ‘get behind’ and have to deal with a backlog.
3. The last thing I need is another source of interruptions
Again, I’ve blogged before about the havoc caused by interruptions to focused work, and the need to switch off things like e-mail and phones at certain stages of the creative process. So why would I want to open up another gateway to interruptions and broken concentration?
The answer to this is related to the previous point – because you don’t need to keep up with Twitter, you can switch it on and off whenever you like, with no fear of missing something important or letting a backlog pile up. Anyone who can switch off their e-mail to focus on a piece of writing or artwork, or let a phone call go through to the answerphone and call back later should have no problem switching off Twitter.
I tend to switch on Twitter when I’m ready for a break from concentrated work, or I’ve been working on my own all day and fancy a bit of instant human interaction. For an independent consultant used to working alone, this can be wonderfully refreshing, like having office background noise and banter on tap. Several consultant and freelancer friends have said the same thing to me – even while we’re scattered all over the place doing our thing, we can still feel connected. On quite a few occasions a chance meeting on Twitter has turned into a phone call, private message exchange or meeting up for a coffee and a chat.
When I’ve had enough or socialising, or when it’s time to get back on with the job, I simply shut down Twhirl (my Twitter application of choice).
4. Every time I switch on my mobile phone I’ll be deluged with text messages
I had an image of myself coming to the end of a day of meetings, switching on my phone and being deluged with the hundreds of text messages that had been sent since I last logged on. I’m glad to say that doesn’t happen. Because Twitter isn’t about keeping up and having to follow every single message, when you switch on your phone you only get the Tweets sent from that moment onwards. So unless you’re following thousands of Twitterers (not advisable) the trickle of text messages should be easily manageable.
5. I don’t want to be connected all the time
I had an image of Twitter as being something that most people used via their mobile phones, as a way of being always connected wherever they were. Which made me feel slightly queasy, the way I do if I spend too long at the computer. I don’t know about you, but I feel much better for having plenty of time out of the reach of electronic communications.
While a few people do Twitter all the time, I’ve discovered that many only use it at their computer. Even phone users don’t typically have it on by default – like me, they tend to switch on phone alerts when they’re out and about and feel the need of a little human contact, or when they discover something interesting and want to share it with other people. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to escape Twitter.
6. It will be yet another internet addiction
Well after playing with Twitter for a few weeks, I don’t think this is true for me. While there is definitely an addictive quality to Twitter, I find it pretty easy to leave it alone. It’s not as if I’m on there all the time, I just like a little now and then. Just to be sociable. Honest. You should try it yourself, then you’ll see what I’m talking about….
Well I guess that’s that kind of thing all addicts say at first. But so far I’ve managed to keep my life on track, get plenty of writing and other work done, and I’m probably spending more time meeting up with people in ‘real life’ because of Twitter. So I don’t think it’s doing me too much harm. Plus it’s free, so I’ve not had to resort to stealing televisions or robbing banks to feed the habit.
It’s a bit like this…
I’ve been thinking about how to explain Twitter to people who haven’t tried it, and the best I can come up with is this analogy. Imagine you’re at a party in a big house and you’ve been having a great time, then suddenly you stumble upon a room at the back you hadn’t noticed before – and find lots of people you met briefly or saw from a distance earlier in the party, but here they’re all sat round in a much more intimate, relaxed group, goofing off and joking around. From time to time the conversation throws up interesting insights or tidbits, but there’s no pressure to be brilliant, or to say anything at all if you don’t feel like it. Your companions are much more approachable than they seemed in other rooms of the party house, and you glimpse a different side to them than you saw before.
So what has Twitter got to do with creativity?
I’m in luck here, as creative powerhouse Tim Siedell has already answered this question on Bad Banana Blog:
Oftentimes, when I’m percolating on an idea or two, I’ll jump into my Twitter stream and just see what happens. While my subconscious continues to chug along, I scan various tweets, click through to links, see what other people are doing and thinking about, and then WHAM! A word, a phrase, a thought spins my brain into a totally new direction. Over the past year, I can think of quite a few ideas directly generated or made better through this use of Twitter. I’m talking client work, not just creative play. As a person who must create on deadline, one of my jobs is to keep my radar up for any source of inspiration. Right now, Twitter is one of my favorite tools for doing so.
Tim’s experience fits the classic approach to generating ideas by combining different perspectives on a problem or topic – which is easy to do in a conversational forum like Twitter. He seems to be using Twitter as a creative randomizer.
Others are using Twitter for creative research. Like Brian Clark who last week invited his Twitter followers to Define what creativity means to you. This morning several of his respondents were lucky enough to be featured in a post on Copyblogger.
In Creative Constraints: Going to Jail to Get Free, Merlin Mann suggests that the 140 character limit on Twitter posts can enable creativity. As a fan of the famously constricted 17-syllable Japanese haiku, I couldn’t agree more. To prove the point, A.E. Baxter is writing Twitter Fiction, which you can follow here on Twitter.
But not everyone sees Twitter as a boon to creativity. Back in December 2006, Kathy Sierra’s post on The Asymptotic Twitter Curve pretty well summed up my reasons for not trying Twitter – used excessively, all those interruptions will destroy your creative flow. Although I believe the interruption-factor is manageable, it’s worth reading Kathy’s post as she describes some genuine pitfalls of digital communications for creative people.
I’ve given you my current take on Twitter, but I’m still getting used to it and certainly haven’t figured it out yet. Some people take a more strategic approach, particularly bloggers looking to build their audience, and while I’m certainly not averse to that happening I don’t feel quite comfortable with it as the main motivation for Twittering. One of the things I like about Twitter is the opportunity for spontaneous, informal, fun conversation, a bit of ‘time off’ from my other writing, so I wouldn’t want to lose those qualities.
So if you follow me on Twitter you’ll get a different version of me – one who doesn’t talk about creativity all the time for a start. If you’re lucky, you’ll also be among the first to hear about links and news of interest to creative professionals – like the free tickets to NESTA’s Innovation Edge conference I Twittered about last week. (If you’re interested in getting links like this, I’m also posting them on my Wishful Linking blog.)
When I started Twittering a few weeks ago, I alerted e-mail subscribers and members of the Wishful Thinking Facebook group to my experiment. I got some interesting feedback, including Rosanne who was candid enough to tell me my Twitter feed was pretty boring, ‘conversations and topics I was not a part of’. That told me that the best way to experience Twitter isn’t to read the feed via a webpage, but to get a Twitter account and join in the conversation yourself. If you decide to follow someone, you can also choose to filter out their replies directed at specific users, so that you only pick up the Tweets they write with the whole world in mind.
I first came across this excellent video introduction to Twitter on Tim Siedell’s blog:
Other people’s takes on Twitter:
Caroline Middlebrook – The Big Juicy Twitter Guide
Mike Sansome – Why I Use Twitter- Increase Infosumption without a Headache
Chris Brogan – How I Use Twitter to Promote My Blog
David Armano – Twitter + Your “Far Outer Circle”
Hugh MacLeod – My increasingly Twitter’d world
Kevin Dugan – Top 10 Twitter Hacks
How about you?
Have you tried Twitter?
If not – why not?
If so – what do you think of it?
Any tips on using Twitter for creativity?