Twitter Four Years On: Investing Time wisely

I've been taking a hard look at Twitter this January: it's a service at the heart of the 'social computing' and 'real time web' movement's concepts and ideas, and I've found it enormously useful on a number of levels since my first 'Tweet' in 2007.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

I've been taking a hard look at Twitter this January: it's a service at the heart of the 'social computing' and 'real time web' movement's concepts and ideas, and I've found it enormously useful on a number of levels since my first 'Tweet' in 2007.

I recently significantly cut back on my use of Twitter since spending a few days mostly offline in the US Southwest before New Year, and then evaluating my work methods and tools - and also to some extent the work methods and tools I recommend to clients - upon my return to the work year.

Frequent readers of this Collaboration blog will know I'm always keen to differentiate between marketing use of modern web technologies and the very different conventions of using similar technologies for internal collaborative business use, both broadly and narrowly focused, for specific results.

Twitter, of course, exploded into the broader public consciousness in 2009, and became the topic of endless debate in the 'mainstream media', as this piece last February in the UK Times Women's section demonstrates:

....What kind of person shares information with the world the minute they get it? And just who are the “followers” willing to tune into this rolling news service of the ego? The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”

This 'I Tweet Therefore I Am' insecurity is a popular theme in media stories written by people that in all probability have never used Twitter. In looking at the tsunami of tweets that greeted me on my return to the glowing screen in the new year, I have to say I was a little disturbed by the volume of self obsessed comments and self referential regurgitation of other people's ideas.  Twitter is all about deriving value from people you've chosen to follow, but this made me think hard about what value I can provide by Tweeting publicly.

For the marketing industry, particularly in a recession, Twitter is manna from heaven. The Economist notes this week that the Public Relations industry grew by more than 4% in 2008 and nearly 3% in 2009 to $3.7 billion. (Although advertising contracted by 3% and 8% respectively in the same period, US advertising alone is a $150 billion per year business).

The essentially free Twitter channel to 'conversations' with customers has led to massive uptake of consumer social technologies by public relations professionals, the places where people congregate to hang out, chat and share personal views and artifacts online.

Mark Brookes brings up a core value of the benefits of this type of conversational social computing in a blog post titled 'Is Facebook A Catalyst For World Peace?'

An amusing yet deep cutting article titled 'Renouncing Evil Powers' appeared in the International Herald Tribune this morning written by Garrison Keillor.  My favorite quote from the article goes like this, "War requires very well-brought-up people to do vicious things that they are able to do efficiently because the recipients of their viciousness are unknown to them."

When you open up the world to talk to each other more, and allow the people of the world to peer deep into the lives of those that may be foreign to them, the impetus to attack those that are unknown is rapidly broken down.

Mark suggests in his post 'people care less about their personal privacy because it's ok to be human these days' (in this case on Facebook) - the question of course is what is 'being human'? One person's sociable is another person's intrusion, and how we invest our time for work and social activities can be more valuable than money.

Twitter is an intensely personal equation of values and uses  - my objective period mostly away from it has allowed me more time to focus more deeply on my tasks at hand. I've always used rapid collaboration tools like instant messaging judiciously - very useful when interacting with others on the details of a project, infuriatingly distracting when your thought train is interrupted by a lightweight comment or question.

I'm finding an 'always on', 'real time' Twitter to be equally distracting in similar circumstances this year, find myself questioning how busy people real are during the work day and what sort of social lives they have if they're constantly Twittering in their free time. 'Beer o'clock' comments in London are the start of the working day in California due to time shifts - this time shifted social dislocation can be disorienting, a bit like the drinking at breakfast time feeling when you're abroad.

I think Twitter has the greatest value for me during conferences: it can be very powerful to interact with real time comments from the room and beyond while a session is in progress. Sharers of links to longer form web content are both a blessing and a curse - I'm easily distracted and it's all to easy to disappear down a time hole chasing after some fascinating topic. Nevertheless this is my second most valuable aspect of Twitter.

The more social everyday aspects of Twitter such as the Drudge Report style 'first to break news stories' behavior by users I don't find a good investment of time, nor many of the endless re-tweets of non original content. I'm finding I'm using direct messaging a lot this year - for some Twitter DM is the quickest way to get hold of people. The fact that it comes to your email isn't very 'right on' but it is often the reason why I fire up TweetDeck, my Twitter application.

As a mass collaboration device Twitter can be very messy and time consuming; internal business micro blogging services such as Yammer, when usage guidelines are clear, can be extremely useful and can streamline time spent.

My suspicion is that Twitter is a similar historical phenomenon to Netscape; it was years before people 'got' the web by which time the browser wars had left the trail breakers in the dust. The mainstream adoption of Twitter as a megaphone for celebrities to broadcast to their fans has distorted understanding of the power of the tool, and I predict that this year that will increase exponentially.

I'm going to continue to be very aware of any time I invest in using Twitter and monitoring the value closely this year - as adoption models broaden and change it is easy to find yourself at a party that doesn't have the character it used to.

Video: 19th Century John Thwaites Mahogany Longcase Clock, chiming.

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