I’ve been having conversations over the past 24 hours about the ‘value’ of social media. The social transparency and personal profile that this kind of medium affords is one of those things that crops up from time to time in articles such as this one in Techcrunch and this one in Music Think Tank – and I find myself ending up defending Twitter, which certainly doesn’t need my help.
There are several common complaints:
1) It’s inane. People just tweet about what they had for lunch;
2) It’s just celebrities and narcissists full of self-importance;
3) It’s a waste of my time;
4) It makes people I thought were interesting and exciting seem mundane and ordinary.
And I have very simple responses to those complaints.
1) No it isn’t. You clearly follow boring people with nothing to say. Don’t do that;
2) Again, no. You can follow celebrities if you want, of course – but it’s far from compulsory;
3) Really? Having conversations with other human beings is a waste of your time, but passively watching television shows you don’t actually like is a good investment of your attention? Writing a sentence about what you’re up to or thinking about a couple of times a day is a time-consuming activity that takes you away from all that important stuff you were doing?
4) If you want real people to be profound, entertaining or fascinating each time they open their mouth, you’re always going to be disappointed. If you want larger-than-life heroes, go to the movies. If you want to just be entertained and not engage, just turn on the TV. If you want mythology, read a book.
The trouble with Twitter
The problem for many people is that Twitter fails to be something they’d like it to be, when that’s not what it’s for. They want to be entertained with profound, funny and engaging content. In other words, they think it’s like broadcasting, when it’s conversation.
So that’s like turning up to somebody’s house for a cup of tea, and saying “right – entertain me”, leaning back, and waiting for a performance packed with one-liners, deep insights and useful tips.
Second, they think of the people they follow as an ‘information source’. There are some Twitter feeds that provide information of course, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s human beings living their lives, talking about the things that they specialise in or engage their attention. And if that’s boring, go back to your Eastenders.
If you follow me because you think I might be entertaining, or because I might be a good source of information about online music marketing strategies (or jazz, or Birmingham, or digital culture, or media studies, or whisky, or whatever), you’re probably going to be really disappointed. I do, of course, mention all of those things. But I do other things too. My twitter feed is about me, the things I’m interested in, and the people I engage with on a day to day basis – it’s not just packaged nuggets of information about my specialist subject.
But if you want to get to know me – it’s a brilliant way to engage. You’ll not only hear about the stuff I’m up to, thinking about, listening to or concerned with – you’ll also get to overhear the public conversations I have with other people I happen to think are really interesting.
My personal tribe
There’s this anthropological theory that we can deal with about 150 social relationships – and when things get bigger than that, we tend to split our tribes into smaller, more manageable groups. I’m not sure how effectively that carries over to Twitter, but all the same – at present, I follow around 140 people.
Some of those people are pictured above. They live in many different parts of the world, are a range of ages and social backgrounds, have different tastes, and do lots of different things. I consider most of them to be actual friends. They’re all people I work with, hang out with, or that I just happen to think are really interesting.
For instance, I follow Gilles Peterson, a BBC radio DJ who plays music I happen to like – and I’m friends with his business partner; Alys Fowler, a gardening TV show presenter who I’ve met through mutual friends; Brian Travers, who’s the sax player in UB40; S-Endz, a rapper in an internationally well-known Desi-funk band called Swami; David Hendy, a media historian and author; Martin Atkins, a drummer from some famous 80s & 90s rock bands like Public Image, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Killing Joke; Krause, a contemporary Dutch electro-pop star on the rise; John Campbell, a New Zealand television news presenter and journalist; Rhodri Marsden, author and columnist for the Independent newspaper; and Mark de Clive-Lowe, a keyboard player & music producer.
These ones are all people who have some sort of public profile, but who I’ve also actually met and had conversations with. It’s not a rule for me – and from time to time, I’ll also follow people that I’ve only ever really seen on TV (like Mark Steel or Charlie Brooker) – and some Twitter-only fictional characters I happen to find amusing (like Diana In Heaven and Average Batman). I sort of drop in and out of those ones. I tend to stick with people I’ve at least had a drink with, for the most part.
And, of course, lots of the people I follow have no ambition whatsoever to be famous or become ‘public figures’ – and nor do they do anything that would tend to bring them that sort of attention.
Following people that I already know and like in real life on Twitter is like sitting down with them in a café. And we have the same sort of conversations. But we don’t have to be ‘always on’. It’s a conversation you can drop in and out of. Some of it’s just thinking out loud. Some of it is extended back-and-forth dialogue.
People I’ve only ever encountered on Twitter
All that said, you don’t have to ‘know’ people to find them interesting. There are lots of people who follow me on Twitter who, presumably find me interesting enough to not worry about the fact that I’ve never popped over to their house for a cup of tea.
Likewise, I follow Darren Hemmings (Digital Marketing Manager for the PIAS group), Nancy Baym (a social media academic and author), Joe Muggs (an arts and music journalist), Hannah Nicklin (playwright and academic) and Katy Bairstow (a freelance tech writer).
To my knowledge, I have never been in the same room with these people (forgive me if I have that wrong – I go in a lot of rooms), but through Twitter I’ve found out about them through others, listened to what they had to say – and not only find them to be interesting people, but I’ve now had conversations with them on multiple occasions over other things we both find interesting – and I’m sure if we found ourselves in a cafe or a pub together, we’d continue the conversation in person.
But what we find interesting need not necessarily be deep or serious, though sometimes it is. Occasionally it’s just “hey look – this is quite funny” and there’ll be a link. Other times it’s personal stuff that gives people a 3-dimensional quality. Like when people who you only know through their work talk about their family, or their record collection.
And it’s that shared interest – or at least overlap of interest that allows for a connection to take place. To me, that’s what Twitter – as the social media tool of the moment – has to offer. Not a marketing platform or an entertainment and information channel – but human beings talking to each other. Sharing ideas, swapping jokes, discussing issues and just being real people together.
And in fact, some people who I now consider to be my best friends are people who I’ve been introduced to on Twitter. And I’m a fan of their music too.
The best way to use Twitter
The way I use Twitter is not “the way” to use Twitter. I know people who claim to be able to cope with following thousands, and I know others who have private accounts, and only follow a handful of people that they know intimately.
The best way is to try it out and see what works for you. Follow people you think you’d like to get to know better, then unfollow them if they become dull. Check out who other people you think are interesting are talking to. Chances are they’ll be interesting too. Don’t feel you have to keep your finger on the pulse of “all that information”. Do whatever’s manageable, interesting and useful.
But complaining that Twitter is inane, pointless, time-wasting or just narcissistic bleating only means either a) the people you’ve chosen to follow are the wrong ones; or b) you’re expecting something from Twitter it’s not offering: passive entertainment.