Twittering Your Life Away

For several weeks now, I've been working on this column about Twitter. More accurately, I've been reworking this column. So far, I have written at least three drafts, trashing each one and starting over with a blank page. Complicating matters, as I ponder exactly what it is I want to write, a steady stream of Twitter articles continues to appear on the Web (such as David Pogue's recent column, which is a good starting point if you have no idea what Twitter is). Not wanting to repeat what has already been amply covered (there's no point in being the 23rd article this week to offer advice on Twitter etiquette), I trashed yet another draft.

Still, I clearly have something I want to say something about Twitter. So I've given it one last try. Here goes...

This is the year I had my light-switch moment with Twitter. Until now, I have resisted all online social networking. I don't even belong to LinkedIn or MySpace. My FaceBook account is little more than a placeholder. I don't use Flickr or any similar photo site. And, while I joined Twitter over a year ago, I never used it. That all changed in the last month. I now have Twitterific installed on my two Macs and my iPhone -- and check it several times a day (sometimes several times an hour).

Compared to most of my tech-savvy friends, I arrived at this party more than a bit late. Indeed, by some accounts, I may have arrived too late; the food's almost all gone. But here I am anyway.

What happened? I took a second look at Twitter, prompted by some friends, and discovered it was more than I had thought. Much more. It turns out that Twitter is not merely a place to read about other people's boring daily routines in 140 characters or less. Who knew? In addition to being a fun diversion, it actually has worthwhile practical value. At least it can. To some extent, its value depends on your areas of interest. Twitter is still relatively young and hasn't penetrated everywhere. As William Gibson said, "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." But Twitter has certainly distributed itself into the technology domain -- which is where I live. And it is here where I found the reasons to Twitter.

Twitter as a mini-Web. There are two entirely different ways that I use Twitter. The first is in read-only mode. I check messages (or "tweets" as they are called) from a collection of twitterers all within the Apple world. In this mode, Twitter serves as an alternative to the Web, a customized quasi-RSS feed and news alert mechanism. Indeed, some of the accounts I follow are not really people at all, but robots that represent Web sites -- such as our  very own Mac Observer. These robots automatically post tweets about the site's content almost as soon as an article appears, giving me an instant heads-up without having to visit each site.

Other Twitter accounts are what I call cyborgs: half-human, half-machine. Guy Kawasaki is a good example. Some of his tweets are really Guy talking; others appear to be automated content generated from his Web site. [Advice: You need to be careful with robots and cyborgs. Sign up for too many and you'll be assaulted with a constant barrage of tweets, most of which you don't care about.]

Next, there is a group of completely human twitterers that regularly post links to new articles of interest. If you follow such people, assuming you share their interests, you'll be led to worthwhile articles you would have otherwise never discovered. Many of these people also write articles and will typically link to their own latest works. While this can come off as irritating self-promotion if overdone, it can be a great way to track the writings of people you care about. As a bonus, these writers often tweet about juicy details that never made it into the published version of the article.

Lastly, there are some people that I follow simply because they are amusing or I just want to know what they are thinking about. In a few cases, these tweets seem more like the haiku equivalent of a blog. You can typically tell who these people are, at least the successful ones, by checking the number of their followers. It will be in the thousands and their followers/following ratio will likely be at least 10:1.

Many of these celebrity twitterers were already well-known before Twitter; their readers (or fans) simply followed them. Andy Ihnatko is a perfect example here. These Twitter celebrities have a status and prestige that, with luck, may even translate into cash. For example, I have heard of a few cases where a large Twitter following positively affected a person's salary. [An earlier draft of this article included a guide to becoming a Twitter celebrity. How do you go about getting strangers to follow you? What sorts of tweets make you interesting to strangers? How can you convert your celebrity success (should you achieve it) into a marketing tool? Should you even try? Maybe there's still a worthwhile article there, but I abandoned that direction for now. For one thing, I wasn't at all sure I knew the answers!]

As somewhat of an aside, if you have enough followers, you can use Twitter as a search tool, sort of a social-networking version of Google. Post your question in a tweet and wait for the answers to come in -- often within seconds. Which leads nicely into the other way I use Twitter...

Twitter as a "social-work" network. The second major value of Twitter for me is more in line with its originally stated purpose: as a social networking device. But with a twist. I don't mean forming a group with my close friends to share our latest gossip. Rather, I mean forming a network with people that I know on a more casual basis. In my case, I am talking about my fellow Mac journalists and other industry folk, some of whom I have only met once or twice, if at all.

In this arena, I not only read others' tweets but post my own, joining in on the conversation as the mood strikes me. I may even initiate my own (hopefully) informative or amusing tweets. Here, tweets can range from frank opinions on the issues of the day to aimless anecdotes about (as Twitter incessantly asks) what you are doing. [Advice: Twitter may ask "What are you doing now?" But if what you're doing is boring and you can't at least find an amusing way to describe it, few people will want to know. To say: "I woke up sleepy today" won't get you very far. To instead say: "Eyes now open for business; brain still closed" is better.]

Beyond the immediate social enjoyment, these conversations can pay long-term dividends. They can help forge or solidify relationships. They can alert you to otherwise unadvertised opportunities. In this regard, twittering becomes much like attending a cocktail party at a conference. Sure you're having a fun time, and there's a good deal of idle chatter, but there's important work being done under the surface.

Personally, I don't look to Twitter as a career advancement tool (my career is already advanced enough for me), but I don't want to be a social hermit either. So I joined in. The surprise to me, when I finally started taking Twitter seriously, was how much was going on that had been completely outside of my awareness. It's a bit like having an office job and learning, after working there for months, that many critical interactions take place at the bar down the block where everyone (but you) meets after work. It's not that you aren't welcome to join; it's just that you either thought it was a waste of time or never realized that everyone but you was doing it. Twitter is like that bar. Except that it's open 24/7.

Twittering your life away. Now that I've learned the value of using Twitter, I'm already having to confront the opposite problem: reining in my use of Twitter. As with most things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. At some point, you need to take a break.

More than once, I have whipped out my iPhone while in line at the grocery store, just to check my latest tweets. I even find myself thinking about my life in terms of its tweet-worthiness ("Hmmm, the person in front of me is wearing a funny t-shirt; should I post a tweet about it?"). 

Similarly, I have to remind myself: Tweets are not email. I don't have to read every single tweet that I receive. The cocktail party metaphor remains a good one here. You don't hear every conversation that takes place at a party; you probably don't even attend every party. Yet, somehow you survive. And so it is with Tweets that scroll off your radar while you are doing something else.

I have to wonder about some twitterers. They never appear never to sleep, posting dozens of tweets every day. Some seem to spend more time posting tweets about their lives than actually living their lives. Two people may tweet to each other, even while they are in the same room. At some point, I expect to see something like this: She: "Hmmm. Having sex in the afternoon is the way to go." He: "Things heating up; hope I can last more than 3 minutes. If anyone has hints, let me know now!"

Warning signs. If a dozen new tweets appear while you're catching up on the ones that just popped up a few minutes ago, and you miss dinner while trying to get ahead of the curve, it's time to re-evaluate. If you are unable to check Twitter for a day or so, and you start having symptoms of an anxiety attack, take a deep breath (and, if that doesn't work, consider Twitterers Anonymous). If you're at a job interview and your prospective employer asks what you want as a starting salary, and you think "Can I sneak a tweet to seek advice here?," it's too late; you've gone over the cliff.

P.S. And yes, if you want to risk it, you can follow me on Twitter @tedlandau.