This is an article recently published in WBUR Cognoscenti http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2014/03/04/learning-to-think-in-140-characters-paul-fallon
The marketing director of my architectural firm set up a Twitter account for me. She explained how social media connections fit into the firm’s marketing strategy and described how to employ hash tags and ampersands. I tweeted whenever I spoke at a conference or published an article; I created automatic tweets whenever I posted a blog essay, but I never checked my Twitter feed. After two years, I’d posted 88 tweets, I followed 19 others and 21 followed me. Considering over 100 million people check twitter every day, I was irrelevant.
“You’re doing this all wrong,” a writer friend told me. “Don’t just tweet when you’re selling something, and never just tweet a link.” Elizabeth embraced the power of 140 characters. She explained how twitter exposed the American raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, announced the capture of the Boston Marathon bomber, and that Obama tweeted his reelection victory. She advised me to capitalize on the medium: post unique tweets; expand my twitter universe; promote less; tweet more; and for goodness sake, be funny. I decided to test her advice; I posted a fresh tweet every day for thirty days. With a month of regular tweeting is behind me; what did I learn?
1. Twitter is not facebook. Raves about my six-year-old nephew and pictures of snowmen may be the essence of facebook, but they don’t cut it on Twitter. Forget that Katy Perry has more followers (50+ million) than President Obama (41+ million); an imprimatur of gravity prevails. When I tweeted Just ate a bowl of #kale chips; maybe I’m doing too much #yoga; a so-called friend told me it was a lousy tweet.
2. No tweet is an island. Twitter is supposed to be conversational. A tweet composed of mere text is a dead end. The more hashtags and ampersands I inserted, the more traction I got. By the end of thirty days, every tweet had a link to an article or video. When I attended a lecture about Big Data’s affect on Journalism, I didn’t tweet journalist Paul McMorrow’s obvious quote that “the chart is the new nutgraph.” Instead, I was witty, statistical, and earned a retweet as reward. At #MassINCBigData conference – 200 people, 190 smart phones, 64 laptops, 8 pens + 1 reporter @paul_mcmorrow with pencil in his ear.
3. A 140-character worldview. I find the hyper-abbreviated format of many tweets hieroglyphic; yet did not find 140 characters limiting. Within days, the idea that any situation had to be described in 140 characters evolved into the notion that any situation should be described that way. Eventually, the search for the perfect nugget trumped deeper exploration. Twitter statistics, a burgeoning field of fine-grain chafing, report that tweets with links attached are retweeted 86% more often than those without. That may be true, but personal experience dictates that few of us actually hit those links. The 140 characters imposed by the medium define the message. Though I included a link to my blog essay about the Columbia MD mall shootings, for most people, Shootings at #Mallincolumbia put bullet through 50 year old #americandream, says it all.
4. The search for content stirs curiosity. More than once I was getting ready for bed when the groan on conscious reminded me that I was tweetless. Determined not just to post, but to post something relevant, I’d scan the newspaper or Internet seeking inspiration. Every tweet had to be about something that resonated with my interest. Sometimes the search for a tweet took me to unexpected places. I enjoyed profound sleep the night I penned, The most eloquent melding of life and death I’ve ever read. Ashes to Ashes.
The immediate question after a month of tweets is, do I have more Twitter followers? And the answer is a resounding, yes – 2!
Although growing my following to a less-than-respectable 23 people is not indicative of success, I choose to analyze my experiment in a different way. After a month of tweets, my wariness at beholding the world from a 140-character point-of-view and embracing the triumph of clever over content are eclipsed by the fact that I enjoyed my twitter-filter. Just as a person with a camera sees the world differently because he’s constantly framing what’s included and what’s excluded from his view, so too I came to appreciate twitter’s restrictions. Sometimes it may oversimplify or distort, but more often twitter helped me clarify.
I’ll never have a big following; I’m neither a celebrity nor an expert. My tweets are as broad as my interests, and therefore too diffuse for a medium that celebrates focus. The value of them comes from the exploration they stimulate before I hit the send button. After that, they’re out of my control.