I started experimenting with Twitter (and social networking in general) 15 months ago, and just this week, I sent my 1000th tweet. It seems like a good time to take a step back and ask whether this is a good use of my time or not.
Writing a 140 character tweet takes longer than you would think. Since virtually all of my tweets include a link that eats up 20 of those characters, I really am writing 120 character messages. Anyone who has tried to write with space limitations knows that it is much harder to be brief than it is to be verbose. I’d say that about half the time of writing a tweet is involved in making it short enough to fit in the space without butchering English too much and without losing the humor or emphasis I am trying to achieve.
Of course, the actual time writing those tweets is inconsequential to the amount of time I spend reading other people’s tweets on twitter. I check up on twitter in the morning after I am caught up on email, and then I will check in on it a couple of times a day. I will also catch up while sitting outside of Ayelet’s room during “waiting time” while she settles down and goes to sleep. Scanning the tweets doesn’t take that long, but a large portion contains links to more information. 5% to 10% will intrigue enough for me to click through and look at the article or site they are linking to.
Many people dismiss twitter as a waste of time. They hear about people sending mindless updates, like “I’m waiting in line for my driver’s license” or “I just had a roast beef sandwich for lunch”. For the record, I agree 100% that these types of tweets are absolutely useless, and I have very little patience for them. When they are lightly sprinkled in with more thoughtful content, they can add some interesting color to a person, but I would never follow anyone who posted this type of information regularly.
What keeps me so interested in twitter is that so many people are using it to share information. The posts will be just a line or two about why a piece of information is interesting then follow it with a link that takes you to all of the details. For example, Jade Abumrad, the co-host of NPR’s RadioLab, recently tweeted “Why are the letters "z" and "x" so popular in drug names? http://bit.ly/fUIpe0”. I might be interested, or I might not, but it’s a jumping off point for more information.
To put it another way, Twitter is my crowd sourced newspaper. When I read the New York Times, I tend to focus in on the Front Page section and the Business section. I never read the Sports section. I generally skip the Travel or the Arts & Leisure section, but occasionally my wife will point out an article in those sections she thinks I would like. That’s perfect for me; I don’t have to read the sections, but she points out what might be worth it. With Twitter, I have a hand-picked staff of subject-matter experts, and they are feeding me the links that they think are interesting. I don’t read them all, but some percentage of them will interest me enough to click through.
The net benefit is that I am much more aware of developing trends in my industry with twitter. I don’t have the patience to follow all of the nuances of developments in cyber security attacks, browser technology, database servers, and a dozen other topics. But, by following people who do care about every detail, I can keep abreast of major new developments quickly.
This, I would argue, is a good use of time. For example, without Twitter I would not have known what oAuth is (it’s a way for sites to share credentials without actually sharing usernames and passwords – think of it as a way to not have to create yet another username and password for yet another site). However, many people I follow kept talking about it, and so I paid attention. When it came up as a topic for possible integration at work, I knew what it was and could talk intelligently about it.
I write my own tweets with this in mind. By and large, I keep them focused on technical topics that I think are relevant to people in my field. I try to put back in what I get out of it.
I used to stick to this rule 100%, but over the last few months I have realized that sprinkling in a little bit of personal tidbits or humor keeps the overall tweet stream more interesting. This might be something cute, like my baby son holding a keyboard for the first time. Or something hopefully funny, like my tweet about cancelling my snowstorm subscription (I can’t tell you how excited I was when Scott Kirsner, a Boston Globe columnist, retweeted it, and it was then retweeted over 50 times from there). But the emphasis is that twitter is a way to share information relevant to my work.
So, 1000 tweets in 15 months? I can’t say that it was always the 100% best way to use my time, but I certainly wouldn’t say that it was wasted.
p.s. My wife just accused me of an extensive bit of naval gazing when writing this post. And she is right. But you didn’t have to click through and read it. And that is kind of the essence of twitter posts. Read them if you care, and ignore them if you don’t.