Friday Saturday [get comfortable, this turned into a long post], and I’ve been bogged down with a HUGE project I’ve been keeping under wraps for a couple of months (you will find out what that’s about on Monday), so I’ve been blogging in fits and starts. All going well, I’ll be back up to speed on the growing list of space news on Astroengine.com and the Universe Today very soon. However, as it’s the end of the week, I feel like posting my thoughts on Twitter, a microblogging platform that has become an invaluable tool not only for my science writing, but for meeting wonderful, like-minded people…
Yesterday, I received a direct message on Twitter saying, “Will you please stop tweeting about songs you like. It’s annoying! Stick to posting space links, that’s why I follow you.” (Yes, I did think about posting his name, but I will take the politeness high-ground and respect his privacy.) I was annoyed at this message, but I also felt like I was doing something wrong. Half of me wanted to rebel by tweeting a string of songs from Blip.fm just to piss him off, but the other half of me made me sit back and think about what I was actually doing on Twitter. Was I there to please my growing number of followers? Was I twittering to promote my science blogging? Was I there to be social and make new friends? Actually, I worked out that I was doing Twitter for all the reasons above.
To Set The Scene…
99% of my social media knowledge was taught to me by a lovely chap called Avi Joseph (@Avinio). Avi and I have known each other for a long time, in fact we met online via another social website. He is based in Israel and I’m based in the US, so the only place could have met was online. Social media did that and now I consider Avi to be a close friend. For a long time he kept mentioning how great Twitter was and the reasons why I should join up. So, out of curiosity, I signed up in August 2008.
I didn’t sign back in until the following November.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have the interest in joining another social media group, it was purely because I didn’t see the point. Why waste time microblogging when I could be researching material for real blogging? If journalism could be considered to be the “mansion house” of writing, blogging is the “condo” of journalism (it’s small, but cool). I viewed Twitter as the “garden shed” of blogging. Twitter seemed to be that little woodwork hobby you’d never complete; great if you have the time, but otherwise, inconsequential.
Then I thought I’d give Twitter a chance. Avi had previously told me that Twitter was going to be the next big thing for social media, and all the signs were that it was getting huge. I noticed that Twitter was being mentioned more and more by the mainstream; celebrities, companies, writers and even governments were opening accounts. It looked like Avi was onto something, perhaps I should be involved, and fast!
So, I reinvigorated my Twitter account, and posted an article on Astroengine.com to tell my readers I’ll be tweeting as well as blogging. Whoosh! For the first time I actually saw who my readers were. Sure, I chat a lot with Astroengine visitors (that’s what blogging is all about, after all), but they transcended statistics and became real people who liked to tweet. I was hooked as soon as I started to interact properly, my first “What’s this Twitter thing all about then?” message back in August ’08 was a distant memory.
The Many, Many Practical Uses Of Twitter
I’m a practical guy, and wanted my Twitter presence to be productive. So first things first, I wanted to post useful stuff. As Avi and I agreed, there’s nothing worse than promoting your own stuff over and over, and it was even worse to sell stuff. I wanted to promote my website, but I also wanted to provide a service. As I was new to Google Reader, Avi gave me an insight as to how this can be used to send interesting links, from other blogs and space news websites, via a service called Twitterfeed.com. However, I didn’t want to appear to be spamming, so I limited this system to two tweets at any one time, and I’d only do it for stuff I was genuinely interested in (I get annoyed at streams of links being posted by someone who obviously hasn’t read the content).
Naturally, I’d also post links to articles I had written as well. After a period of time, I found myself getting more into tweeting and I was beginning to connect with some wonderful, wonderful people. I was overjoyed that people weren’t only following me because of my handy links, they were following me because of what I was saying. It is amazing how much information you can fit into 140 characters.
You also get into routines, often catching people in different timezones at different times of the day. It’s like now, in the early hours of the morning, I’ll catch the excellent @davepdotorg in time for the regular (and essential) #helloworldcam, I really had better get a move on, I’m late!
Then it happened, probably 4-6 weeks ago (in Twitter-weeks, like dog-years, that’s a long time!). I realised I had an entire group of people who were friends, and people who I genuinely want to meet in real life. Although 140 characters is a small number for any kind of relationship, in Twitter, it somehow works. That’s because Twitter is a fantastic facilitator, linking people’s websites and blogs, allowing people to arrange “Tweetups” (another phenomenon I didn’t understand until a couple of months ago) and other events, it allows people to exchange information in real-time, well beyond simply telling the world what are you’re doing. There is a certain skill to condensing what you want to convey in a couple of sentences, but it seems to be one of the most pure forms of online communication I have ever come across.
But What About Space?
If you’ve been reading my articles lately, many of them began life on Twitter. Usually, the articles are inspired by my followers who send me a message with a link, or it’s from the valuable retweet action by the people I follow. Linking to articles and sharing them with the wider Twitter community is awesome.
However, this is where I’ve tripped up a few times, and @BadAstronomer Phil Plait even recently addressed this issue on Bad Astronomy. During live events (like the NASA Mars methane conference in January), Twitter is incredibly powerful, allowing Twitter journalists to tweet blow-by-blow accounts about the unfolding drama. I LOVE reading these kind of tweets, it is up to the minute and way faster than any mainstream news outlet. Granted, some tweets may not be completely accurate, but that’s the nature of breaking news, often facts have to be straightened out and other readers need to correct rumours. This is all fine. In fact, during the last Los Angeles mini-earthquake, this Twitter feedback was invaluable. I was reading a steady stream of tweets from all over the county, but almost like a statistical text swarming, within 5 minutes Twitter had located the epicentre of the quake. There was a lot of poor information and tweets that didn’t make sense, but eventually through the power of deduction, tweet density and user brainpower, we’d beaten the USGS at their own game by 20 minutes!
In my excitement, I started calling for a Twitter earthquake reporting system. Unfortunately there is no Twitter filter for over-enthusiasm…
Everyone’s A Critic
In a word, Twitter is AWESOME. But with all this awesomeness comes the Twitter critic.
I realise I tweet a lot, that’s not going to change. As I was chatting to @nearvanna today, there seems to be this misplaced Twitter “code of conduct” where it is frowned upon if you tweet too much (I think this tweet by @nearvanna is spot on). As I’ve said in the past, I have often been accused of being the Twitter equivalent of a noisy neighbour. Sometimes the messages have been pretty rude, basically telling me off for filling their streams with conversation. I get that, I really do, but you know how the annoyance can be avoided (and this concept is really easy to grasp)? Stop following me.
I’m not going to change a thing, I will not modify my behaviour to please my followers. I like to think people who follow me enjoy what I have to say. I have no issues if they think I’m sending updates too quickly, and I certainly do not take it personally if they unfollow me. That’s the name of the game, it’s a social network where you follow people you are interested in. If they tweet too much, don’t tell them to modify their behaviour, that is bad manners in my books.
Your Inner Freak
People’s individuality should be embraced, and I learnt a very important lesson from my friend (again, who I properly met via Twitter), @MsInformation, who works with George Hrab at the Geologic HQ. Whilst I am aware that a public image should be as decent as possible, there needs to be some room for your personality. I have seen too many “how to” guides that say you have to treat Twitter like you would your profile on LinkedIn.com; your Twitter profile should be professional (like your resume) and your photo should look like your passport pic (bad news for us Brits, we’re not allowed to smile in our passport mugshots). Yes, social networking is fantastic for meeting your future employer, but if you’re using Twitter to find a job… you might be looking for a long, long time. Besides, how do you stand out from the crowd if you look like you’re applying for a job and you look like you work in an office?
I would even argue that looking for a job on Twitter isn’t the right way of going about things. “Networking” doesn’t mean “will you give me a job?”; on LinkedIn you are explicitly looking for business connections and job opportunities. On Twitter, you are looking to make friends and share information, have some fun while you’re at it.
So, just when I was on the cusp of taking myself too seriously, I had a great chat with Ms Information who said something quite profound: “You have to tap into your Inner Freak.” I’m not even sure what we were discussing (there must be some way of easily browsing your tweet archive… twarchive?), but those few words spoke volumes.
Be who you are, not what people want you to be.
I then loosened up a bit, replaced my generic Twitter avatar with a more colourful version (literally), and off I went. That February day changed it all for me, I stopped worrying about what people thought of me, but made sure that each of my tweets counted. “Being yourself” doesn’t mean you should post stuff you wouldn’t usually post, or type obscenities (public decency applies online too!), it just means you should portray yourself as you normally would. In my case, there is usually an Hawaiian shirt, some trance music, some geeky science, a glass of beer and some bunnies, so that’s what you’ll find being posted on @astroengine.
In short, Twitter is fast becoming my most powerful blogging tool. I use it to chat with like-minded and beautiful people first and foremost. Each and every person I communicate with are gems. As a spin-off, I am able to tap into the collective knowledge of a lot of people which in-turn enriches the articles I write. However, I believe the secret behind Twitter is the freedom to be yourself, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (tap into your inner freak, it’s better that way).