November 27th, 2009 Comments off
I was recently followed on Twitter by someone looking for tips on make up. This is not an uncommon occurrence for me. How could I have known that giving my novel the title Shimmer would result in so many Web references − via Twitter, blogs and news articles − to lipstick, lotions and body rubs? Yet it’s one thing to receive a Google alert on how some new lotion “wrote the book on body shimmer.” It’s another to have someone actually go to the trouble of following me on Twitter because I used the word “Shimmer” in my Twitter bio. The truth is, I hate Twitter. Yes, there are many useful, funny, compelling and interesting things about Twitter. That’s not my point. (I also hate television, but love the Colbert Report. Hate, for me, is not all-encompassing.) All of which reminds me of a long email I wrote to someone recently about what place The Daily News, where I am publisher, has on Twitter and Facebook. This is a person who has never used Twitter or Facebook and who is deeply skeptical of them both. In hopes of giving him a view of the more entertaining − if not particularly meaningful − side of Twitter, I’d sent him a link to ShitMyDadSays. To my amazement, he though it was idiotic. I He’s not a remotely prudish person. I’ve sent him links to sites far more profane and controversial. He is the first person I’ve sent to ShitMyDadSays who didn’t find it either funny or outright hysterical. As we talked, though, I realized this person − the Social Media Skeptic − simply had no context for the joke. Your response is fascinating for a couple of reasons. I’ve sent that guy’s post to probably 20 people, all of whom had the same reaction I did: Hysterical, if slightly ashamed, laughter. These are people of a wide range of ages, backgrounds and experiences. The key commonality, though, is that all of them are, for better and worse, somewhat to very active in either Twitter or Facebook. And I think that highlights what seems so funny to me about his posts: Twitter especially and Facebook to a large degree are filled with pointless drivel. It’s drivel in the guise of self-important updates about what are, in truth, mundane daily activities, or drivel in the guise of highly self-conscious, always pre-prepared and varyingly ironic off-the-cuff comments about life. This guy’s posts, though, had the effect of breaking down those pretenses. He makes no claim to saying anything important. He offers no pretense that these are anything but mundane activities. And the fact that he is relaying someone else’s comments managed, maybe inadvertently, to inherently own up to the reality that these, like most all posts on Twitter and Facebook, are self-conscious and pre-selected comments. And he swears. Wildly. Openly. Breaking all rules of those people trying to capitalize on social media for purposes big or small, he is unabashedly profane, referencing bodily functions and relaying a callus, simplistic honesty that most every other post on Twitter either denies or hides. Let’s be clear: For me, 99% of what is posted and discussed on Twitter is total and complete drivel. For every Iranian democracy protester trying to rally support against a brutal dictatorship, there are 10,000 other people talking about which Britney Spears song is on the radio. Let me say it another way: Twitter can be an idiotic, pointless place to spend any amount of time. You’re not missing anything. This is not to say Twitter isn’t relevant or that people and companies shouldn’t be on Twitter and exploring opportunities in and around Twitter. There are far too many people on Twitter to ignore it now and it has far too much potential once it matures. But even direct communication between people on Twitter − and Twitter is, theoretically, a reasonably quick and effective means of communicating directly with someone else, especially on a PDA − even that communication is wildly contrived and self-important in the sense that you are, for the most part, communicating in full view of everyone who follows you now or might follow you some day. Think of an obnoxious stage whisper in the crowded bar of a chic restaurant − is that person really only trying to talk to his friend or is he in fact trying to be heard by the crowd? The obvious answer, of course, is that, whether the stage whisperer knows it or not, he absolutely wants to heard by the crowd. Put another way, if you really have something to say only to me, don’t Tweet it. Just send me an email or text. I’m constantly struck by the degree to which Twitter is an extraordinarily contrived space. The Web is filled with sites offering strategies for building one’s following on Twitter and virtually all those strategies involve embracing some sort of artificial means of attracting other people to your posts. “Ask questions that will start a discussion (whether or not you care about that discussion).” “Reveal something people don’t otherwise know (whether or not what you say is genuine).” “Be friendly and personal (whether or not you care about your followers).” In the marketing of the book, for instance, the publisher had me do a range of posts about the book virtually every day for six or more months. I posted everything from quick excerpts to photos of rough drafts to updates on book signings and interviews. All that made perfect sense to me. It was all obviously self-promotional and focused entirely on the book or, to a lesser extent, the writer of the book. Yet at some point someone mildly chastised me one day because I was only posting Tweets about Shimmer. “Try posting about cooking or what you’re doing today,” she said. In other words, delve into the inane. And I have to say that, to a large extent, they were probably was right. The fact is, the kind of strategies she suggested actually work, at least to the extent that the goal is to increase one’s number of followers. On my Twitter account for the book, I have sometimes followed New York City publishing people whose posts usually involve not literature or the precarious state of publishing or even something as relatively trivial as the pros and cons of various book bindings. Instead, they post about their cats. “I woke up and Friskie needed water. He ALWAYS wants more water!!” We’re talking 10 posts before 10 a.m. about cats, many of them part of a two-way conversation with other publishing professionals who share an obsession with their kitties. And a person like that, at this point in the lifecycle of Twitter, will have 1,000 followers. By that logic, I shouldn’t be posting about characters in the book, I should be describing what I ate for breakfast. (And The Daily News shouldn’t be posting updates on local construction, it should be posting updates on what color we’re planning to paint the bathrooms.) The irony with The Daily News, I think, is that we actually have a huge amount of information worth posting. Unlike so many other people and organizations on Twitter, The Daily News can post quick, accurate and timely updates on news and information of interest to an audience that can be targeted very effectively by the various tools available in and around Twitter. This is very different than my take on Facebook, by the way. The inanity factor on Facebook is only 70 or 80%, versus the 99% on Twitter. The fundamental difference, as you’ve probably read, is that on Facebook the connections between people are based almost entirely on a simple system of invitation and acceptance. I can’t remember the name of the guy who wrote the de facto manifesto on permission-based marketing [Seth Godin, “Permission Marketing”], but I heard him speak at a conference back in the late 90s and he was extremely persuasive that companies were on the verge of blowing the greatest marketing opportunity ever − email marketing − because we were failing to do a very simple thing: We weren’t asking permission. Facebook, however, is inherently dependent upon permission and so the connections between people, or between people and companies, are, relatively speaking, much stronger than on Twitter. It’s not surprising then that The Daily News has half as many friends on Facebook as we do followers on Twitter. There’s more wariness on Facebook, more a sense of trust and purpose that needs to be proven before a connection is made. Put another way, Facebook is that place where you reconnect with the old friend with the gross, crude sense of humor who told obnoxious stories about his father that you enjoyed in the privacy of the small kitchen of your first apartment. Twitter is the bar you’ve never been to before, where you’re forced to tolerate the drunk you’ve never met sitting at the table in the corner telling disgusting stories about his father. ShitMyDadSays was so startlingly funny because he was neither − or maybe it’s both − of the above. All that criticism of Twitter aside, I think it’s clear that The Daily News has a place on Twitter. It’s an extremely quick, easy-to-use medium capable of a highly targeted, even personally crafted delivery of what can and should be exceedingly relevant information. We just have to weather this phase of inane updates about cats. And the ludicrous updates about shit my dad says.