Posts Tagged ‘twitter’

Civil War Tweeter

Too cold for Twitter?

Bill Gates just showed up on a list of suspected undesirables, in the company of con artists, Civil War veterans and, well, some of my dearest friends. The list was delivered courtesy of The Twit Cleaner, a free service created by Aussie Si Dawson to remove annoying people from your Twitter stream. While it’s easy to discount the report for its number of apparent false positives, the categories alone are useful as a sort of inverse best practices list—a manual for how to get yourself unfollowed on Twitter. And on closer inspection, you might find that some of the obvious false positives are not so obvious after all.

Reports begin with a list of accounts exhibiting “Dodgy Behavior,” including that most insidious of abuses, “Try to Sell You Crap.” But other behaviors in the Dodgy category, such as inclusion of links with every post, are actually considered by some people to be good behavior. Consultants trying to help marketers establish their brand on Twitter often recommend including a link with every post so that click-throughs can be measured for ROI. They forget to see the Twitter stream from a reader’s perspective, in which the conversation is both motivation and destination. A stream of endless links is not just an annoyance, it’s a conversation killer. And if every post within a community is designed to take participants outside of that community, it begins to look a lot more like advertising than peer-to-peer communication.

The next offenders in the report are all guilty of sloth. Of not tweeting in at least the past 30 days. This is the group most despised by the Twitter Doubters who point to inactive accounts as proof that Twitter is a passing fad, and who complain that the numbers most often cited for success are bloated and inaccurate. But it is here, in this list, that you’ll find your timid friends. They are good people at best, and at worst they are far less annoying than people who tweet Bartlett’s quotations every 30 minutes. It is also here that some of tomorrow’s best conversationalists are getting ready to shine. Sometimes an account that has been inactive for months will suddenly blossom into a busy, insightful stream of great information. When the time is right. So these offenders, more than the others flushed out by The Twit Cleaner, deserve a second chance. Interestingly enough, some of the people I’ve found on this list are “social media experts” who are advising teams across major corporations about how to use Twitter. No need to name names. They deserve a second chance too.

The last major category is dedicated to people who don’t seem to interact with others in the community. It is here, not surprisingly, that you will find the big celebrities. People who are either so famous or so smart that they can’t possibly be expected to follow you or respond to your questions. You’ll also find experimental accounts that are expanding the horizons of Twitter as a medium and by definition will be breaking the rules of good social media behavior. Accounts like @Genny_Spencer which publish real day-by-day accounts of life in Kansas between 1937 and 1941. Or TwHistory‘s re-creation of the Battle of Gettysburg through journal entries from its participants. These experimental accounts are worth following because they show us new possibilities and enrich the medium.

Celebrities, on the other hand, may be less deserving. It makes sense to keep up with people who you are truly interested in, but when it comes to the visionaries, rest assured that their most valuable insights will be retweeted to death within minutes. Better to follow your friends, and those experts who are not afraid to engage in conversation with ordinary people. The big names, whether they are major brand accounts posting endless links to the same corporate website, or major celebrities who only respond to other celebrities, these big names should remain suspects on the list of Twitter abusers.

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Urban Coffee LoungeIt seems appropriate to start this conversation while sitting in the Urban Coffee Lounge (UCL), an independent coffee shop with a clear view of Starbucks across the street. Starbucks, CEO Howard Schultz maintains in Pour Your Heart Into It, owes its success as much to giving people a place to meet and share ideas as it does to the quality of its coffee. Co-authored with Seattle writer Dori Jones Yang, this Starbucks history book appeared more than ten years ago, before the drive-through windows, the Safeway outposts run by non-Starbucks employees, the instant coffee (gasp!) in packets, and other tragedies that Schultz swore would never happen under his watch. Notwithstanding these complications, the importance of bringing people together is still true, even if it is a little truer at the coffee shop across the street from Starbucks these days.

When Schultz joined Starbucks back in 1982, the company was still focused on selling beans and equipment that its customers would use at home. But he recognized that there was a larger and more profound problem in America than just bad coffee. People no longer met together with friends and neighbors as they had in the past. Suburbs carried us away from cities and towns, televisions and air conditioning pulled us inside and isolated us further. The need to connect remained, but the places to do so were in short supply.

The success of Starbucks has led not to fewer independent coffee houses, but to more of them. Add to this the increasingly ubiquitous access to high-speed data connections and the mainstream adoption of social media, and what we have been experiencing in the last 20 years is not so much a transformation of culture as a reversal of cultural deterioration.

It was at Juanita’s UCL that I met Jack, a retired architecture professor from the University of Hawaii. He was watching a group of teenagers who were talking with each other while at the same time texting and IMing other friends. What got his attention was the way they pulled the two conversations together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Jack is working on a book about small town communities. About how they have disappeared and re-emerged through the decades, surviving to the extent that they adapt to short-term change while continuing to address the timeless and fundamental requirements of a community. Needless to say, the sight of a bunch of kids talking and texting at the same time fascinates Jack.

Not long after meeting Jack, I saw that the school bus in Juanita Village drops students off directly in front of the Starbucks entrance, and half of them go straight in. Others head over to UCL, and I like to imagine that when they start texting in the middle of their in-person conversations, they are talking to friends across the street.

Coffee tasting at UCL

Cupping preparation

Meanwhile, Jack recommends a few architects and books for me to look into, so I start my homework with Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. Published ten years before the introduction of Facebook, the book is nevertheless relevant in the world of social media with lessons that apply to any community structure, whether physical or virtual: Do not over-design based on pre-conceived notions of what people will do; Resist the pressure from your developers to have every detail worked out in advance of construction; Recognize that community structures and their occupants thrive by changing together, and changing constantly. Twitter may have started out as a way to answer the question, “What am I doing?” but users happily ignored this restrictive textbox label and the medium evolved into an ongoing dialogue about what people are thinking and what is happening in the world.

Vipin Singh, director of engagement marketing at World Vision, frames the issue more or less this way: “Isn’t social media really just traditional communication done through nontraditional means?” Looking at emerging technology through such a lens, even the most outlandish concepts can suddenly be seen as rational, normal. People who don’t regularly use Twitter, for example, think that bringing a stream of tweets onto your television screen is the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard of (barring New Coke). They believe that the Twitterverse is a ridiculous world in which people impulsively tell each other they are standing in line for a latte. But what is really much stranger is the way most Americans spend their evenings today, watching mediocre television programs in the isolation of their living room. Imagine experiencing the same programs accompanied by your best friend’s snarky comments, your brother’s bad jokes, or the oohs and ahs of fans watching simultaneously across your time zone. This is not simply a better way to experience entertainment; it is actually much more like the way things used to be. The way people experienced entertainment together for centuries before television made us lonely.

We tend to think of technology as liberating us from toil and risk, of giving us more control in an unpredictable world. The truth is that, more often, new technology simply liberates us from the constraints of old technology.

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I think it’s about time we had an Organically Grown certificate for Twitter accounts. As in, “This account is unadulterated by get-followers-quick schemes, pre-scheduled tweets, inspirational quotations from unknown sources, and any link leading to whiter teeth.”

Most of all, it would be nice to know that a community of followers really cared about the ideas being posted and helped shape future posts with their own contributions. Instead, many Twitter accounts today are bloated from reciprocal following, where a person (or a fake person) insincerely follows hundreds of accounts just to cull auto-follows and take advantage of the easily flattered. Like many people, I used to take advantage of auto-follow features in social media tools, thinking that following back was a nice way to thank my new friends. Before long I discovered that my account was following escort services, Southeast Asian freedom fighters, and more get-rich-working-from-home accounts than you can shake an iPhone at.

We need to focus more on constructive relationships, and less on numbers and recognition. As social media consultant Mack Collier puts it, “Social media needs fewer rockstars, and more rockstar ideas.” When I was at South-by-Southwest last year, I saw all the luminaries with their orbiting fans, and even joined a small group discussion with one of them. But I learned the most from a college student who ran a computer lab at a small Texas college, from a New York writer moonlighting at Parsons School of Design, from Ricardo Rabago, the man behind PCC Natural Market’s social media presence. They see their followers as peers engaged in a running dialog about a shared passion. They recognize that a conversation between a few people is much more valuable than a broad communication to 30,000 deaf listeners.

Now that everyone is rushing to join the Twitterverse, there is a growing panic among newcomers that they are too late to succeed. A sense of being stranded on a sinking Web 1.0 island while the social media boat sails away to tropical sunshine. Of being left behind in Backward Town with a flugelhorn in one hand while the sold-out bandwagon rolls off toward the bright city of ROI. And it’s tempting under these circumstances to obsess over getting followers quickly, to rush the growth of the community.

Which is why we need the Organically Grown certificate. To recognize those who build their community one follower at a time, who respond to questions and ideas, who recognize others in the greater social media community, and who lead us, by association, to others who speak to the same passions and do it well. The fast-growing giant gets everyone’s attention, sure, but the naturally grown community is much healthier. It’s not just common sense. It’s true.

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Just when we were all waiting around to catch the swine flu, the twitterverse was hit instead with a digital infection. It’s not the first attack targeting Twitter users, but the ROFL phishing scam strikes at a time when many businesses are just warming to the idea that it makes sense to build and protect brand equity through Twitter. Pity the social media marketer who inadvertently falls for the scam and ends up sending customers obnoxious spam with links to phishing sites.

Unlike the 419 scams which rely on elaborate stories delivered through email or hijacked IM accounts, Twitter scams must by definition be short and simple. In this case the message is just five words: “rofl this you on here?” Delivered as a direct message from friends whose passwords have been stolen, the scam preys on our trust and curiosity. And ultimately it is this—the erosion of trust and curiosity—which most endangers Twitter as a marketing tool. Without an easier way to report scams and spammers, and a more transparent way track existing issues, all the caution in the world will not be enough to save Twitter. Which would be a real shame because I plan to tweet about getting the flu when it comes to my house.

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