One year ago, I sat down with my publisher for a conversation that I was dreading. I had finished writing my first book, and it was time to discuss my (nonexistent) presence on social media. When Twitter came up, I was prepared with a list of objections:
It’s too short. No one can possibly share a meaningful thought in 140 characters or less. I mean, that sentence was already 73 characters. Come on!
It’s too self-absorbed. I already see enough “me right now” posts from my Facebook friends. Why do I want to get them from strangers too? I’d rather watch Peter Griffin narrate his own life. (Yes, Amy, I loved reading that your Tortilla chip broke off into your salsa jar.) Plus, I hate relentless self-promotion. Who cares what I have to say, and why would I want the world to have a permanent, public record of it?
It encourages self-deception. Cool celebrities are on Twitter, but following them creates the illusion that prominent people are sharing their thoughts and experiences directly with you, as if you have a personal connection with them. I already get to harbor those delusions through the novels that I read. As Steven Pinker put it, fiction “allows the reader to enjoy pleasant hallucinations like . . . hobnobbing with powerful people.”
It's just another fad. Although I happen to like technology, I’m a slow adopter. I didn’t own a cellphone until 2003, I still use a BlackBerry (why don't other smartphones have physical keypads?), and I really don’t want to learn a whole new system, only to see it vanish under my fingertips.
A Losing Battle
One by one, Viking’s publicity experts shot down my arguments. I could make my tweets meaningful by posting links and pithy quotes. It was up to me to make sure they weren’t all navel-gazing—there’s a difference between promoting yourself and promoting your ideas—and I could easily choose not to share anything that I didn’t want the world to see. It would only take me a few minutes a day, and I could decide who to follow. Oh yeah, and if it weren’t for Twitter, Egypt might not have seen a democratic revolution. It looks like this technology is here to stay.
Admitting defeat, I was dragged onto Twitter kicking and screaming. I thought it was a necessary evil. And I was wrong. In the past year, I’ve grown fond of Twitter. It might be partially due to cognitive dissonance—see the enlightening book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. But it’s also due to six benefits that no one mentioned:
1. Sharing Without Spamming
Before Twitter, when I read an article or watched a video that I liked, I never knew how widely to share it. Early on, I would send it to a few select people who shared that particular interest. As my network grew, it became more difficult to keep track of everyone’s interests, and I was loath to add more clutter to everyone’s inbox, let alone leave them feeling obligated to reply.
Twitter solved this problem for me. I love the feature of one-to-many broadcasting with no expectation of a response. When I share something, I know it will be accessible to people who have opted in to see my tweets, and I won’t be burdening anyone else. I also don’t worry about the burden it places on them, since they can freely ignore my tweets without guilt or relationship repercussions.
2. Record Keeping
We’ve all had the frustrating experience of reading or watching something that we want to quote or revisit, only to forget where we first encountered it. (Psychologists call this a source monitoring failure: once you accept something as true, it’s efficient to remember the information and forget the source.) When this happened to me, I used to waste time searching my saved and sent email folders, and then my libraries of PDFs, books, and articles.
Now, I look to Twitter. It’s where I share many of the things that I find fascinating or worth remembering, so the odds are good that a quick search of my 600+ tweets will return the reference that I’m hunting to find. I read an article a few weeks ago with some intriguing Twitter stats, and wanted to quote it here, but didn’t recall who wrote it or where it was published. It took me less than four seconds to find it on my Twitter feed by searching for the word “Twitter.” Although my memory is in my head, Twitter often has the most efficient retrieval cues.
3. Promoting and Recognizing Other People
Social media gets a bad rap for fueling narcissism. As Conan O’Brien wrote when he joined LinkedIn, “I’m only here because of pure megalomania, plain and simple . . . That is my mission . . . for others to judge me not by the strength of my character, or wisdom of my blog posts, but by the number of LinkedIn followers I’ve amassed for no good reason.”
Instead of just bemoaning the egotistical ambience of social media, what if we each did something to change it? In Give and Take, I wrote about entrepreneur Adam Rifkin’s inspiring philosophy of doing five-minute favors for anyone, no strings attached. If five minutes is more time than you have to give, Twitter makes it possible to do five-second favors. I’ve had fun spreading the word about new books and other intriguing discoveries.
4. Tailored News
I used to rely on friends for advice on what to read and watch. On Twitter, I can access what interesting strangers are finding interesting.
Before Twitter, my writing was long-winded. (My first draft of my book was more than 104,000 words, and I threw away at least 102,000 of them.) Tweeting has taught me the discipline to say more with fewer words. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, perfection is achieved “not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” It’s an art to express a thought in 140 characters, and doing it daily is one way to build a habit.
(Case in point: #4 above was originally eight sentences. Thank you, Twitter.)
6. Serendipitous Debates
One morning in September, I tweeted this question:
Outside psychology, what profession has the most insight into human behavior?
I voted for comedians. Others suggested novelists, hotel housekeepers, teachers, sports coaches, salespeople and magicians. Imagine my surprise when Tucker Max, the notorious author of the shockingly debaucherous bestseller I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, responded: “@TuckerMax: no way. The professional con man/hustler knows people the best. They have to.”
A debate ensued, and although I don’t think either of us changed our minds, it was quite entertaining. This, after all, is the best reason to join Twitter: you get to argue with Tucker Max (warning: that opportunity might not last, as he appears to be turning over a new leaf).
So fellow Luddites: if you’re not already on Twitter, give it a try. You can find terrific tips on how to craft a compelling tweet in Dan Pink’s book To Sell Is Human, and thoughtful guidance on using social media to drive social change in The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith.