Help Me Explain Twitter to Eggheads

I have a nifty assignment from Chronicle of Higher Education to write about why I'm on Twitter. Personal essay, 1200 words, for print and online. Wanna help? If you're on Twitter, tell me what you use it for.

4 Jan 2009 12:50 pm Comments Off on Help Me Explain Twitter to Eggheads

“What it’s like, why you do it,” my editor, Karen Winkler, wrote in her instructions. “Don’t expect me to do this article without talking about it on Twitter,” I wrote back. She said: no problem. So I did some of that, and here we are.

This is my Twitter feed. What I have so far:

A dummy title. Why I Write 400 Words a Day and Put Them on Twitter. Whether that’s the actual title or not, it’s the question my piece must answer.

Known audiences: subscribers to the Chronicle of Higher Education, anyone on the web who’s closely interested in social media, the 5,000+ people in my Twitter feed plus the broader crowd in Twitterland they can potentially reach. Bloggers, journalists, J-schoolers, PressThink users, my colleagues on the journalism faculty at NYU.

Deliverables: Essay in The Chronicle Review (print edition, weekly). By prior agreement, the piece will be online in the free section of the site; and it will also run at PressThink in a more developed form.

Givens: Twitter has been in the news lately. It’s seen as trendy. Lots have heard of it without really understanding it. This would probably include my editor, but that’s what good editors do. They represent curious readers who know a little. Many people have observed the difficulty of explaining what Twitter “is” until the person requesting the explanation tries it out. I certainly found that to be true in my experience.

Some “must have” parts to the story:

1. The who what when and why of deciding to join Twitter in May of 2008. (Jeff Jarvis pestered me into it.)

2. My custom-built description of what Twitter “is” and where it came from. Here I note that it’s notoriously difficult to explain to the non-user, but give it a go anyway.

3. Who I follow and why, how I picked them, how I add them now. What it’s like to read the inflow from Twitter.

4. What my Twitter posts consist of, the different types I return to, why I write them that way, and how I go about adding value.

5. The whole 140 characters thing and how that constraint creates the genre.

6. What a Twitter “feed” is, where its value lies, and how it compares to a traditional blog.

7. The connection between micro-blogging and the kind of blogging I’ve been doing at PressThink since 2003, at the Huffington Post since 2005 and IdeaLab since 2007.

8. Some terrible things about Twitter for a writer: can’t edit it, the archiving sucks, can’t keep up with follower growth and “hand add” easily.

9. And then, the thing I need your help with: what do I actually use Twitter for?.

I have a number of answers to that, which I will present, but I would like to feature some others. The intent of my question is to put the accent on “useful.” What do you use Twitter for? I’m especially interested if you’re an academic—student, teacher, PhD—but my curiosity is not limited to those groups.

My case: I use Twitter as a hand-built tipster network. That’s one thing my follower list amounts to. I also use it to keep in touch with friends of my ideas. I am planning to write these observations up as bullet points, like so: (Q: “What do I use Twitter for?”)

  • It’s a hand-built tipster network. The people I follow bring essential things to my attention and keep me current. That’s why I picked them! (140 clicks)
  • Twitter keeps me in touch with people who are friends of my ideas. I know about their projects and current obsessions; they know about mine. (140)
  • I use it to learn about the “live web” and sharing networks, two critical developments directly in my sights as a student of media. (131)

And I have a few more like that. If you want to help me, and possibly be in my piece: craft a bullet point exactly like I did, but about your experience. Make it a reply to the question: what do you use Twitter for? (Or what have you found it useful for?) Keep it to 140 clicks or less. It should be a piece of writing. An answer like, “Breaking news, Twitter is way faster…” may be a valid and accurate statement, but it is not a piece of writing. This is a writing (and, heck, thinking) assignment!

Game? By participating you give me permission to use your bullet, but of course I may not wind up using what you say. I’m hoping the comment thread will have value regardless of how much of it is used. Of course you are free to comment on any part of the assignment, offer suggestions, and to add context to your bullet point.

You can even complain about the “meta”-ness of it, and how lame it is to be writing about Twitter. But—fair warning—you will bore me really fast with that. I study and write about social media and blogging. They’re part of my beat. The Chronicle knew that when they asked me to take on this assignment.

Now if you are willing to play ball and help me with my piece, just put your bullet point in the comments. I will also be collecting replies on Twitter. Remember: I’m not asking what you think about Twitter in some lazy, hazy or general way. I’m not asking why you love it, or why some don’t. I’m asking what you find it useful for. (What’s the gain? What do you “get” if you play?) I think this is what a lot of people—and Chronicle of Higher Education readers—want to know.

What’s your bullet point? The bar is open. And the replies are streaming in from Twitter. I’ve collected the non-redundant ones. Start here and follow the trail. The latest round from Twitter is here.