A couple of weeks ago I deactivated my Ditchwalk Twitter account. All I have felt in the aftermath is relief.
A basic premise of independent authorship is that authors should establish their own platform in order to reach out to readers and potential customers. I believe in that premise. What constitutes a platform, however, remains undefined.
Currently many people believe that Facebook and Twitter are central to an author’s platform because of the size of those online communities. But joining Facebook or Twitter merely allows the opportunity to start building, managing and marketing to the communities segregated on those sites. All of the work still needs to be done by you, often under terms and conditions no one in their right mind would otherwise submit to.
Facebook constantly made me feel like a sucker so I dropped it — and have never regretted doing so. Twitter, with its more fluid and simple conversational focus, never felt like a con game, but over time the potential and benefit of the site narrowed and faded. In the end I felt the time I allocated to using and managing Twitter could be more profitably spent in other ways. As I hope the remainder of this post attests, this was not a conclusion I came to rashly.
I used Twitter for a year and a half, and in a number of ways the experience was profitable. I met and connected with interesting people, and early on I found the Twitter stream a good resource for information on topics of interest. During the tumult of last year, when the publishing industry was grappling with bracing change, Twitter seemed vital.
As that excitement waned so too did Twitter’s relevance to my interests. I don’t deny Twitter’s success at communicating sporting events, government revolutions or natural disasters. Between Twitter’s 140-character limit and the impermanence of tweets I think the medium is particularly suited to documenting the now, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a temporary and transient thing, but not inherently bad.
Still, toward the end of my year and a half Twitter came to feel like nothing so much as a virtual water cooler. It was a 24/7 conversation I could drop in on when I wanted to, and at times I found interesting comments or links to chase. For the most part, however, Twitter read like nothing so much as an unending scroll of random blog-post comments. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.
Twitter and the 90-9-1 Principle
If you’re not familiar with the 90-9-1 Principle you can get a quick overview here, and read an earlier post referencing the principle here. On Twitter I think the principle holds, meaning only 1% of the people posting tweets are invested in active problem solving or content creation.
My original assumption about Twitter was that choosing who to follow would increase that percentage. That assumption proved wrong. I tried hard to make sure the people I followed were focused on issues I cared about. Despite my best efforts I found 90% of the tweets I followed to be either social or rhetorical, while 9% were devoted to self-marketing. A faint 1% of the tweets on any given day provided me with topical posts to read or new lines of thought to engage.
If there’s any inherent dissonance between Twitter and Ditchwalk it’s that the last thing I ever want to be is a prisoner of the moment. Twitter’s strength is documenting moments individually and collectively. Most of what people tweet isn’t worth saving or commenting on, and the collective response to any event rarely evolves beyond boos and cheers.
Twitter as a medium drives this superficial messaging through its 140-character limit. Even allowing for serial tweets or the use of shortened links, saying anything truly useful in a tweet is close to impossible. (Pithy, sure. Clever, sure. Funny, you bet.)
The management and tracking of links in tweets is its own subject. It’s not hard to do, but it is time-consuming. Even a shortened link can take up ten or fifteen characters, reducing the available character limit. It’s also tempting to track the outbound clicks of shortened links by using sites like bit.ly or owl.ly, but doing so creates another management layer and increases the Twitter workload.
Because Twitter is a free service I don’t own the things I write on Twitter. I’m okay with that in the same way I’m okay with not owning a comment I add to someone’s blog post, but it’s not a benign issue. Twitter’s future has not yet been determined, and it’s possible if not likely that Google or Facebook or another company will buy Twitter in order to exploit all those tweet-reading eyeballs. Too, as Twitter tries to monetize its conversation the temptation will only grow to follow Facebook to the dark side, and I’m not down with that. (More about Facebook’s dubious platform utility here.)
Twitter and the Permanence Problem
Twitter is happening now. Its greatest strength is that it’s a real-time reflection of the thoughts and sentiments of users. That’s also its greatest weakness. If you want to put your finger in the fickle, fluctuating wind of public opinion, Twitter excels. If you want to dig into a subject, or understand a subject in depth, Twitter fails.
Hand-in-hand with this reliance on immediacy is the problem of monitoring Twitter. If you’re not online, staring at your own feed, then you miss out on what’s being said. Yes, you can scroll down and go back in time a few minutes or hours, but doing so both defeats the Twitter experience of now while obligating you to more workload.
I never figured out how to effectively mine the Twitter stream during those hours when I was offline. If I missed a useful or interesting tweet that was the price I paid. Not surprisingly, this built-in drawback motivated me to stay online more and more, even as I knew that most of the tweets I would be scanning would be useless. From the point of view of Twitter’s ownership this inducement to obsession has obvious benefits, but to me it simply became an irritation.
I don’t want to devote myself to applications or websites that make demands of me. I don’t want to monitor or manage myself in order to make use of online communities like Twitter. What I want are communities and sites and applications that solve problems for me or help me think things through. Twitter demands — by design — vigilance on the part of users who hope to do more than drop stray thoughts into the stream. Because participating in a meaningful ongoing conversation requires paying attention, and because Twitter’s constant stream defeats that ability, Twitter almost compels rhetorical asides and non sequiturs. By definition Twitter decreases the strength of any signal and increases the noise.
Twitter and the Follow Problem
I didn’t spend any time worrying about who was following me on Twitter. I spent very little time deciding who to follow if they followed me. The one aspect of the Twitter community I did try to manage was who I followed and why. As noted above my goal was to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of my Twitter stream, but after a year and a half I failed to do that.
Initially the workload all this conferred on me was minimal. You follow people or you don’t. But at some point each initial decision became an ongoing management commitment. Had I been driven by a desire to increase my follows and followers the choice would have been easy: follow everybody and allow all followers. But I was interested in quality, not quantity.
Toward the end I tried to pay even more attention to who I was following as a means of making Twitter more useful, but doing so never paid off or compensated for the increase in workload. Rather than prune my follows down to a handful — the only effective way to maintain control and focus — I decided to move on.
Twitter and the Numbers Game
I grouped Twitter users into three broad categories:
This is everybody from the biggest Hollywood or sports name to the niche celebrity. You can spot them on Twitter because their followers vastly outnumber the people they’re following. (A week or two after I deactivated my account this happened, further reinforcing my conviction that I’d made the right choice.)
These are people who facilitate connections between people. Their follows and followers usually number in the thousands, and tend to be more balanced than those of celebs. They act as promoters and gatekeepers and reviewers and validators, but not always in a benevolent way.
This is the long tail of Twitter. People in this category usually have more follows than followers. Because of their relative availability they are generally more accessible and responsive — and more interested in substantive conversation — than the other two groups. Without question I learned more from this group than the other two combined.
When I closed my own account I had 400+ follows and 400+ followers, and appeared on 35+ lists. I could have easily followed many more people in order to increase my followers, but I intentionally tried to keep the list focused and manageable.
From a publishing and platform perspective the goal on Twitter is to become a celebrity so you can leverage that celebrity to drive sales. The problem with celebrity on Twitter is that it has nothing to do with being part of a conversation, and everything to do with marketing. Celebrity tweets are, in effect, product placement advertising for the products that celebrity wants to sell — including themselves. And that’s fine if what you’re trying to do is keep yourself in the news or monetize your name. Because I have no celebrity to exploit, and because I was interested in having a conversation, obligating myself to a numbers game was actually at odds with my goals.
Twitter and Self-Promotion
Toward the end of my year and a half on Twitter I found myself using the site almost solely to tweet links to Ditchwalk posts. That’s not what I wanted to do with Twitter, or who I wanted to be, so as compensation I tried to make myself useful by retweeting other people’s links and otherwise being a helpful twittizen. I also tried to post tweets without hype, and without the kind of pandering teasers that others used in order to drive clicks. But even at that I always felt self-conscious about doing little more than advertising.
And that’s the crux of my problem. Twitter feels like a conversation in which everybody is talking and nobody is listening. Or like a communal bulletin board in which everybody papers over each others fliers without bothering to respond.
With apologies to Clay Shirkey, I also found Twitter almost useless for crowd sourcing. It’s possible my questions were simply too far afield, or that on those occasions when I did ask questions the wrong people were watching the stream, but the fact remains that Twitter became the last place I would go for answers.
I did see an increase in blog hits when I dropped links to new blog posts on Twitter. Sometimes the posts went marginally viral, resulting in RT’s that generated hundreds of hits. Normally, however, the number of generated hits was fairly small and fairly constant, calling into question the utility of Twitter over the long haul — particularly when only 1% or so of my followers would probably be interested in my content.
Twitter and the Split-Focus Problem
I recognize that Facebook and Twitter are useful marketing opportunities because they are large-scale communities, but in my experience those communities also came to feel like a pointless obligation. If I’m going to slave myself to a responsibility I want it to be one that’s central to my work and interests, not peripheral or redundant. Managing Ditchwalk and managing Twitter (and Facebook before) felt like splitting my focus.
As with Facebook, I’m not convinced that Twitter is useful in a marketing sense to anyone who doesn’t already have the celebrity to draw and exploit large numbers of followers. (More on Twitter’s dubious efficacy here.)
Plenty of people will say the smart move would have been to keep my Ditchwalk Twitter account because of all the time I’d invested in it. Maybe that’s right, but I don’t think so. In fact, I think there’s too much paranoia and hostage taking in virtual communities.
Every week a new social site appears on the web and offers people the opportunity to claim (protect) their identity (brand). Not only is this a form of extortion, but the premise implies an unending obligation to claim, manage and exploit identities. Rather than go down an insatiable road I’m committed to investing in my own name and in Ditchwalk, and doing what I can to encourage readers and potential customers to find me there.
My Twitter Future
I’m grateful for every blog reader and every blog comment on Ditchwalk. I’m passionately interested in the subjects I talk about, and always surprised when I come across someone who shares those passions — let alone someone willing to engage in debate.
I’m also interested in writing fiction and selling my work, which is the secondary purpose of my site: to act as a portal for readers and others. Having watched a number of authors on Twitter I can only conclude that the points I’ve raised in this post only become magnified when Twitter is used to try to connect with readers. The tendency to broadcast rather than converse is increased, the temptation to self-promote is omnipresent, and the pressure to monetize one’s followers often leads to gimmicky behavior and promotions that I personally find embarrassing. (I don’t doubt that some of those efforts are effective.)
I still have a Twitter account for Neil Rorke and I’m still experimenting with it. It’s also possible I’ll rejoin Twitter at some point in the future under another name. Relative to Ditchwalk, however, and my aims for this site, Twitter wasn’t useful. Or rather it wasn’t useful enough to warrant the time I spent on it or the routine distraction it became.
I’m thankful to everybody who followed me on Twitter. I’m also thankful for the work people put into the feeds I followed. I won’t be part of the Twitter stream anymore, but I’m still here and always willing to talk about issues that demand more than 140 characters.
— Mark Barrett