Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Twitter, Paris Hilton and Teletubbies

The amount of technological advance since I've been able to spell technological is huge, even though it's dwarfed by the kind of change my grandparents knew in their lifetimes. Still, I learned to type on a manual typewriter, learned accounting in the manual double-entry world and remember our family phone number from when I was four: "ivy-three" 2863. For a very long time, it was the only number I needed to know.

I remember when onion skin and carbon paper died and Post-Its and bar codes came along. I was a Wang glossary wizard with white console lettering on green screens but adapted to Mac technology when all fonts were possible in black on white. And that was 20-25 years ago. Fast forward through an astonishing revolution of our concepts of communication and we're in the MySpace world. Well, used to be. My fourteen-year old, who has never seen carbon paper (or possibly even a typewriter), tells me that MySpace is dead. When it first arrived on the scene I wondered what use it could have, but then I got it. So far, social networking sites, the way they work and the underlying software and monetary basis for them, make sense to me.

And then along came Twitter.

I get the social part of Twitter. I get having a group of friends with whom a person can chat en masse all day long using a cell phone or computer or whatever. I get why a group of friends might be just fine sending "grocery line #sucks" and "that #movie was great" to each other. I get how the cell phone connection is valuable beyond rubies in lead generation revenue. I even get how it's useful to glean information from the completely public exchanges through deliberate hashtags or simply the volume of times a word occurs to gauge the response of Twitter users as one type of bellwether.

What I don't get is how any of that is applicable to anything that isn't what used to be called a Megatrend. (Flashback from the past for some of you I'm sure.) Lots of useful information about all things Twilight. Not so much all things Hannah Free which is nearer and dearer to my heart. When the subject isn't what the people who report on Twitter notice as a trend is that topic the proverbial tree falling in the Twitter forest?

I did take the plunge. I set up to follow writers and causes I support, a news service and even a retailer I like. I got 5 Tweets an hour from the retailer and 25 from the news service and was constantly getting a ping telling me I had a tweet, like an alarm clock where the snooze wouldn't shut off. From all the others I followed, just a few a day. I was endlessly wading through my D-list interest-wise to get to the A-list and spent even more time glued to my computer like it was election night waiting for the return updates, except the new must-have-at-that-very-moment data burst was 10% off on sheets.

Twitter did just come out with a list function, and that would help a lot, just as they've partnered with Linked-In to take on the Facebook juggernaut. But there was no question in my mind that for every time I tweeted to my followers about a book there would be a thousand tweets from lotsofguysbiggerthanme.com between my words and my existing or potential readers' eyeballs.

As I floundered about in Twitterland I kept reading all the coverage about how influential Twitter is. News agencies started using tweets like valid opinion research, as if a Pew research study that says 68% of Americans like blue skies is offset by rainlvr4u's tweet that #rain is the best. Bloggers about the uses of Twitter became authorities of the latest and brightest in cutting edge social networking sophistication and its business applications. Twitter sold albums, made stars, and the buzz overflowed. But how much of all the tweeting actually achieved something other than coverage of tweeting? That's my sticking point: is Twitter the Paris Hilton of the Internet?

I do know of one successful Twitter campaign that touched the world I live in, and that was when Amazon delisted all its LGBT titles for being porn. Tweeting set off media coverage, quick comparison of search results and a unified outrage; #amazonfail still means "big corporate screw-up." Maybe all that tweeting had Amazon moving just a bit more quickly than a glacier to make the fix needed. But it didn't get an honest explanation from them. And their sales are bigger than ever, so any impact of a boycott based on the thinking that caused the delisting didn't last.

So other than its well-covered and reported success stories, just what does Twitter bring to the world? Yesterday a columnist suggested that Twitter allowed people in companies to collaborate and share information quickly. Quicker than email? On a possibly hackable platform? Really? I think the word "quickly" is wrong--what the columnist meant was "in a way I have a vested interest in deeming Important."

Another example is a reported "success" story of a Twitter-like microblogging of a book. The author was a big hit in Japan with the novel, sent out into the world one tweet burst at a time. Lots of buzz. Cutting edge. My favorite coverage, however, pointed out that the novel was free, one of the first of its kind making it a novelty, and wondered with that much effort and time expended if the author could afford to undertake another such novel. So far, the writer hadn't attracted a publisher who offered a way to get paid for that or future work. As a fanfic writer I know commented, it was like reading online stories two lines at a time with a page refresh in between each burst. Five-year old HTML pages were more convenient to her. I don't know if that's the wave of the future for writing. I know I can't pay my bills with buzz so it's not a strategy I'll jump to explore.

By comparing it to Paris Hilton, I see that lots of people are talking about it, lots of people are making livings reporting on its every development and they've given it the authority to declare things "hot." Yet how many of us think we have a chance in Hades of getting Paris Hilton to bless anything we're working on? Maybe we know people who might get blessed, just like we might know somebody who'll drop out of high school and win the world poker championships. But are we that guy? I'm not Bill Gates or Kathy Griffin (whose tenacity and business plan I admire). I'm not JK Rowling, yet often the advice for the road to success is to do what she did. Somehow.

I'm not even some guy I've never heard of who has made hundreds of millions of dollars mining Facebook and MySpace with games and apps for emails and phone numbers he sells to corporations. While everyone else was trying to figure out how Important it all was, he went for one of the oldest sure-fire money makers there is: lead generation for marketers. 

Those aren't paths I can replicate or scale down to my world. Paris Hilton isn't ever going to think my books are "hot." So I have to ask, if I'm not in a statistically significant or blogospherically relevant hashtag group will I get any return for existing on Twitter?
Especially when I find the lack of being able to edit my bursts antithetical to my entire DNA?
For me, at its best and as it exists right now, Twitter replicates what Facebook provides and without a lot of the extra advantages, including, well, that I get Facebook in much the same way as I get Amazon.com and sort of wish I didn't. I would have to see a significant migration to Twitter of the people I already know, or see that some kind of small scale success is sustained before I make another attempt to understand its tweetsomeness.

I haven't felt this way since Teletubbies, when I watched far too many shows trying to discern the story arc. Eventually Tinky Winky would become a gay icon because, in today's parlance, a bigot twit tweeted #redpurseisgay often enough. Teletubbies made my stomach hurt, but finally my daughter made me stop forcing it on her. She was two and far wiser than I was. I'm hoping my current TwitoHilton thinking is equally wise. For now.


There is no hashtag for #tinkywinky. I'm not sure that qualifies as irony.



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