Want to use Twitter effectively? Discard its biggest myth!

BieberIn this weekend’s New York Times article Valley of the Blahs: How Justin Bieber’s Troubles Exposed Twitter’s Achilles’ Heel, technology reporter Jenna Wortham perpetuates the biggest myth about Twitter: that it’s solely a broadcast tool used by people clamoring for attention.

“What does matter, however, is how many people notice you, either through retweets, favorites or the holy grail, a retweet by someone extremely well known, like a celebrity.”
—Jenna Wortham

She then laments: “Twitter is starting to feel calcified, slowed down by the weight of its own users, cumbersome, less exciting than exhausting“.

Most of the comments on her post go even further than Jenna, smugly dismissing Twitter as a waste of time—unless you’re a narcissist.

“I can handle Twitter because it is irrelevant.”
“…this writer sums up exactly how I feel about social media in general, not just Twitter. This whole idea of likes and followers — it’s like setting up one’s business based on some vacuous high school popularity contest. Are we grown ups or not?”
“Brevity may be the soul of wit, but I find little soul in twit. (er)”
—The three most popular comments on Jenna’s article

I disagree.

When you see Twitter solely as a broadcast tool, you are overlooking its most important use: as a tool for discovery, conversation and connection.

On this site I write about a niche topic: participant-driven and participation-rich events. For me, Twitter has turned out to be the most important way for people to discover my work and for me to discover and connect with thousands of kindred souls from all over the world who share my specialized interests. When I began this website 10 years ago, I discovered that traditional search engine optimization was useless because no one was searching for the new ideas I was writing about. Today, with ten million annual page views, I’ve found that the core value of Twitter comes from its ability to discover and connect with geographically dispersed individuals with whom I have something important in common.

If you’re not a celebrity, Twitter becomes powerful when you use it for appropriate two-way communication and connection, not broadcast.

You can’t have a conversation with a million people on Bieber’s antics, but you can have a valuable conversation with smaller numbers of people who are interested in a more specialized topic, and who find each other through appropriate use of hashtags.

For example, there is a community of event professionals on Twitter who tag their tweets with #eventprofs—as well as a host of other hashtags related to their interests, professional affiliations, upcoming events, etc. This soup of appropriately tagged tweets provides a great way for those interested to check up on what is happening and talk about it. One beauty of Twitter is that all these tweets are public and searchable, so it’s easy for newcomers to the profession to discover interesting information and peers on their own schedule.

Yes, over the years the #eventprofs hashtag has been used increasingly by people who view Twitter as a broadcast medium, pumping out “listen-to-me” tweets while rarely or never responding to anyone else or retweeting interesting material. So Jenna is right that the amount of noise on Twitter has increased: the inevitable tragedy of a social media commons where posting costs nothing but the poster’s time. I don’t dismiss this noise lightly—it makes finding interesting tweets harder, and there can come a point when you decide that the effort to filter is just not worth it any more.

What has happened in the event community as a result of increasing noise is the creation of more specialized hashtags for smaller niche groups. Because anyone can create and use a new hashtag at any time on Twitter, it’s possible for a community to coalesce around a useful hashtag. Hashtags are flexible Twitter tools that can be used freely by anyone or any group that finds them useful.

I like that I get to decide how Twitter works for me. Unlike Facebook there are no secret, ever-changing algorithms deciding what I should see. Yes, it’s work to filter the fire hose of information that Twitter serves up; the daunting collective output of currently over 200 million monthly active Twitter users sending 500 million tweets per day. But by discarding the biggest myth of Twitter, you can reap the benefits of meeting and connecting successfully with people who are of value—value that you get to choose.