The power of Twitter

When I mention Twitter to friends who are not yet using the service, usual reactions are either to dismiss it as “more noise I don’t need in my life” or “why do I want to hear the dreary details of strangers lives?”. Having been using Twitter now for several years I thought it would be useful to look at the case for and against and sum up the experience. Is this just a passing fad or are we experiencing a communications revolution? Is it worth the time and effort or should I turn off my computer/mobile and do something more useful instead?

Twitter for Mac screenshotAlthough not a substitute for real face-to-face relationships, it can enhance the relationships you already have and allows you too keep in loose contact with people you know only a little or don’t have time or opportunity to hang out with in the real world. For example I am a member of a large church (1000+ members) and can’t hope to get to know even half of them. However an increasing number are on Twitter and with a simple “follow” I am able to get an insight into their lives and some of the things happening amongst the church community that I would never otherwise be able to do. It also allows you to meet interesting strangers and chat in a way you would rarely do in real life or on Facebook.

Probably the single most useful aspect of Twitter is the links that are shared. Many times I have clicked on links to web pages that are fascinating and informative, sites that I would never have otherwise heard of or seen. Information, ideas and pictures that broaden our understanding of the world, and each other.

Twitter allows a group of people to experience an event and pass comments and feedback as it happens. It can add a whole new dimension to watching something on TV or attending a conference. (The Olympic opening ceremony was a good recent example) There is often extra insight, a new angle or just witty comments that can expand and deepen one’s thoughts on the subject. Getting immediate comment on things as the happen, even though they maybe located anywhere in the world can add to the excitement a make you feel part of a shared experience. It is also a good way to gauge a cross section of public opinion free from the biases of the mainstream media.

With a network of people instantly contactable at your fingertips it is easy to pose a simple question to the ‘group mind’ and get quick responses. “Anyone know a good electrician?“, “Has anyone has the same issue with WordPress?” “where’s the best Italian restaurant in Brighton?” Most people love to give advice and opinions so you will usually get quick answers.

Assuming your tweets are interesting and worthwhile, you will start to build a group of followers and this gives you the chance to influence them in a small way and of course they may begin to influence your thinking. Whether its offering them links to good websites, commenting on events or offering a glimpse of your lifestyle you can become an online influencer in a way that was never possible before. I run a campaign website as a sideline to my work and in addition to my personal/work account I have a separate account, tweeting regularly about issues relevant to that campaign. The number of followers for this single subject twitter feed is growing fast and the influence of the Twitter account is probably now more significant than the website it was originally set up to support.

Many see Twitter as something that is mainly for personal use and are becoming dismayed by the increasing use by PR and marketing people to sell and promote brands and companies to clients and customers. However it is possible to engage an audience by being a good ‘net citizen’ and avoiding blatant marketing and blatant self-promotion. Good practice is to make subtle and occasional ‘promotional’ tweets mixed with stuff that is interesting and useful to your followers.

Anything that takes time away from your main focus in life should be carefully considered. Twitter (and Facebook) can become addictive to the point that we are always thinking “what’s happening now?“, “what have I missed?“, “I must post this…” There are already plenty of distractions that can de-rail us from our main purpose of in life. Time spent with family and friends is precious and we need to be careful we don’t spend more time with the laptop or smartphone than with people. Are we wasting our employers time when we should be working? If not used carefully, Twitter can just send us a stream of information about stuff that is of little, help, use or importance and it just becomes another noise to add to email, the web, TV, radio, texts, phone calls etc. Information overload is a hazard of modern life. We need to control the flow of information and not let it control us.

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