OMG! What the hell have I been doing for the past six years?

50,000 tweets. That’s the milestone I just reached. That’s a helluva lot of abused hashtags, rants, and randomness. Also a lot of friends and even adopted family, fascinating discussions, and exploration into a world that continues to amaze me.

I’ve written before about Twitter (‘A Look Back @ Twitter‘, ‘IRL is Real Stupid‘, and ‘The History of the World (of Social Media), Part 1 – The Myth of Social Media‘ to name but a few). So rather than bore you with more pontification, I thought I’d do something different.

By the Numbers

(or quantifying the randomness that is my life on Twitter)

Using a copy of my Twitter archive, I uploaded it to this tool and got this report. What follows here are the highlights (as judged by me) with some pointless commentary.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.47.49 PMET
Obviously, I peaked in 2010 and it’s all been downhill since! Sort of surprised that 2012 wasn’t the highest — obviously I needed to make more fun of the election!
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Prosaicness personified. At least nothing here to embarrass me, though the appearance of “Obama” might haunt me. At least “like”, “love”, and “think” are up there 🙂
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Certainly no surprises here! Some trolls I’ve had “free and frank discussions” with made it on here, but for the most part a great collection of people that have made my life richer and more interesting.
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Okay, this one had me laughing. Includes some classics such as #JessGotBoomBoom, #MUPS, and #GeekCommune, as well as my own #LAFK (life away from keyboard — to use instead of IRL)
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I am obviously a happy person — emoticons don’t lie 😀
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And despite what people might think, I don’t #hashtag #everything. Just #MostThings. And occasionally even #OutsideTwitter.

And that’s it. On a serious note, I just want to thank everyone who interacts with me on Twitter. Many of you I’ve come to feel I know and whether it’s cool and interesting links you post or just being yourself, I think of you all as windows on a world that at the age of almost-forty-three I feel I’m just beginning to learn about. I once wrote:

…I realized I was a member of a fluid, dynamic tribe all doing the same thing at the same time (and having very similar impressions) and I was okay with that. I mean, I’m the least likely to “join” anything – it’s just not my thing, but what Twitter allows is for you to identify yourself by what you tweet and who you follow, and a “tribe” of like-minded people organically grows out of that and it’s not at all static or limiting. There is no joining, there is just you being you, and then you start running into people with similar interests. It is, in essence, nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

I still feel that way and enjoy “belonging” on Twitter in a way I’ve never quite managed to do anywhere else. It’s brought me into contact with people I now regard the same as family and a broad and diverse circle of friends. Not bad for 140 characters!

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The History of the World (of Social Media), Part 1 – The Myth of Social Media

Focus can be a dangerous thing.

Have you ever played golf? I do on occasion. It’s generally not pretty. Whenever I get a golf club in my hands, even if it’s just at a driving range, I face a battle. The battle is between trying to be mindful of how to swing a thin stick made of carbon fiber composite with this funny little bend at the end at a ball in such a way as to make the ball go straight and far…and completely forgetting I’m doing any of that. Usually  what happens are one or two good shots and then some wicked hooks and slices.

…and then that’s when I knocked over Doc Ock’s mailbox.

There are many pursuits which are similar — learning a musical instrument, playing video games, and for me — driving a stick shift. Everything goes along swimmingly until that moment you realize what the hell you are doing and then it precedes to all go sideways (which if you’re driving a car is usually the wrong way to go about any sort of forward progress). However, when it’s right, you forget what you’re trying to do, the world falls away and you just do it.

What is usually referred to as “social media” is like that. The best examples of social media gone wrong are usually the result of someone over-thinking and trying too hard. It feels false to anyone who sees it and thus whatever effect was intended is lost. (See the recent Applebee’s fiasco for an excellent example)

Almost three years ago, I wrote a piece titled “A Look Back @ Twitter.” It was, by far, the most successful, most read piece of writing I’ve posted here and continues to be found and read (more than 2,000 views out of the more than 10,000 I’ve received on this blog). At the time I wrote it, I’d been on Twitter for almost 3 years but only seriously using it for about a year. I have now been on Twitter for more than 5 years (it will be 6 next July) – which is like a millennium in web timescales. If you’re interested, I think the post is still pretty true and has held up relatively well, so it may be worth your time if you haven’t read it. I only bring it up to point out that since I wrote it, Twitter has changed — as well it should.

When the modern Internet developed (not back in the ARPA days, but more recently in the boom times of the 90s when the idea of it went mainstream), it was a tool in search of a problem. A number of people and companies came forward, sure in the knowledge they had figured out the secret, and they tried to make the Internet and the World Wide Web (that term sounds so freaking archaic now!) fit that vision: commerce, communication, whatever. Most of them failed. Some had some success and everyone kept trying because it was just this huge, wondrous thing that everyone knew would be vital…somehow.

Then came “Web 2.0” — a defunct marketing term if ever there was one — and after that “social media.” While there was much corporate verbiage thrown about related to leveraging communication, targeting consumers, engaging audiences, and other such nonsense, what it all basically boiled down to was a bunch of people throwing stuff up on the wall and seeing what stuck and never being quite sure why it did.

But what sticks is this: LIFE.

Zen on the Beach
“And we’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere. And to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.” – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

People want to do what they’ve been doing since we started banging rocks together: find and acquire things (food, love, a good place to find the right kind of rocks), talk to other people about the things that interest them (food, love, what kinds of rocks are best to bang together), and knit themselves into a supportive social web of people that will make it a little easier to bear all the times when you can’t find food or love, or when you bang your thumb with a rock.

Where a lot of people (and companies spending obscene amounts of money) went wrong was in thinking that the “technology revolution” would change society. Instead what it has meant is that technology has changed. If you’re as old as I am, you remember what technology used to be: centralized, top-down, and hierarchical. Think mainframes. Think Ma Bell. Think broadcast network television. It was all still based on being pushy with electrons, but now it is more often (but by no means always) crowd-sourced, bottom-up, and nonlinear.

And that brings us back to Twitter (and Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Google+ and anything else ever referred to under the umbrella term of ‘social media’). Some of the people I met online during that my Twitter early days have bemoaned, as I have on occasion, that Twitter back then was more fun. No one knew what the hell we were doing and it worked. Most of my strongest relationships with people I’ve met online were started during that time period, with many having become close friends in my life-away-from-keyboard (aka #LAFK).

Outside the Twitter bubble, I always surprised to still encounter a lot of antagonistic feelings about Twitter and other social media services, often expressed as: “Why would I want to post everything I do online?” “No one really cares to hear that I am having coffee and a bagel!” and so on.

What I think almost everyone missed (even the folks working at Twitter) was that the reason it works is not that it’s some genius piece of technology, people are incredibly narcissistic, or that it’s a revolutionary communication tool — no, the reason it works is that it’s Life with a capital letter. Life is full of messy conflicts, vacillating between order and chaos, between breathtakingly mundane and prosaically entrancing. But when Life is presented concisely and with most of the uninteresting bits edited out, it’s pretty damn riveting.

Yep, pretty much.

So for all the self-described social media gurus, experts, wizards (and all the other inflated, meaningless titles) out there — stop it. Just stop it. Quit trying to con people into thinking that good technology requires an elite priesthood to understand or use it when the exact opposite is true. The better the technology becomes, the less separation there is between it and us. That’s the whole point really.

I guess this is my roundabout way of revisiting that “A Look Back @ Twitter” piece I wrote ages ago. Twitter has grown since then, and the ways we all use it have changed, but it continues to be a part of my life because it is inseparable from my life – I don’t mean I couldn’t live without it…just that there is no part of my life that hasn’t always had a place in how I use Twitter. As my wife knows better than anyone, my Twitter posts are a pretty damn accurate representation of who I am — random interesting bits I want to share, snarky commentary on things I don’t like, and keeping in touch with the people who are important to me. And the people I follow on Twitter reflect what I look for in the world around me – humor, intelligence, beauty, new ideas, and people basically not being dicks. For better or worse (and it’s probably both), it’s authentically me.

This is why the idea of “social media” is a myth. It’s not new; it’s the same thing humans have always been doing. We get too hung up on the details of the mode of communication and spend too little time focusing on what we’re communicating. This does not require a digital priesthood of gurus showing us the way, it does not require us to engage in the “right” way – it merely requires that we communicate in a meaningful fashion. This is true for corporations just as it is true for people.

Having a “social media strategy” is like what having a “telephonic device strategy” would’ve been like at the beginning of the 20th century. If you have to compartmentalize a method of communication that thoroughly, chances are you’re doing it wrong. Technology and buzzwords change too quickly for that ever to work. Just be who you are and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, “a ‘tribe’ of like-minded people organically grows out of that.”

The more any technology allows that to happen, the more successful it will be and the more ubiquitous it will become. The further from that a technology or service strays from that by attempting to subvert, control, or manipulate (*ahem* Facebook), the less successful it will be.

Communication is older than humans. Older than mammals. Bees doing a dance to show the way to a food source, ants identifying others from their own colony — even these aren’t as far back as it goes. Think single-celled organisms releasing and receiving chemical signals. But for the past 100,000 years humans have communicated better than any other lifeform on the planet, and we’re still not that great at it a lot of the time. We’re getting better at it though and technology is the only real way it’s going to continue to improve.

What has been called “social media” is part of that improvement I think, and at the moment, I still think Twitter does it better than any other similar technology. But identifying it all as something separate from “communication” is a pointless exercise – it’s like picking one fork of a river and saying “This is separate and distinct from everything else! I declare this water behaves differently than that water over there!”  I’m pretty sure that would come as a surprise to a fish swimming downstream.

I’ll conclude here with my not-so-secret secret for social media success, if that kind of thing is important to you: Just stop thinking about what you’re doing and be who you are — and if you don’t like the results of that, trying becoming who you want to be. If you can do that, I promise you will never need a social media guru. If you can’t do that, the problem isn’t how you use social media, it’s you.

Yes, the title of this piece is a reference to the Mel Brooks movie, and like the movie, I’m not sure there will ever be a part 2.

A Look Back @ Twitter

Okay, so I joined Twitter on July 4 2007, only a year after the full-scale version of the service was launched. This was my first tweet:

01:52:40 Creating my twitter account – woohoo!

And there that tweet sat, all by its lonesome for nearly two years, when I tweeted the following:

11:34:17 Adding my second tweet after two years so I won’t be listed at http://www.slate.com/id/2219995

The headline of the piece was “Orphaned Tweets: When people sign up for Twitter, post once, then never return.” by John Swansburg and Jeremy Singer-Vine. While not specifically mentioned, the article did sting a little – after all, for most of Web 2.0 I’ve been an early adopter, as a Web 2.0 world fits in with my preconceptions of how the Internet and technology in general should work: nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

I was still interested in Twitter, just really had no Twitter-shaped hole in my life to fill, and so once again, my account languished. However, this time for only about two months. And then a strange thing happened – on a music site I frequently browsed for new, independent acts, I happened to notice a number of artists I really liked listed Twitter accounts. Namely the ever-enchanting @Meiko and the ever-entertaining @jonathancoulton. Started thinking, “Hmm, wonder if some of my favorite authors are on Twitter?” And so then started following two personal writing heroes of mine, William Gibson (@GreatDismal) and Bruce Sterling (@bruces). From there, it snowballed – I found TV shows hosts, comedians, political activists, more musicians, more authors, etc. I followed all of them that I could find and that looked to tweet often enough to be interesting.

Two things happened next that completely changed how I used Twitter. The first was that I found out that a number of the artists and creative folks that I liked knew each other. This led me to old favorites, as well as some new discoveries. The second was that I started discovering other folks out there who liked many of the same people/things/ideas that I did and I started following them.

The “ripple in the pond” metaphor is a hack cliché, but you know what . . . that’s because it works damn it! – and in this case, it’s very appropriate. Because not only was I out there throwing stones in the water, but so was evidently everyone else, and interesting patterns develop when those ripples interact. Sometimes they magnify, and sometimes they cancel each other out, but it is in the end all about interaction. That realization completely changed how I thought of Twitter.

And because of those interactions, I made the online acquaintance of some fascinating people. People I likely wouldn’t have found in “real” life, on Facebook, or in other ways. There’s @shamrockjulie, who reintroduced me to Lost, and who has an abiding love of midgets, monkeys, unicorns and drag queens. Oh, and she regularly beats me at Scrabble, which is, let’s face it, pretty damn impressive. And there’s @KyleeLane, who makes soap — but not just any soap, she makes Han Solo in Carbonite soap and “Abby Normal” Brain soap and Fight Club soap (Hint: buy her soap – how often can you say you got clean with art?). Oh, and she has a sweet tooth to rival even my own and is one of the most creative, down-to-earth people you could ever imagine.

There’s also @tomupton33 who finds the best quotes, there’s @iA who I think knows more about interface design than any other single person on the planet, @barryintokyo who is a book editor and writer in Tokyo who provided me book recommendations on all things Japanese, and @anjkan who gets regularly retweeted by William Gibson (which gives you some idea how fricking far in the cool future she lives)  and is also just about one of the nicest people in the world. There are literally dozens of others now that I interact with regularly to find out the latest in web design, politics, and all-things-geeky.

Following creative people (the folks I follow I refuse to call celebrities because of the lack of substance that implies) on Twitter is a lot of fun and stuff I’ve read there has increased my enjoyment of tv shows, movies, books, and music. And I’ve had great and surprising Twitter conversations or retweets with the likes of Kevin Smith, Rosanne Cash (very cool!), and the aforementioned William Gibson, but it’s the organic circle of like-minded Tweeters that have been why I stay on Twitter.

This came especially to mind during the Vancouver Olympics Open Ceremony some months ago as I was following along on Twitter while watching the coverage. During that I realized I was a member of a fluid, dynamic tribe all doing the same thing at the same time (and having very similar impressions) and I was okay with that. I mean, I’m the least likely to “join” anything – it’s just not my thing, but what Twitter allows is for you to identify yourself by what you tweet and who you follow, and a “tribe” of like-minded people organically grows out of that and it’s not at all static or limiting. There is no joining, there is just you being you, and then you start running into people with similar interests. It is, in essence, nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

Now, I was also an early adopter of Facebook, and that has its uses, but to my mind what it’s missing is that nonlinear experience that Twitter encourages. I have 220 “Friends” on Facebook and they are 99% people I’ve actually met in real life. Family, classmates, former and current colleagues, etc. And I can share my pictures of my kids and I already know them, and they already know me, and where do you go with that? Even outside of family, I’ve known some of them for 35 years – and no offense – but as nice as they are and as much as they may have in common with me, they’re not that likely to surprise me or introduce me to new things or ideas. Often times, I may only have shared an experience with them – same school, same job, etc.

Whereas on Twitter I currently have almost 200 followers and am following around 300 people and only about 5% of them are people I’ve actually met and generally I’ve got no shared common experiences. However, the people I interact with there have introduced me to new things, new viewpoints, and other people that I share things in common with.Part of that is that while we may not have shared common experiences, I’ve found that there are experiences we have in common, e.g. Star Wars being a pivotal film, eating bacon being a transcendental experience, being confused by the latest episode of Lost, etc. and when we talk about them, it becomes a shared experience in a way.

I’m not saying one approach is better than another, but what I can say is that as my tweeting has increased, my time on Facebook has greatly diminshed. When I go back to Facebook now, it seems somehow dated and AOL-ish (not exactly surprising considering how my mother is on it *waves* Hi Mom!) . We used to call AOL “the Internet with training wheels” and to me at least, Facebook is “Social Networking with training wheels.” Even after hiding Farmville and Mafia Wars and what ever other app is clogging my feed at the moment, it doesn’t feel quite real.

Twitter, in comparison, feels more sincere in some way. Perhaps its the distillation of people’s thoughts in 140 characters, perhaps it’s a different style of user – whatever the case, there’s an immediacy and authenticity to what I read on Twitter that seems to be lacking from many other online interactions.

Is Twitter perfect? Hardly. It’s got spam. It’s got wacky nutjobs. It’s got everything that makes the Internet annoying on occasion, but what it also has is a reason to keep coming back. I don’t know how long it will last (and let’s face it, it won’t last forever – your mom and my mom will be out there tweeting soon enough), but if the best of the web and technology is at heart a sort of iterative design, I do think that Twitter is progress in the right direction.

I’d be interested in hearing what everyone else’s thoughts are, so please feel free to add your comments!