Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, co-founder of lifestyle magazine Lagom, founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, and an electronic musician.

A blessay about Twitter

Posted on 23 May 2008 Comments

Article illustration for A blessay about Twitter

I’m not the first person to write a relatively long and thoughtful article about Twitter; nor shall I be the last. But this has been brewing for quite some time, so here you go. Twitter fans, you’ll no doubt feel affinity with what you’re about to read, but newcomers and naysayers, this is for you too: five reasons why Twitter is important.

Oh, and due to the following collection of words sitting somewhere between a longer-than-usual blog entry and a mini essay, I’m using the tongue-in-cheek term ‘blessay’, coined by the rather fantastic Stephen Fry.

Twitter is 5 things

Well, it is to me. And I dare say it may well be to you, too. Those things are (or may well be) as follows:

  1. An ice-breaker
    2. A purveyor of ‘ambient intimacy’
    3. A broadcasting / marketing tool
    4. A fount of knowledge
    5. A social network

All of these things are intrinsically linked, but each remains extremely different, so I’ll discuss one at a time.

1. An ice-breaker

We live in a digital world full of ice-breakers. Leaving a comment on somebody’s website; adding them as a contact on Flickr; emailing them, even – all very simple ways of making a subtle (but substantial) form of contact. Imagine how hard it would’ve been to get in touch with your favourite designer 20 years ago. They certainly wouldn’t publish their personal postal address or phone number, so you’d probably have to go through their agent or their company. And even if they could publish their details, where would they do it? With no websites to speak of, it’d be hard for the average fan to find any way of getting in contact.

But now, well, it’s so easy, isn’t it? Especially with Twitter! Over the years, I emailed some of my favourite designers, I left comments, I added them as contacts; and I often got replies, to such an extent that many of these people are now good friends. When you finally meet them in ‘real life’ (usually at conferences or events), the ice-breaker is at worst, “I follow you on Twitter,” and at best, “it was great having that conversation with you via Twitter – nice to finally meet you!”

But I don’t need to harp on about this, do I? You know this is what happens. You know that if you email me, I’ll probably email you back (at least eventually). So why is Twitter different? Isn’t it just the same kind thing?

No. Because Twitter is a) more personal than replying to a comment, and b) more in the ‘public space’ than en email. Yes, here I’m specifically talking about ‘@’ replies between users, but I also think the simple act of following someone is infinitely more personal than adding them as a contact on, say, Flickr. This is because Twitter is about broadcasting the small, subtle, mundane details of your everyday life. The fact that people want to know about that stuff is, well, rather odd. But it leads me very nicely on to point number two…

2. A purveyor of ‘ambient intimacy’

Leisa Reichelt came up with the phrase ‘ ambient intimacy’ to describe this kind of relationship between the follower and the followee, and I think it’s perfect. In Leisa’s words, “ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.” She’s talking about it mainly from a social, friend-to-friend point of view (more on that later), but I think the real draw is on the fan-to-celebrity view (for want of better terms). If a fan responds to a big-name designer / developer using the ‘@’ reply system, they suddenly become involved in their lives. And I use the big-name example because I think it’s extremely relevant to our industry. As far as I can tell, the web community is by far the biggest part of Twitter’s userbase. This is a shame, as I think it’s a stigma that preventing other people from joining in.

But anyway, it’s about getting to know people (whether they’re actual friends or simply people you admire) in a way that would have otherwise been impossible, and I think the 140 character limit plays a big part in keeping things ‘real’. You’d never blog about what you dreamed last night, but you might tweet about it, so your followers get a slight – or ‘ambient’ – glimpse into your everyday life.

You might also refer to this as ‘a condoned method of stalking’.

3. A broadcasting / marketing tool

They say that word-of-mouth is the best form of advertising, and Twitter is word-of-mouth incarnate. To the followee who has, say, 865 followers, there are 865 reasons to use Twitter as a marketing tool. I don’t mean in a cunning, underhand sort of way; not in a kind of “hey, wanna buy some crap?” sort of way. I’m talking about honest, genuine self-promotion to 865 people who honestly, genuinely care. 865 people who, for one reason or another, find you interesting enough to want to hear about what you had for lunch today. Ok, maybe not everyone wants to know that. Some people will be there because they genuinely respect your opinions / work / interests; others will want to know every detail because they’re stalking you (see point #2); others only follow you because apparently you’re on a list like 50 designers to follow on Twitter. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. They’re there for you. If the internet is like an auditorium where most of the attendees have gone out to get the free lunch, Twitter is like the people who stayed behind to listen to you talk; you have their undivided attention.

Say I’m following a web designer because I love their work. When they tweet, saying they’ve just launched a new site, not only will I not mind that they’re advertising that to me; I’ll be genuinely glad to hear it! It’s occasions like that which remind me exactly why I follow certain people on Twitter: I get immediate, first-hand access to that information, probably even before RSS. And that brings me nicely to my penultimate point…

4. A fount of knowledge

During a conversation I had with a bunch of web types in Brighton a few weeks ago, many of them claimed that they rarely use RSS feed readers for their main source of web-related news / gossip. Instead, Twitter has become their main source of information. But receiving information in a passive sense is only a small part of this point; it’s the ability to ask the Twitterverse a question and receive replies in a matter of seconds that does it for me. Rands wrote a fascinating post about this the other day, so I won’t bother covering the same ground, but if you’re after a takeaway quote, I’d suggest this: “sometimes I get my world rocked with random, psychic, off-the-cuff, tangential information that Google will never give me because Google doesn’t know who I am.”

When I was enquiring about a printer for business cards, I tweeted, and had about 10 replies back within a couple of minutes. That kind of response is incredible! Another one that sticks out in my memory is something not related to the web or design in any way: I wanted to get a new credit card. Again, I asked the (UK) Twitterverse who they’d recommend and the response was astounding… and completely free of advertising clutter. Sarah Parmenter recommended a Barclaycard Premium to me, so it ended up with me getting a great card credit based on personal recommendation, and meeting a new person in the process. Sarah, like many people I’ve ‘met’ through Twitter, is now a friend in the ‘real world’ sense. Speaking of which…

5. A social network

Why is this the last one on the list? Well, it’s not that I’ve saved the best until last, but rather that the four points above all feed into this one notion of ‘a social network’. But this is not like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn, or several thousand others out there, and this is also why I’ve left it until last. To tell someone that Twitter is another social network is to belie its real appeal. Snook wrote a post earlier this week about how he uses Twitter as one of his main communication methods with the outside world in what is often the solitary life of a freelancer, and I think it’s something many of us do.

But for me it’s not just the contact I get to have with my friends over Twitter; it’s the outreach I get to the people I don’t know, whether that’s to break the ice and start a dialogue with them online before I actually meet them (point one), to get to know them because I’m a fan-boy (point two), to market myself to the people following me (point three), to find out knowledge on a human level from a group far larger than my regular friends (point four), or to meet some new friends who I would never have met in the real world (point five).

Parting thoughts

Twitter is, however, a different thing to different people, and a lot of that comes down to the amount of people who follow you. Yes, there are other factors, but I seriously believe that this is the biggest one.

Consider this: to someone with only a few followers (say 20 people), their tweets won’t reach a huge audience, and thus the ‘fount of knowledge’ is decidedly smaller; so too is the audience to whom they can market themselves. At this level, Twitter is closer to the typical social network, as – I think it’s fairly safe to assume – the followers are most likely people that the followee actually knows.

Contrast this to the other end of the spectrum. Kevin Rose, for instance, has 35,000+ people following him, at which point I think it’s fairly safe to assume that the highest percentage by far are fans. Thus Twitter is very far removed from a social network and instead becomes almost entirely a broadcasting medium. I doubt Kevin has much time to answer the many hundreds of ‘@’ replies that hurtle his way every day.

So there you have it. I hope that my ‘five things’ ring true with the vast majority of you Twitter users out there, even though the ratio to each thing will vary massively. Although I do admittedly wonder if there’s any real point to me laying out the obvious like this, it does at least feel good to get some thoughts down in writing. It makes more room for other stuff in my head!

What are your own experiences of Twitter like? Have I missed anything? Have I got it completely and utterly wrong? Throw your proverbial rotten fruit at me in the comments, if you will.

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