Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

The only thing you need to know about Twitter

By Emma on July 2, 2012

I’m giving a talk this evening (2nd July 2012) at Frome Library about social media for writers, and Twitter is one of the three main topics I’ll cover. (The other two are Facebook and blogging – this is not in order of importance I hasten to add).

I’ve given a similar talk on two other occasions and it’s always Twitter that people want to know about. Many have already tried and abandoned it. I did the same. It took three attempts over a six month period for me to “get it” and now, over three years later, I can point to it as one of the most important things I did in my writing career to date. Other than writing the books of course.

People want to know if there’s a secret. I usually shy away from that kind of thinking, but if I had to sum up the most important thing I’ve realised about Twitter it’s this:

Twitter is a pub.

That’s it. Twitter is a virtual pub, bar or café, depending on your personal taste. It’s always open, there are always people there and there are always conversations to dive into or just sit back and absorb passively. And when you follow the right people on Twitter, it’s like the best pub in the world.

I’ve used the pub analogy for some time now as a sanity check before I tweet anything. For example, if I type a kneejerk response to something, asking myself “Would I say this in pub?” will always make me pause and think twice (and usually delete the words). The other sanity check I use is “do I want this to exist forever?” which I apply to everything I do and say online. But that’s for another post.

Back to the pub

I’ve realised lately that it can also explain why I find receiving auto-DMs so unpalatable (a direct message sent as soon as you follow someone), especially the ones containing links to a person’s book on Amazon or their website. For me, this is the social equivalent of noticing someone glance at you in the pub and marching over to stand in front of them and say “Thanks for standing in the same pub as me, please buy my book!” Not only is that something we would (I hope) never, ever do in real life, when it happens to me on Twitter I feel reduced to nothing more than a potential customer, rather than a person who could become a friend.

Some people just auto-DM a brief “thanks for following” and whilst I find those less offensive than the “buy-my-book” brigade, it still grates. I don’t thank someone for standing in the same group of people as me in the pub and potentially taking an interest in what I’m saying, and I certainly don’t try to grab people’s attention by pulling them aside and saying “I’m so glad you’re listening to me”.

A DM has to be worth the trouble

It’s not just that an auto-DM breaks my sense of being in virtual pub, it’s also the fact that when I get a DM it makes another column on my phone app light up, something I then have to manually mark as read to make the icon go away. I only want to do that for DMs that are important, like genuine private conversations, not something that would be more appropriate as a normal tweet. I love it when I start to follow someone and they strike up a conversation in that way, because that’s just what it’s like at the pub.

Back to the positives

One of the other things this analogy is starting to clarify for me is how much I post links to my blog posts and sometimes (rarely) my own books. I’ve seen a few high profile authors ask whether this kind of stuff annoys the people who follow them and every time the answer is the same: It isn’t annoying if it’s only a small proportion of what you talk about.

It makes perfect sense. We don’t want to sit around a pub table with someone constantly going on about where to buy their book and what other people have said about it. But if we are friends with that person, if they chat about all kinds of things (you know, like a normal person) and also chat about other people’s passions, the occasional mention of their own stuff isn’t just okay, it’s welcomed.

Not everyone wants the same thing

Of course this is just the way I’ve come to enjoy Twitter over the last three years, it may not be the same for you. You may use auto-DMs and think I’m full of rubbish. Like all things, Twitter can be used in a variety of ways, for example, some people like to be an authority and broadcast information in their field. In my mind, they all have their nooks in the giant virtual pub, standing on a box so the people who want to listen can hear them, but they never converse with the crowd. It’s not wrong, just different to the way I like to hang out there.

There’s no booze in the Twitter pub but…

… there are interesting people, links to cool stuff, friends to make and the opportunity to chat with people you’d never have the chance to have a beer with in real life (due to geographical constraints or the fact that they’re very famous).

And the option to just unfollow someone who is upsetting you is a definite advantage over a real world pub, I can tell you.


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{ 14 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. K. A. Laity says:

    On the nosie! Must be why I love Twitter 😉

  2. Anne Lyle says:

    Funny, I was thinking just the same thing last night – that Twitter is my everyday social life, as the pub used to be for my parents’ generation. You drop in when you feel like, say hi, and mooch around until you find someone who’s talking about something you feel like paying attention to.

    Good luck with the talk!

  3. I think that Twitter is a River, myself…

  4. Phil Norris says:

    Nice post, and I like your thinking, only problem is I really fancy a pint now!

  5. Jo Hall says:

    I’ve always thought of Twitter as a watercooler, especially for people who work from home. You can drop in, have a chat or a moan, and then get back to work. There’s no obligation to converse, or to be there all the time, but it’s perfectly ok to stick your head into a conversation and say Hi, or ask a question. What I’m not sure about, and I’m not sure you or anyone could answer this, is how much self-promotion you can do on Twitter without becoming annoying? I think I err too much on the side of caution, and while I’m sure no one wants to keep hearing where they can by my books, I’m equally sure no-one wants to know my adventures with the builders or what I had for lunch, or my word counts (oh god, the word counts!) So how do you keep a Twitter feed interesting?

    • Emma says:

      What EMoon says below 🙂

      I too err too far on the side of un-promotion I think, or rather, I probably don’t do enough “here is a great review” or “did you know about my book” kind of stuff (more elegantly of course). However, I try not to worry about it too much because all the info is there if people are curious and want to look.

      I can’t remember who said it (thank you internet brain) but having a life that’s interesting outside Twitter makes you more interesting on Twitter. Like me, you spend a huge amount of time writing and that’s not the most fascinating spectator sport. However, I think there’s a lot of stuff to talk about in terms of sci-fi films and books, and I’ve never thought of your tweets as dull as you’re well plugged into the local sci-fi scene.

      I think tweets in response to something someone else has said go a long way too.

      I’m probably rambling now. It’s because I’m hungry!

  6. EMoon says:

    Jo, adventures with builders sounds interesting to me–also word counts. Maybe not what you had for lunch if it was only a peanut butter sandwich, but yes if it was a meal with friends at a place you’d recommend. I’m on Twitter because my publisher recommended it–and was sure I’d hate it–but now I love it. I re-tweet a lot and tweet a lot both…general tweets (with no particular recipient in mind) and directed tweets (holding these very brief conversations.) Some “writing-related” tweets are direct self-promotion of the “My book [title] comes out this week, YAY!” and some are just progress notes–or pointers to blog posts about progress and some are links to good sites for others interested in writing, more public service than self promotion. I tweet about weather, knitting, cooking, choir, the garden, wildlife, horses….anything, just about, as much or more than I do writing. I retweet from the science, history, politics, and other blogs, if I like the links they post. And I can follow the friends whose blogs I read, to see if they have something new.

    It is, however, much more of a time sink than you’d think when everything’s just 140 characters or less. (Yeah, but the links are to blog posts and news articles and video clips… I got to this from a tweet and lo! I spent even more time commenting…)

    • I do want more than just endless self-promotion from the people I follow. Be it Aliette’s recipes, or Chris Roberson talking about movies, or Alyx Dellamonica’s photography, it helps bring a whole picture of the person.

  7. Shaun says:

    This is a really good simile, which perfectly describes how I have unconsciously been treating my twitter (although I am guilty of the knee-jerk reaction / not thinking about what I tweet sins).

    I like talking to people on Twitter, I’m far more social online than I am in real life, and I like it when the people on my feed are actual people instead of the impersonal link/spam-spewing bots that some people treat their Twitter accounts as.

    My favourite accounts are the ones who talk about anything any everything as they want to – Chris F. Holm and Matt Forbeck are great examples, as is Swedish videogame developer Markus Persson (to break away from your Angry Robot alumni). These are the people who talk about the run they went for, or the game of Magic: The Gathering that they played with their kids or his failed attempts at clubbing as well as their novels or their games or the charity drives they sponsor.

    I also like it when someone takes the time to respond to something that people say to them, even if (and especially when) it’s an account that isn’t following them or isn’t one of the five people they converse with regularly.

    I’ve found that Twitter is great for professional interaction as well, because the informality of the setting makes it much harder to slip into the ‘Must. Network.’ mindset.

    Instead I talk to publishers, fellow reviewers, newly published authors and others who are on their 600th novel as well as people like me who are still working on their first manuscript equally and with more focus on the person rather than constantly having that little voice in the back of my head hammering on “These people are important! You have to make them like you! Make them remember you for later on!”

  8. Dawn D says:

    Lovely post and so enjoyed your talk! Thanx Emma!

  9. Ray says:

    Having time on my hands just now, I must confess I haven’t visited your site for quite a while Emma, what – a-mistak-a -to – make-a!! Being the creature of habit ( & male) that I am I have to schedule my activities pretty precisely before I can get absolutely anything done. reading the above is confirmation to me, not that it’s needed, as to the reason(s) why I follow you in the first place. Glorious piece…A PUB! Who’d a thought it?

  10. […] for the best.  Good luck with that.  Or, you could be like lots of people on Twitter and shout “Buy My Book!” every minute of the day for a month.  Of course, most of the thousand or ten thousand people who […]

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