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.