Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

To Tweet, or Not to Tweet?

Not everything has to be boiled down to 140 characters.

After some initial skepticism a few years ago, I have to admit we’ve come to like Twitter. The micro-blurbing platform is fun, easy to use, and offers a way to connect with people we might never “friend” on Facebook. But Twitter, like all forms of communication, has good uses – and limits. Here’s what I’ve found to be the most effective use of 140-letters:

  1. Look! Over here, at this shiny [website/video/graphic]! Tweets are fantastic for drawing others’ attention to something cool, interesting, controversial or just plain fun. Consider Twitter a weathervane, indicating which way the wind is blowing (trending).
  2. Arrrrgh! That [service/flight/company] sucked! Most tweets in this vein refer to customer service disasters. Popular targets include cell phone companies and airlines, but restaurants, hotels and even technology companies often feel the wrath. Occasional joyous tweets pale in comparison to the “talk to the hand” moments.
  3. Yay! Go [team/friend/celebrity]! Sunday tweets are mostly filled with obscure, meaningless outbursts of cheer for something happening on a fourth-screen out of sight from most followers. Rooting for someone on a news show and playing field, even Presidential debates, has become a tweetable moment.

All fine and well. These are the moments when outburst-communication makes most sense. And while Twitter has been cited as a tool that did wonders during disasters and political revolutions of late, it’s still true that, in case of fire, most people exit the building before tweeting about it.

Which brings me back to the question:

Should everything be a tweetable moment?

In an era where mobile technology has so radically altered interpersonal dynamics, forever changing dinner tables and cocktail parties, does it follow that people should now start talking in such a way as to anticipate being re-tweeted?

Talking in tweet-bites isn’t entirely new: it’s an evolution in the “sound bite” or headline-news approach to communicating information. But is it useful, or even damaging, when we find ourselves thinking: How do I say this to get tweeted, rather than to be understood?

This phenomenon came to the forefront at a technology and marketing conference I recently attended. Like all conferences these days, only about 10% of the audience was actually watching the presenters and panels; the rest were busy staring down into their laps, tapping out the discussion like human teletypes. Maybe some people process information by retweeting it, much like we used to learn our lessons by writing them out by hand, but so much human communication happens through the body – facial expressions, hand movements, posture – that I wonder what was lost when nobody was looking up.

Additionally, since the conference had an official team of Tweetsters whose job it was to relay into cyberspace the happenings of the realspace, a fascinating phenomenon occurred on stage. Whether the presenters were solo or part of a panel, they started talking in tweetable bursts. They knew they were being tweet-cast in real time, and they adjusted their speech and vocabulary to match. They spoke in short, clipped sentences. Some spoke in painfully contrived phrases, designed for maximum reaction, by the online audience. With a few exceptions, I felt like I could have attended the conference from my room, or the bar, or ten thousand miles away; the actual presence of humans was irrelevant.

But that’s not all. After shaking my head, feeling like I’d attended a Morse Code workshop, I caught up with some of the panelists in the hallway. And it happened again! Some of them just couldn’t stop talking in Look! Arrrgh! Yay! phrases. I could tell from their eye movement that they were mentally adding #hashtags to the words coming out of their mouths. They even punctuated the discussion with staccato body movements that made me think: Is he quoting someone else, in a kind of arm-waving-RT?

Of course, not all of my interpersonal interactions at the conference were tweet-a-likes. There were plenty of hugs, smiles, laughs and even a few tears. Quiet, intense conversations and moments of silence taking in the cityscape or a glass of fine wine. Excitable, fierce arguments that got the blood boiling and the mind humming. These connections felt right, genuine, and valuable; They happened in complete sentences, punctuated with eyebrows and smiles. Most smartphones remained in pockets and purses.

They were the moments when I learned the most and laughed the hardest. The best connections didn’t have a hashtag.

(Was that last bit a tweetable phrase?)

Still, it’s worth wondering: Is something happening to our language, or deeper, to the ways we think? When we start talking in the hopes of being quoted, does the popularity imperative distort our content? Have we become obsessed with going viral, rather than being understood?

I don’t know the answer, yet. Perhaps you do. But for now, I’m more aware that something has changed, just slightly, to the way some of us talk. The impulse to have everything shared, approved and favorited by others has affected our social interactions. It may not be new; it might just be hyper. For me, it seems just a little weird.

And as usual, we’re back to Marshall McLuhan: Diaper backward spells repaid.

Think about it.

  • Matthew-Thank goodness I was one of the people who put the phone down and had a great conversation with you at the conference! I stand accused on some of these points..most notably tweeting out the points most emphasized onstage by the presenters. However, I was also taking notes for later reflection and sharing..but not necessarily on Facebook or Twitter, but in a group with people who put their phone down to actually listen. Great article about where culture may be headed and a reminder to take a cautionary look at how we communicate. I have seen quite a few times on Twitter and FB the phrase, “Why can’t we all talk like a hashtag?” #PointTaken

  • Thanks for your comment, Julie! I agree – our discussion was greatly enhanced because we focused on each other, not on “distribution” of either of our contributions. It’s also true that using Tweets to take notes can be helpful, but I often find myself unable to “understand” the tweets I made later, because the “ghost was lost in the machine.” When I focus and immerse myself in the discussion or presentation, I retain more, and come to understand the important message more than the “cliff notes” I make… sometimes I don’t even need them later. Well, I don’t have all the answers, but it’s worth watching!

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  • When I’m swimming in more “industry-related” conversations online, the behavior of RT’ing definitely makes me question myself that if I don’t occasionally RT back, does that imply I’m not equally supporting that individual? No matter how ridiculous, it’s impossible for me to not have that thought cross my mind. However, I don’t feel that way in all my conversations on Twitter, but I keep pretty diverse conversations going outside of real estate conversation. What’s equally interesting to me is, to watch the folks that do stay to their groups – rarely interacting outside of their hashtags or business and my favorite (for which I am guilty of) – the conference tweeting. It’s hard not to giggle at conference time behaviors … stretch your fingers, have your conference hashtag followed, because the RTs are-a-coming, and possibly dead batteries (tweeting at conferences had to be a battery company’s dream come true) … Great observations Matthew and good reminders for evaluating our online behavior.

  • Matthew – We do get immersed in our phones/mobile devices at events like last week. I think some if that is to blame on how easy it is to be “on” Twitter & Facebook or even to clip “tweets” to those sites from tools like Evernote.

    I learned last year that trying to tweet everything led to me missing so much so this year I brought my Field Notes notebook and actually took notes. After writing out something that had value worth sharing, I sometimes chose to tweet it. In some cases, my mind allowed me to add more imagery to my notes and then I would share the image with my social streams. (The birth of #CarpArt).

    I really enjoyed our chances to connect IRL outside of our screens on Wednesday & Thursday. I hope we’ll have another opportunity again soon.

    If you’re going to be in the area, be sure to tweet me. That way you know ill see it.

  • Sean:

    Thanks for your great comments. I think we’re all finding that we have to “rebalance” how much we are using the technology. This isn’t a new phenomenon: Remember when you got your first car and wanted to drive EVERYWHERE!? It’s like that; but eventually, we came into balance with it. Same will happen with Twitter, too. We’ll look back on this someday and say: Can you imagine we were bent over like question-marks as we walked everywhere, rather than looking up, around, out….
    … Because the best times I had at the conference last week when were doing exactly that. When we went to see the Freedom Tower, looking up; when we looked around the pub; and when we looked out, across Grand Central Station and watched the movie being made. Those were the times I felt most “connected” to the people around me, and the world that was unfolding.
    I look forward to catching up with you again IRL; I’m going to be in your area in April; maybe I’ll be able to stop by.
    Look to my coming on the first light, of the fifth day; at dawn look to the east. (:>)
    — Matthew

  • Matthew, I loved this piece and the phrase “The best connections didn’t have a hashtag” (and yes, I had to refrain from retweeting it). Most seminars and conferences look like prayer services with heads bowed to “discretely” use their devices. I question the value of attending anything that you are not fully present for. As a Communications Director (and the mother of teenagers) I am constantly amazed at how many great points/connections are missed and how much of the world goes by with out notice because people/kids are so focused on utilizing the technology and not the bigger picture of why they are in the room in the first place. The more technology centric we become the more life balance we need to have.

  • Thanks, Jean!

    Similarly – I love your phrase – “most conferences look like prayer services with heads bowed” – exactly!
    As a speaker, but also a listener, and sometimes a photographer, I find that I really don’t learn much looking “down” when the world is happening “up here all around me”… When I walk down Main Street USA, I marvel at how many people don’t see a thing going on around them (even just avoiding getting hit by the bus!). They miss other people, interesting buildings, even the sun and birds. Now I see this in conferences, too. Even when I deliver a program, I’m aware that I have to do compelling things just to get people to look up AT me. And when we have a break, it’s almost comical that everyone just sits there and whips out their smartphones…
    Nobody loves technology more than I do, but sometimes I wonder if, like the old Mel Brooks line in SpaceBalls said: We’ve “gone to plaid!”
    — Matthew

  • Marie

    Great thought process. Have we lost ability to connect in ‘real time’? Text, tweet, status post- what about being real people?

  • Hands down my best moments at connect….involved no screens and discussion with someone I had no previous connections to. We must be present in the moment and look up from screens and not be figital. One of my comments in my survey was that ambassadors should be more about (IMO) the person to person connections and encouraging inclusiveness amongst attendees.

  • Nikki

    That’s a great critique. I know that some of the Ambassadors were definitely as active IRL as online, but the shift in concept you suggest is crucial. They should be involved more in getting the audience involved and facilitating interaction amongst the people who are there, not the ones watching online.