Death by a Thousand Tweets

Make Twitter a Stream of Information, Not a Sewer of Useless Noise

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
The irrational exuberance that people felt about the stock market several years ago has been replaced by near hysteria for Twitter. I once heard an investor say that the time to get out of the market was when your cab driver started giving you stock tips. You might say the same about the state of Twitter today. It's supposed to be about conversation. Be careful. Sometimes it feels like thousands of people talking you to death in 140 characters or less.

None of that deters me. Even with all the irritations, I'm convinced that social networks like Twitter will alter the nature of communications, and I'm constantly encouraging skeptical friends and clients to get their feet wet. Here's one story from the networked world.

My friend Steve and I both serve on the marketing committee at the Boston Museum of Science. Until a month ago, Steve was a total social-media virgin -- no Facebook page, no blog to call his own and no Twitter account. It's enough to make you cry. But don't feel sorry for Steve. He's had a succession of successful careers, first as an engineer, next as a venture capitalist, and now as a painter. No technophobe either, he was an early investor in Harmonix, the company that corrupted our children with Guitar Hero.

Curious and cantankerous, Steve dived into social media and started making delightful observations about his experience on Twitter. He recently sent me this comment about a power user he had started to follow: "His constant, not-so-subtle harangue to get word of mouth going about his new start-up have made me very skeptical of Twitter ... so easy to be maudlin, so easy to pollute."

I had a simple answer for Steve: Quit following the annoying bastard. Let's not forget that technology gives us both the power to connect and the power to pull the plug.

This exchange made me ask myself, "To follow or not to follow? How do you decide?"

I've got my own idiosyncratic approach. When somebody new crosses my path, I take a look at their last 10 tweets and ask myself three sets of questions:

Can I learn something from this person? Does he connect me with information that I would never find on my own?

Is she original? Does she have a distinct voice and make interesting observations about the world and business?

If I'm not getting a clear answer, I ask the ultimate question, "Would I drink with him?"

Scott Monty, social-media guru, succinctly points out in a recent blog post if Facebook is a hallway conversation, then Twitter is the cocktail party. All things being equal, I like to make sure that I'm at the right party.

Of course, who and how many people you follow depends on your goals. Mine are more about learning and less about promotion, or building a large following. Even with hype at an all-time high, there are ways I get tremendous value from Twitter.

I set up feeds to monitor people and groups that seem relevant to my business. It's the easiest, cheapest way to keep your ear to the ground and listen to what's going on in agency culture (next to reading my paid subscription to Ad Age).

I like to observe how people behave differently on an online network than they do in the physical world. My intuition tells me that we're drawn to those people that best create a real-world social experience. By watching how people interact, you can imagine how marketing might evolve in the future.

Twitter connects me to some of the best thinking and writing about social media and digital technologies, through links to blogs that I would never see otherwise. I like to get this information in front of my clients.

The real Twitter addiction starts when I stumble on somebody who has an interesting mind and something new to say. That motivates me to weigh in with my own opinion or observation. As long as that continues to happen, I'm going to stay in the game.

Don't underestimate the practical benefits. Stuck in Atlanta recently, I used Twitter to ask for some recommendations for barbecue, and my prayers were answered. In the not too distant future I can also imagine connecting with new clients and new employees. Give me those opportunities, and I won't care whether Twitter is bleeding edge or passe.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson

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