Why We Tweet

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008

Skeptics take note – I agree with you that Twitter, the “microblogging” service that your friends are pressuring you to join, appears to be the ultimate synthesis of vanity and wasted time. All of that potential is there, and, worse, the service seems to advertise those traits as its raison d’etre. But I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I offer some arguments for the service.

Twitter is, at its core, a messaging service that is more immediate and casual than email, but less immediate and intimate than IM (Instant Messaging). Just as email bridged the gap between the letter and the phone call, Twitter bridges these digital extremes. But, unlike email – and more like, say, Delicious or Flickr, web sites that take what were traditionally private things – bookmarks and photo albums – and make them social, Twitter makes this messaging social. You can protect your tweets so that they can only be seen by people that you approve, but the majority of tweeters don’t do that.

I came to Twitter via NTEN. In 2007, as we were revving up for the annual conference in DC, a bunch of us signed up for Twitter accounts and used them — to mixed success — for casual announcements, off-agenda organizing and “Hey, what session are you in?” friend pinging. By the 2008 NTEN shindig in New Orleans, Twitter was an incredible asset. Even before the conference I was alerted to nationwide problems with flights, as I followed my friend @kariapeterson (and others) stories about being trapped in airports hours after their flights were due to leave.

Joining Twitter with a good chunk of my social/professional community was definitely a boon. If you sign up without a group of friends established, it can be a fair amount of work to identify and connect with people that share enough of your interests and motives for using Twitter. Because using Twitter involves more than just finding interesting people. It’s also about finding people who will interact with you on Twitter in ways that fit your needs and goals.

Margaret Mason’s wonderful blog entry on Twitter tips breaks down Twitter users into two camps:

“With the usual exceptions, people on Twitter tend to fall into two main camps. There are responders, who use Twitter as a channel to interact heavily with other users, and broadcasters, who use it primarily as a micro-blogging platform.”

The nptech crowd that I hang out with is squarely in the Responder’s camp. This is a social tool for us, not additional brochureware, and we use it to engage each other. For me, this has primarily meant that I have a casual channel to share and query my professional community on. I ask and answer a lot of questions. I engage in casual conversation. It’s allowed me to learn more about people who I share my nonprofit and technical interests with, broadening into family, film and music conversations, but in a way that is far more natural, friendly and interactive than poring over their Facebook profiles.

But the real power comes from the crowd. For example, @johnmerritt, who works as IT Director for a SoCal YMCA, did a Twitter survey about email server message limits. He requested that survey response tweets include the tag “#inboxlimit”, and then he set up a web page subscribing to an RSS feed for that tag, so that we could share a growing list of responses. This survey helped me provide context to my staff about our email policies.

On Monday, @webb, co-Exec at an awesome San Francisco nonprofit, asked us all what non-financial giving we have planned for the coming months, with the request that we tag our answers with “#givelist”. If you want to be inspired, and learn a lot of ways that you can be philanthropically productive without increasing your budget for donations, then the responses are a worthwhile read. You can learn even more at this website.

The typical assumption about any social networking site is that it will allow you to market your mission and, possibly, increase donations. Twitter, of course, can do those things, as Facebook or MySpace can, under the right conditions. But it’s a far more natural tool for generating ideas and camaraderie than cash. If you’re writing it off as just another place to promote yourself or your cause, I’d say that it deserves a deeper look.

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