What’s the point of Twitter?

Time to discuss Twitter. See Klein and Yglesias.

If you don’t use Twitter then you may be of similar mind to the me of early 2011. About two years ago I was deeply anti-Twitter, figuring it was just as useless to me as Facebook had proven to be. Then, someone (was it Jon Chait?) mentioned that it’s a good idea to create a Twitter account in your name just so nobody else steals it. That seemed sensible, so I went to Twitter to create “afrakt” and found it had already been claimed … by me! I guess I made it years earlier and forgot all about it.

Anyway, on a lark I started using it. Lo and behold, I found it of some value. How so?

First, there is substantial value to having a reasonably large following. Recently, Aaron and I have noticed how much traffic we can drive from Twitter. It’s big enough for the overlords of small- to medium-sized blogs (like ours and AcademyHealth’s) to notice. If you’re in the business of selling your work or the good work of others, that’s valuable. Twitter is perfectly designed for traffic driving. It’s next to impossible to tweet much more than, effectively, “Hey, go read this [link].” From a traffic standpoint, that’s the best possible kind of promotion. Long quotes, as one is apt to find in blog posts, are not. (Trust me, I’ve been watching link traffic for years. It’s a bit of an obsession.)

The other value to having a large Twitter following, especially one filled with experts, is that it’s a resource. Questions can be asked and answered. Ideas can be hashed out, trial balloons floated, before one devotes more time to fleshing them out in a post or a paper. It may be surprising to some that one can use Twitter as a research resource, but one can. And why not? If one has subject area experts reading one’s tweets and responding, the leads can be just as good as can be obtained by any other medium. (Of course, one has to follow the leads and vet them. You can’t, for obvious reasons, cite a tweet in a scholarly article.)

Thank you, tweeps!

Second, I found value in Twitter even with few followers. Mostly, it was a way to express myself — something I need and want to do — more efficiently than blogging. In a sense, it saved me some time. I blogged less because I tweeted more. I also found it to be a useful way to file things, which is, in large part, why I blog anyway. Twitter feeds are searchable. If I think I might want to recall something later but I’m not certain enough to warrant filing up disk space, I’ll just tweet it. It’s just one click.

Finally, Twitter can be fun. Yeah, there’s snark. Some of it good. Some of it dreadful. Does that make it a time waster? I’m not so sure. We all need fun. If I didn’t take Twitter breaks I’d probably take some other kind of break. Maybe I’d watch LOLCats. At least while I’m having fun on Twitter I stumble into some useful information. And, I definitely cull my feed, unfollowing folks who goof around too much for my tastes or live tweet too many talks. (It’s not personal!)

I’m sure Twitter is or can be overused by some. But I bet if those people are not overusing Twitter, they’d overuse something else. There are far worse things.


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