Five Things I Love About Twitter

by Scott London

Huston SmithThe traditional media have not always been kind to Twitter. Last year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd confessed, with her customary grandiloquence, that she would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over her and red ants eat out her eyes than open a Twitter account.

In a commentary in the Washington Post titled “The Tedium is the Message,” Jeanne McManus asked: “Is it just me or isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think that if I’m scrambling an egg, you’ll want to know about it?” Sorry, she said, “I don’t want to hear about how you got a bad case of athlete’s foot or learn the details of your knee being drained.”

Fair enough. As a blogging platform, one limited to posts of just 140 characters, it’s true that Twitter is sometimes shallow, often self-referential, and occasionally outright narcissistic. It’s obsessed with celebrities, rife with rumors and half-truths, and prone to hype and hysteria. So the critics have a point.

But what the old-world commentators and traditional news media have generally missed about the Twitter phenomenon is that it represents something rather remarkable — a real-time, truly interactive global source of bite-sized information. As a medium, Twitter has given us an altogether new way to disseminate, share, and interact with information.

I joined Twitter exactly two years ago. I was hardly an early adopter, and I’ve never been a heavy user. Yet I’ve come to love the platform.

I’m as guilty as the next person of tweeting about the banalities of daily life. Just a few days I go, I posted this:

Sooner or later we all break down and tweet about what we ate for breakfast. Here goes. Today I had an amazing omelette with ratatouille.

Okay, I’m not proud of that one. I’ve also been given to reposting misattributed quotes, like this one:

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain … and most fools do.”
— Dale Carnegie

That line was actually penned by Benjamin Franklin, not Dale Carnegie. I should have checked the source before posting.

And on more than a few occasions I’ve posted broken links, left out essential quotation marks, and changed people’s words around to make them fit.

Despite these faux pas, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of Twitter and have often marveled at how powerful it can be. Here are five things I love about it.

1. Tracking news in real time

First, it’s an unparalleled medium for keeping your ear to the ground on just about any subject. As a journalist, Twitter has become my secret weapon for quickly learning about the latest developments on a wide range of fronts. Saving searches as RSS feeds, for example, is a way to easily track changes in fields you care about.

For example, I use Twitter to keep tabs of who might be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize each year. The Twitter search Nobel Peace” http often generates better results than a Google web or news search by giving me actual links to webpages that contain the words “Nobel Peace.” And it does so in real-time.

2. Bypassing the gatekeepers

Second, it’s a powerful way to quickly share important news and information. We know from the countless news stories that have broken thanks to Twitter — from protests in Tehran to irregularities in the Ukrainian presidential election to the famous photo of US Airways flight #1549 floating in the Hudson River — that it can be a lifeline for people, especially those who may be silenced or oppressed, or who find themselves in some type of emergency.

3. Giving and getting instant feedback

Third, it’s an extraordinary way of sending and receiving instant feedback. One of the most powerful uses of Twitter, I’ve found, is as a means of monitoring reactions to ongoing events. Take the presidential debates during the 2008 elections, for example. There was no place better than Twitter to turn for instant analysis of what was being said. The same was true for the Academy Awards. Even the recent TED conference in Long Beach was made that much more interesting by scanning people’s immediate reactions on Twitter.

But public events are not the only way to post and read feedback. Even in smaller settings — academic conferences, say, or film festivals — Twitter can be a great way for groups to communicate with one another. It’s the go-to source for, say, posting follow-up questions, correcting factual errors, or reporting on last-minute schedule changes.

4. Keeping people posted

Fourth, it’s an efficient way of keeping friends and contacts up-to-date. When a wildfire broke out in the hills above Santa Barbara, where I live, I was inundated with calls and e-mails from people concerned about our safety. I found that Twitter was the most efficient way of keeping everybody informed and up-to-date.

I know others who have done the same when they are about to undergo surgical procedures, travel to remote or dangerous places, or take part in some special event where it’s simply not practical to send out individual e-mails or text messages. Many people prefer tweets to Facebook status updates, myself included, though more and more people now link the two so that both accounts are updated simultaneously.

5. Edifying, provoking and inspiring

Finally — and here I have to confess to a personal bias for information that edifes and inspires — I find Twitter a great source for sharing thought-provoking quotes, valuable observations, and little gems of wisdom. Of the 700-plus people that I follow, about two dozen or so constantly impress me with their brilliance, insight, wit, and amusing way with words. I consider some of them to be bona fide poets, others masters of the quotidian aperçu or the wise aphorism. I never like to miss a single tweet of theirs, even though I sometimes go for a whole day or more without logging in to Twitter. And just as I like to read a beautifully-crafted tweet, I love the challenge of parsing my own — especially if it means crystallizing some insight or rendering an observation into a succinct line of prose. In that sense, the satisfactions of Twitter are not unlike those of a crossword puzzle or a good game of Scrabble.

I recently read that Twitter is continuing to add 300,000 new accounts per day. The number is misleading. While there are no doubt a few late arrivals, many of the newcomers are marketers trying to use Twitter to turn a profit. But as the platform continues to grow and evolve, I believe more and more people will come to recognize that the real value of Twitter lies not in its commercial applications, but rather as a means of sharing information, engaging in dialogue, and creating new knowledge together.

Over the past two years, I’ve posted over 1,200 tweets. Here’s a baker’s dozen:

Google the word “change” and the first result is a link to the White House. How dreary, “change” has become a euphemism for the status quo.

I don’t believe in paying your dues, but sometimes it’s the only way to overcome self-doubt or a lingering belief that you’re a charlatan.

Someone once called me a social critic. I hate that term. I want to be known by what I praise and celebrate, not what I review and critique.

Truth is kind, but rarely gentle.

We cling to our point of view as if everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence. Like fall and winter, they come and go.

If I were given the chance to live my life over, I’d repeat the same mistakes, only sooner.

It’s not enough to be merely intelligent. Many intelligent people are aimless and discontent. We’ve got to be intelligent and inspired.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of spiritual people who lack a sense of humor.

Creativity is not about inventing new ideas so much as violating the boundaries between those ideas and concepts we already take for granted.

People often talk about “overcoming” or “conquering” their problems. But I think it’s truer to say we outgrow them.

A book worth writing: “How To Be a Friend and Stop Trying to Influence People”

I used to think I could get by on smarts alone. It was a blow to discover how wrong I was…. And to find I wasn’t that smart to begin with.

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters you read on Twitter.

You can follow me me on Twitter at twitter.com/scottlondon