A Year Of Living Dangerously: 7 Lessons From Twitter

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Although I’ve worked in the social media space for about a decade (haven’t we all, in one form or another), it wasn’t until this time last year I actually become an active participant in it by joining Twitter and Linked IN (this is nothing new – I didn’t own a TV when I worked in TV either).

As a naturally (fiercely) private individual, and, historically, a very time-poor one, I just couldn’t see a need for Twitter in my life.

A year down the line, I can honestly say being on Twitter has enriched it in many ways – so I thought I’d share seven things my year in the Twittersphere has taught me.

Twitter takes time

Just as you can’t build a brand overnight, neither can you build a following on Twitter (unless, of course, you’re Caitlyn Jenner).

Oh, those first desperate days when everyone you follow is wrapped in the warmth of the crowd, while you, lonely straggler, have only the kindness of those you know to keep you company.

The dedicated will attend to this and mass-follow at a sitting, and this is one way to ramp up the numbers (a fair percentage of people, like myself, tend to default follow back as a matter of politeness unless someone looks really scary), but I think the numbers alone aren’t really a worthwhile pursuit (I’ve, perplexingly, seen accounts that only have one aged tweet posted and hundreds of thousands of followers – what’s that all about? I never bother to follow those).

As with building any network, I think quality is far more important than quantity.

Getting to know your audience, their interests and issues, is surely the best way to keep whatever you’re chirruping about even slightly relevant and interesting to them, and that’s the goal, isn’t it – to be having interesting conversations and gaining different insights on Twitter – otherwise, why bother?

Lesson 1: If you’re starting out on Twitter, take your time, and put some time into it (also, take note, time flies scrolling on Twitter – and many a meal can be ruined that way).

Twitter changes the conversation

The twists and turns of Twitter and its timelines are a subject of endless fascination – not least to the media. Doesn’t it stagger you how much the social media commentary around a story is the story now?

Of course, it’s not all that surprising when the things people say on Twitter are so staggeringly prejudiced, ill-informed, cruel and sensational.

If I were a conspiracy theorist and thought people really did know what they were doing, I’d think these Twitter Storms were often created to cloud the debate. Sadly, I think people aren’t as smart as that and are just tweeting-fingered trigger-happy, and genuinely stupid.

Lesson 2: You can’t control the conversation – and anything you say could come back to haunt you.

Twitter automation can kill the conversation

It took me a little while to realise the difference between automated ‘Thanks for following’ messages and organic ones. Yes, I did mistakenly reply to a couple of automated ones and probably got unfollowed as a result.

I see the logic of them, particularly as a promotional tool, but I’m not particularly fond of them. Perhaps that’s why it’s so thrilling to get a real, live, hand-typed message – and I’ve had some great conversations with people who’ve done this.

In fact, I really wish I’d done this from the start, personally replied to everyone that follows (or, at least, those who are clearly identifiable as an actual human being). It would have been a nice touch.

Lesson 3: Keeping it real, keeping it human, is far more engaging than automation (in pretty much any context, come to think of it).

Twitter anonymity tends to the inflammatory

This is a dangerous one to confess: I’m yet to be trolled. This is worrying on many fronts.

Am I, just a year in, experiencing a false sense of security in the harmonious bosom of my Twitter family?

Am I such a glass-of-water personality (i.e. there at the table, but not bringing much flavour) that the trolls can’t be bothered with me?

Am I, by confessing I’m yet to be bothered by them, encouraging them to bring it on?

I think the first time I saw how venomous Twitter could be was exploring the #bbcqt hashtag for the first time. Yikes – these people are vicious, picking off panellists and audience members alike. I was shocked, genuinely shocked (and I’m not often shocked, it has to be said).

There is a compelling argument for how to address hate speech, trolling and bullying on Twitter – insist on a real face photo and real name for every profile, making people have to ‘own’ their words – but, actually, I want to hear what people really think, whether they’re prepared to own that or not.

We can block or ignore, or, better yet, expose and make better points, better arguments.

Lesson 4: Shutting people down doesn’t mean stopping them thinking the way they think (and I always think it’s better to know what you’re up against than to exist in blissful ignorance).

Twitter Tribes take no prisoners

The thing about Twitter I love the most is how it has enabled me to connect with people across the planet and find out what they’re doing, thinking about and talking about. For me, its joy is to experience the world in all its glorious diversity, to see the different sides of a debate, to explore what unites and divides us.

I thought that was the point, but then I’ve never been very good at assigning myself to, or sticking with, just one tribe.

What I do find staggering is the amount of people who put things on their bios along the lines of “I’ll only follow you if you share my views and will block you if you follow me and I don’t share yours.”

It’s a funny thing to do when you really think about it. We all live with, work with and experience in our social circles people who don’t agree with us on certain things, sometimes many things, sometimes big, fundamental things, but rarely choose to exclude them from our lives as a consequence.

Personally, I’d like to think I’m open-minded, and, indeed, strong-minded enough, to digest opinions that might differ from my own. I don’t want Twitter to only validate my thinking – I want it to disrupt my thinking too.

Lesson 5: Hearing both sides of an argument may well be the best path to independent thought, but the pull and power of ‘GroupThink’ cannot be ignored.

Twitter can be traumatising

The Paris Attacks in November was the first time I’d experienced a news event unfolding on Twitter. Returning home from Friday night drinks to then be catapulted into sudden, and emerging, terror, in all media dimensions, was sobering, agonising, and truly, deeply, terrifying.

This is how things happen now. It’s all real-time.

We are horrified, incensed, appalled, both by people’s actions, and people’s responses to it; what people are so quick to say.

We are moved, amazed and encouraged by people’s actions and responses too; mostly what people are so quick to do, to help, to heal.

Lesson 6: We are all witnesses now. Ready-made reporters. Easy armchair commentators. We tread a difficult, unestablished line. The crowd will judge whether we’re encroaching on, infiltrating ourselves into, inflaming, distorting or crassly commenting on public outrages (which, we would all be wise to remember, always include private grief).

Twitter can be life-affirming

Twitter does, indeed, prove you can depend on the kindness of strangers.

Tweet-twee as the word sounds, people are lovely. So many people are so lovely. Encouraging and endorsing, promoting, championing, sharing and lamenting, supporting. It doesn’t just take terror to see the best in humankind. You can see it, in so many little ways, every day on Twitter.

Just a little red heart can do it.

Lesson 7: For every down, there’s an up. For every shot in the dark, a beam of light. Social media shows us humankind in all its contradictions, often blinded for all the information before us; occasionally, truly enlightened and often, very often in fact, kind.

That alone, I’ve learned, makes it a worthwhile place to be.

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