Recently somebody on an email list asked me why I would possibly use Twitter. For the benefit of those who have never tried the service and don’t see the point of it, following are my (edited) notes in reply.
I once swore I would never get a Twitter account. Now I love Twitter, and indeed it is my primary source of leads for interesting news and opinions. (More often than not, when I send some sort of news alert to an email list, I first heard the news via Twitter.)
I use my own Twitter account @ariarmstrong primarily as a feed for news and views that I find interesting, meaning links about Colorado politics and select national and religious issues. Thus, in nearly every Twitter post, I include a link to some article or blog post. (My wife tells me she no longer reads the paper directly; she reads it only through my Twitter feed.)
The value I provide to others is to sift through quite a lot of information — including the Denver Post nearly every day — and provide summaries and links to the interesting stuff. Thus, you usually won’t get crime news or celebrity news from me, but you will get stories related to property rights, free markets, and the Nanny State.
Doing this sifting and summarizing helps me as well. It helps me become aware of the news of the day and to see patterns in the news. For example, I’ve found many bits of information through Twitter pertaining to antitrust. This is much more useful than reading a single article about antitrust, because it points to a larger trend. Spotting political trends is a very useful skill for an activist, for it helps in planning articles and ideological campaigns. And Twitter can be very useful for this.
In terms of the others I follow on Twitter, a few users post personal information, entertaining messages (as with @DRUNKHULK), or information focusing on some particular topic, such as parenting. Mostly, though, I follow people who feed me interesting political news.
Thus, rather than read a hundred periodicals every day, I look carefully at one periodical every day, then Ilook at specific articles in (perhaps) dozens of other periodicals according to what looks interesting on Twitter. Indeed, I follow the Twitter feeds of several publications.
The writer worries that Twitter “seems like endless rambling about nothingness.” If you have a bunch of friends who ramble about nothing, then that’s what you’re going to get. That truth does not change whether you’re communicating face to face or on Twitter. If you don’t like what somebody is saying, “unfollow” that person. One key reason I love Twitter is that doing so is so easy.
The writer wonders about keeping up with Twitter as well as other social media and RSS feeds. I never did use RSS feeds much, and now I hardly ever use them. The problem with an RSS feed is that usually it is related to a particular site (or group of sites), such as a blog. Twitter is so much more useful than that. I can get a blog’s feed through Twitter if I want, and I can also follow any number of individuals who are sorting information and commentary in a practically unlimited number of ways. Saying you don’t want to use Twitter because you can use RSS feeds is a little like saying you don’t want to drive a car because a bicycle has wheels, too.
The writer wonders how much time I spend “social networking” in a day. That phrase may be a little misleading, because my main purpose in using Twitter is not to chat or network with friends. How much I use social media depends on how much time I have for it on a given day and how much interesting news is going on. I’m sure I spend more time using social media than others do — perhaps an hour or more per day — because I use social media as my primary tool of obtaining news and opinions, and I like to obtain a lot of that to see how the political landscape (especially in my own state) is unfolding.
Finally, the writer wonders whether I separate my personal life from my activism. On Twitter, the answer is no. I simply do not usually post personal information to Twitter (though I do learn a bit of personal information about friends through Twitter). (On Facebook, I have started using lists to separate personal friends from political associates.)
I certainly don’t think anyone must use Twitter to be an effective activist. Of course, you don’t need to use a computer or a telephone, either. But they can sure be useful tools.
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Paul Hsieh, who points to the DavidAll Group’s Twitter 101 guide, adds the following notes about his Twitter use: “I personally subscribe to the Twitter feeds of several health policy groups, blogs, and influential individuals. Through their feeds, I often find good material worth writing about that would take me longer to accumulate if I simply scanned news stories or RSS feeds. Basically, they act as filters for me. Of course, the tricky part is finding those people who serve as good filters. In that sense, it’s like trying to find friends who watch a lot of movies and whose taste is close enough to yours that you can trust them to provide a first-order approximation of what you would/wouldn’t like (recognizing that there will be some disagreements both ways).”