Twitter isn’t a Conversation.

I was at the beach the other day with my kids, during a camping expedition to a local island, in our twenty-something-year-old, used motor home. (Hubby was working and couldn’t join us until evening.) I had stocked up on all my creature beach comforts, including my iPod and cooking magazines, and except for an occasional dip in the ocean with the kids, I was prepared to pretty much relax and zone out by myself for awhile—a welcome thing.

A New Playmate

To no avail, I was trying to get the kids to eat up the grapes which I had brought along for this venture (two varieties, no less), and which were getting hot in the sun, when a little six-year-old girl joined us, looking very eager to help relieve me of my surplus fruit. I asked her mom nearby (later, this pleasant woman turned out to be the little girl’s very youthful-looking, early-fifties-something grandmother), if it would be ok if the girl shared some of the grapes with us. The woman seemed appreciative and said “Sure.” After finishing the grapes, the little girl continued hanging about our beach blanket, especially when I was passing out juice boxes. So, with the grandmother’s permission, the girl joined us for a cold drink, too, and in no time at all, was sharing beach pails and shovels with my kids.

Stranded Grandma and the Reluctant Good Samaritan

The girl’s grandmother quickly explained that her boyfriend was scuba diving in the outlying harbor and had dropped her and the granddaughter (who was getting very bored at sea) off on the island, while he and his five companions continued to dive for lobster. “Cool,” I said. “Well, we didn’t really pack that well,” the lady replied, as she and her granddaughter hopped off at the boat landing rather impromptu, thinking that the guys would have finished up by now. Ah, I finally understood…They were stranded on the island, until the boyfriend came back. And the little girl didn’t have any beach toys to play with. The woman seemed a bit embarrassed. “I left most of what I should have brought, back on the boat,” she said.

I could totally relate. When my kids were really small, I was never one of those Moms, with the well-stocked diaper bag, who could readily pull out whatever might be needed, at a moment’s notice–an extra change of clothes, a snack, a juice box, the perfect-sized band-aid, why even double A batteries…No one would ever accuse me of being that organized. One of the main reasons I bought a 34-foot motor home, afterall, was so I could stop worrying about packing my beach bag.

As if to justify my investment, I was happy to help out the grandmother and little girl. I went back to the trailer, bringing back sundry treats: watermelon, whoopie pies, and drinks. The woman laughed at the contradiction of the snack I offered her: whoopie pie and diet coke. That she noticed the contradiction so quickly struck me—why, this woman sort of gets me, I thought, with some surprise.

She moved her blanket closer to my beach chair, and we chatted casually about all manner of things, while our respective kids played together in the sand, punctuated by quick dips, in to the unseasonably cool July waters.

I remembered my magazines and iPod, a few times, a bit ruefully at first, but the conversaton and laughs came so easly, I really didn’t mind, and soon started to enjoy the company. When her boyfriend and the other divers finally came back ashore, the kids were hugging each other goodbye, and the woman offered me lobsters from the scuba expedition. “Thank you for the food and conversation,” she said quite simply.

The Lost Art of Conversation

“Thank you for the food and conversation.” That’s something you don’t hear so often, these days. I’ve turned the phrase over in my mind, a few times since that day, wondering why it made such an impression on me. “Thank you for the food and conversation.” Lately, I’ve heard so much about conversation, in the context of social media, especially Twitter. This was the first time in awhile that I heard the word “conversation” applied the old-fashioned way.

There was something about the random conversation with the stranded grandmother that reminded me of how rare it is that we truly connect, even for a short time, so effortlessly, with someone outside our immediate circle. And how much of an impression it makes on us, when someone gives us attention in that way, when it’s not required. When all the stars align right, and you just click with someone, and enjoy talking about everything and nothing, and feel a bit sad when the conversation ends. How rarer still, it is to connect in such a way with a stranger. And how as much as the online worlds try to replicate this experience, and sometimes come close, it’s still no substitute for connecting in person. And that in whatever ways tweeting is similar to conversation, it’s just not the same thing.

What Twitter Is and Isn’t (For Me)

Twitter—a useful communication platform to share and receive links, news, facts, and quotes—a way to listen in real-time, identify trends, network, announce, promote, acquaint, inform, stay loosely in touch with those who have opted in with us (especially through direct replies), and to answer or ask the most straightforward questions. Yes, Twitter is quite valuable in all these ways. But anyone who tells you Twitter is all about conversation, is speaking of the exception to the rule—more often with a very narrow view of conversation, or well, a lot of times, just trying to sell you something. At its best, Twitter points to, or can start a conversation, which invariably leads to somewhere else (for example, the give-and-take of blog commenting, or group discussions on LinkedIn, or interacting on Facebook…These are much more like my idea of conversation.) But Twitter sound-bytes, as genuine conversation? No.

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8 thoughts on “Twitter isn’t a Conversation.

  1. I truly enjoyed reading your story, and appreciate your opinions about twitter and conversations. Sometimes these impromptu face-to-face conversations are so satisfying.

    I’ve used Twitter just a bit, but have not been able to converse as some people seem to. Mostly I’ve posted links to interesting articles that I’ve found about various tech writing and website topics. Somehow, starting or joining a conversation feels like jumping onto a moving train. When do I jump and how?

    Thanks for validating what I’ve been thinking for the past few months.

    Lorraine Kupka
    NorthCoast Writers, Inc.
    author of Five Steps to MadCap Flare

  2. Hi Lorraine,

    I like your analogy of trying to make conversation on Twitter, being like jumping on board a moving train. In some ways, it really is like that–you just have to take the leap, at some point.

    I am not the best conversationalist on Twitter; I prefer using it as a real-time book-marking site, most of the time. I listen and “RT” (retweet) a lot. More and more these days, I send out links to posts that I have subscribed to through RSS feeds. That’s why the “related links” I included at the end of the post really resonated with me. I think there’s just as many people who use Twitter more like a wiki or knowledge base, as those who are using it conversationally.

    I have come to the conclusion that many of the people who are having conversations on Twitter have met outside Twitter, either by mutually commenting on each others’ blogs, at conferences, or in other professional ways. It’s easier to use Twitter for conversation, with those we already know in some other context.

    My best advice is to try to find a Twitter buddy, either someone you know in your personal or professional context, or others you might engage with and get to know better through blogging comments. Also, try to use to find topics that are of particular interest to your niche. Following folks with similar interests is a better way to engage long-term. If you see folks discussing a topic that interests you or relates to your expertise, you might jump in and try to join the conversation that way.

    My most effective way of getting to know folks on Twitter is to use the direct reply, with folks I would like to get to know better or want to engage with more on Twitter. To me, the direct reply is a lot more personal and makes what you say sometimes more memorable.

    Another way to get more conversations going, would be to set up a consistent time and day/night of the week to discuss a predetermined topic (such as your Flare expertise). Once you get a few people, you might grow your own community on Twitter. Our marketing colleagues are in general better at using Twitter in this way. I’d like to see more technical writing discussion groups on Twitter, to bring people together from our field, in a more collaborative and conversational way.

    So many thoughts! Now, if I would only take some of my own good advice. 🙂

    In the meantime, please feel free to follow me on Twitter as @pegmulligan; I’d love to reciprocate by following you. Nice to “meet” you.


    • Hi Peg-

      I always enjoy your viewpoints, and in fact, you and i have “met on Twitter” and been following each other since, a good example for making meaningful connections through the medium.

      I further agree with you that the @reply is a good way to start conversations and create deeper relationships, and allow any twitter user to get a sense for your content and conversation style, should they desire to research you before following. (I actually wish more users would.) DMs of course, have a valid right to exist for messages to one user’s eyes only.

      The main advantage of both methods is, in my experience, to cut through the noise of all the followed (who can seriously note, let alone engage with the content of thousands of followers?), as well as the Tweetdeck and such tool’s filtering mechanisms, and turn the broadcasting into 1:1 communications. Otherwise, it often feels like we are all yelling, and nobody is listening, which is often frustrating to users (like Lorraine – hi there, nice to meet you!).

      What’s making conversations even more challenging is the unstructured nature of tweets, where it’s often hard to tell what post people are responding to, unless you use 3rd party apps to manage your conversations.

      On a final note, the communication behavior is typically driven by our goals for using the service. I noticed I converse quite a bit more on my personal twitter account @Britta_SF vs. my corporate ones (like @loomia or @leadtail) where the intent is stronger to build a brand and create an online presence.

      Just some thoughts. See you on twitter.

      • Hi Britta,
        I appreciate your comments, and agree that the lack of structure and sheer volume of tweets, does drown out some conversation potential. Using @ replies and direct replies can help direct others’ attention to our content and increase others’ perception of our willingnesss to engage. Maybe those replies aren’t meant so much to be judged as true conversation, but as pointers back to the real content, which lie in our blogs, web sites, and other discussion forums.

        One thing I find about Twitter is whenever I start to become frustrated with it, it’s best to shift gears awhile and concentrate on other social media tools (like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc….) I’m also considering exploring FriendFeed more, to see if it is a better conversational tool. Each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, and coordinating their use is probably the best approach.

        My most difficult days on Twitter were in the first month or two, when it was hard building a following. I joined one of those “I’ll follow you, if you follow me” groups, and my numbers did start to go up. As much as people say numbers don’t count, I think they do, in a social proofing sort of way. The more people see are following you, the more it makes them feel your content must be authoritative and worth subscribing to. On the other hand, though I did pick up the numbers, I did not pick up targeted followers, with a “screened” set of common interests. It’s probably because I was not more careful about targeting followers that I have difficulty sometimes “conversing” with my follower base. If I had it to do again, I would probably build a following more slowly, based on more mutual interests. That would probably encourage more conversation long-term…

        Anyway, great insights Britta. Thanks for sharing, and “see you” on Twitter.


  3. Thanks for the great suggestions Peg! I think you’re right on with the comment that many people who carry on conversations probably know each other from some other venue. See you on Twitter.


  4. Hi Peg – this is such a great post. I really enjoyed reading it and the insightful comments too. It is also very timely as I met with a friend today (face-to-face!) and she was deploring twitter, facebook et al. Despite all my best efforts to convince her otherwise, she can see no good in them and believes it’s killing off the art of real conversation. I must send her this piece so she can get a more balanced view of things. I particularly like when you write “At its best, Twitter points to, or can start a conversation…” As you know I am thrilled to have started that conversation with you and have learned so much and made great connections through Twitter – opportunities I would never have had in the normal course of events…

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