What does Conversation (on Twitter) Mean to You?

I have been thinking a lot about my Twitter usage this past week, especially since my last post, Twitter Isn’t a Conversation. Since writing that post, I’ve been trying to clarify my own thoughts, by reading others’ posts about Twitter, and its conversational value for them. I should have called my last post, “Twitter isn’t a Conversation (for Me)” because the platform clearly is conversational, for a lot of other people.

Why Twitter is a conversation to some, and not to me, really lies in how we define conversation, and our objectives for being on Twitter, in the first place. In the post, What Level of Conversation Is Twitter?, Jeff Milone describes five levels of conversation:

  • The Weather: Passing conversation. Small talk. Can be amusing or entertaining, but rarely very interesting.”
  • Let’s Talk About “Blank”: The lawn needs to be mowed. This project is due on this date. I find this interesting. Conversation, but no real insight.”
  • Energetic: Conversations with people with whom you easily align yourself. Spirited agreements or disagreements.”
  • Kitchen Table: Meaningful talk about life, love, work, etc. Serious decisions are made.”
  • Deep Conversation: You’re out camping with your closest friends. You’re all around a campfire at 2AM talking about the meaning of life. Rare.”

Passing Conversation

For Jeff Milone, most Twitter usage falls somewhere in between “The Weather” and “Topical Conversation.” My six months on the platform confirm that the 140 character limit supports passing conversation most of the time. Microblogging and small talk go hand in hand, by virtue of the platform’s structure. On a personal level, Twitter is not going to appeal to people who don’t like small talk, or just aren’t very good at repartee (the kind of small talk that works best on Twitter).

This is not to say small talk is bad—small talk is often the first entrance into someone’s orbit. Think about how many of our professional and personal relationships or conversations started there. Small talk can lead to big talk, or at least to more traffic to your web or blog site, where you can develop your ideas. (In this case, small talk serves as a subtle headline to your site.)

Small talk (via status updates, banter, quick responses to each others’ links, etc.) is also a way to loosely stay in touch with people who interest us, whether for professional or personal reasons.

In a Wall Street Journal post that examines whether digital small talk is as effective as in-person small talk, Julia Angwin notes that unlike its formal American Heritage Dictionary definition as ‘trivial or casual’ conversation, small talk is actually serious business:

Small talk is a form of social insurance, explains John T. Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “If I’m going to need to rely on you, then if we stay in touch on meaningless things, we can eventually work effectively together,” he says. “It’s like team practice – a basketball team has to practice together to win.”

Then again, a lot of small talk stays small talk, and a steady diet of small talk, recorded by Google for all to see, isn’t going to appeal to everyone long-term (probably boils down to, again, your objectives for using Twitter, the ol’ introvert versus extrovert thing, as well as how the industry you work in would judge your participation in public small talk).

Topical Conversation

Milone defines the next level of conversation on Twitter as Let’s Talk About “Blank”–the topical conversation. I think this level of conversation is where Twitter has the most potential, as a place to listen (see Twitter Isn’t About Conversation – It’s About Forming Groups) and more ambitiously as a way to develop dialogue and build community. Through the use of hashtags, Twitter users can tweet on predefined topics in a structured way, which allows participants to contribute in real-time and to find others with similar interests. I’ve participated in lots of webinars and one conference, using hashtags in this way, and the cumulative content and ability to easily find and engage with others who are interested in the same topic has additional value as a way to monitor and understand trends. Others can also continue adding to the hash-tagged content, long after the event has passed.

I’ve also seen community managers on Twitter build followings of like-minded individuals, tweeting on a given topic, on a particular day or night of the week, at a certain time. Community managers can later group together the various participants’ tweets in a follow-up blog post, inviting more substantive discussion of the topic. (What a great forum for audience analysis, focus groups, product development, and customer support.)

For me, this is the conversational aspect of Twitter which has the most business potential (See Econsultancy’s post, Twitter: the 13 types of tweet to take notice of.) It’s worth pointing out, however, that public conversation (the permanent, searchable record of tagged tweets on a certain topic) is still a different beast than what we ordinarily think of as conversation. (For one thing, the conversation keeps going, after most of the original participants have left, and when no one at that particular moment may be listening.) To me, this kind of behavior resembles the knowledge co-creation that Mark Drapeau describes in his post, Twitter is Not a Conversational Platform, but rather a knowledge-building platform, similar to a wiki.

Energetic Conversation

Here, Milone defines energetic conversation, “as spirited agreements or disagreements.” I have seen some Twitter heavy-hitters, usually also noteworthy in the blogosphere (people who often know each other offline) occasionally express different opinions, and go back and forth effectively and engagingly, in the spirit of healthy debate. In general, though, I don’t think the medium can accommodate that kind of nuanced discussion. In the post, You Will Be Misunderstood, Seth Godin points out that even in his blog posts, he is often misunderstood, and needs to clarify his thoughts, in subsequent posts. How much more difficult, Godin suggests, is it to clearly expresss our weightier opinions in 140 characters, without being misunderstood or having our ideas taken out of context? I see Twitter as having limited, direct conversational potential here, except, and this is an important exception, to start or point to a conversation that occurs some place other than Twitter (see Twitter Fails to Replace Conversation in Blog Commenting).

Kitchen Table and Deep Conversation

Twitter is like a telephone and can pass along kitchen table and deep conversation topics as well as more everyday topics, though I am  not inclined myself to share much personal information that way. The 140 character limit doesn’t easily accommodate that level of engagement, though if you follow someone long enough, you regardless begin to get glimpses of what that person values or thinks, inevitably through the content they share. It’s still wise to bear in mind that at least half of people in a recent poll (see Is There Still A Personal/Professional Line?) report that they act differently online compared to offline, often projecting a more professional persona online than they do in person. Here are some of the results from Dave Fleet’s poll:

  • “I am careful with networks that are open and searchable (Twitter, e.g.) to not say anything that might hinder me in the future.”
  • “I pride myself on staying true to my beliefs, but I will change what I say and how I say it depending on the group I’m in.”
  • “I try to keep it industry related as I’m trying to learn as much as I can from all of the PR professionals that I’m fortunate to have access to.”
  • “Regardless of the medium, I always assume my professional contacts may come across what I say and how I behave online.”
  • “I definitely act more professional online than I do in my everyday life.”
  • “Personally I am very different online than offline. It’s not that I’m a bad person or anything offline, I’m just less colorful when I’m online.”

If this poll is representative, it would seem that at least half of people would not share at the “Kitchen Table” or “Deep Conversation” level on Twitter, choosing instead to project a professional persona, or a more sanitized version of themselves, which leaves out more personal or soulful topics. (See How Are You? No, How Are You Really?)


Twitter is a conversational platform, but it supports different levels of conversation. It’s important to be clear about what those levels of conversation are, the difference between a personal conversation, and a permanent, searchable public conversation, as well as your own objectives and personal boundaries, when you start using the tool. A recent Harvard School Business study indicates that for the vast majority of Twitter accounts, “conversation” may mean listening most of the time. Most other times, according to Jeff Milone’s post, conversation on Twitter means casual conversation, or more topical conversation.

A lot of people (at least half, according to Fleet’s poll) present themselves more professionally online than in person, which is a factor to consider when deciding at what conversational level to engage with your followers on Twitter, who you want to engage with, and what you want to talk about.

Also worth noting is Brian Solis’ post, Is Twitter a Conversation or Broadcast Platform?, which asks whether Twitter is as much a broadcast platform as the conversational platform that it is often noted to be. In Twitter is Not a Conversational Platform, O’Reilley Radar’s Mark Drapeau proposes that the public conversation on Twitter “more closely resemble[s] the knowledge co-creation seen in wikis than the dynamics seen with conversational tools like instant messaging and interactions within online social networks.”

I’ll pick up with Solis and Drapeau’s ideas in my next post. Until then, are your online and offline personas the same? Is Twitter mainly a conversational platform? What other uses do you find for Twitter? What does conversation mean to you?

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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog


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