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5 years on Twitter: some personal reflections

Five years ago this month, reluctantly and apprehensively, I joined Twitter. I had many reservations about my first foray into the then-nascent phenomenon of social media. I feared that I would have little worth saying in a mere 140 characters, and that I would be distracted from my main work in life; that I would be caught in a web of banal greetings and trivial social updates; and that I would be exposed to a motley crew of characters I had little interest in knowing.

How wrong I was, on virtually all those fronts. And 50,000-plus tweets later, it turns out I had a LOT to say. Let’s consider my initial objections.

Is social media work, or just mindless play? What I discovered rapidly was that it is exactly what you want it to be. If you are interested in cat videos, knowing what celebrities had for breakfast this morning, or just greeting all your buddies – social media is your thing. But equally, if you want a powerful research and networking tool to help you in your life’s core purpose – social media is also your thing.

In my case, Twitter rapidly became my single most important source of news, opinions and crowdsourced wisdom. It was a revelation to be in touch with the voices of knowledge and know-how, people whose work I admire and respect, on a daily basis. It was equally bracing to receive opinions I did not agree with, without flinching. If you are interested in how the world works and value diverse opinions, trust me: there’s nothing quite like Twitter out there.

Did it fritter away too much of my time? Certainly, when I study my mobile-phone battery usage, the Twitter apps are doing most of the damage. However, as I have written here before, what is “work” and what is “play” in this always-on digital world? I certainly enjoy myself hugely on Twitter (there are “LOL” moments every single day); but I also am learning a great deal and using what I learn in my work, also on every single day.

Another observation: I have not written a single book in the past five years (I had written two in the three years prior). Is Twitter to blame? Well, the 50,000 tweets translate into the equivalent of 2 full-length books in every one of those five years. Should I have been writing the books instead? Bibliophiles may think so, and five years ago I might have agreed. Now, I recognize that a writer is a content-generating engine; that content reaches audiences these days in a multiplicity of ways. Tweeting the words 140 characters at a time is no less powerful than writing them in chapters or columns or speaking them on stages. And Twitter is great discipline for a writer: having to say something both coherent and impactful with so strict a word limit is initially discombobulating, but ultimately forces you to strip away the superfluous and stick to the necessary.

What about the people you meet on Twitter’s wild and crazy streets? Certainly, you will find yourself immersed in the digital equivalent of a manic street party, with all sorts of characters coming your way. Again: you choose the corners of the party that you like. I have a relatively small list of “follows”, and my list is confined to those who educate, regale or challenge me. I have certainly been connected to some fascinating voices that I may never have heard otherwise.

One of my initial reservations was well-founded, however. The fact that social media allows anonymity and lets people who are not face-to-face engage seems to do something ugly to a certain type of person. There is much to be disgusted by on Twitter: semi-deranged types flying into every possible argument with ill-thought-out opinions; extortionists using their new-found “influence” to create trouble for brands; and a wide range of low-lifes who seem to crawl out from under their rocks to hurl relentless ad hominem abuse at all and sundry, free of consequences.

But that’s humanity’s fault, not social media’s. The dark side of this world is ever-present, and digital life seems to amplify the ugliness of which we are capable. I learned long ago not to stain my life, real or virtual, with the uncouth and the ill-motivated. You can too.

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