Twitter for Dummies

19 June 2011 - 06:45 By Sarah Britten

If you're looking for a real-time dipstick into the zeitgeist, this is it, writes Sarah Britten

It's a cold June evening in Johannesburg. I'm standing in a crowded hotel lobby, handwritten badge reading @Anatinus stuck to my lapel, watching the people around me. It could be any of the many social occasions where I wish with quiet ardour that I could make myself invisible at will - but there's a difference. "I know what most of these people had for breakfast this morning," I observe. "But I can't tell you who any of them are."

I'm chatting to Highveld Breakfast Xpress host Sam Cowen. We're at the Rosebank Crowne Plaza for Twitter Blanket Drive 2011, otherwise known as #TBD. Organised by @MelanieMinnaar, #TBD is a campaign to collect blankets to distribute during a typically callous Joburg winter. If there is any doubt as to the power of Twitter to mobilise people for a good cause, you only have to look at the multicoloured pile of blankets in the centre of the lobby.

Sam, who has 5001 friends on Facebook and 11040 followers on Twitter, reflects on the difference between South Africa's two most popular social networks. "Facebook is like TV. I'm prepared to watch for longer. Twitter is like radio, where if you don't like that song you can switch to the next station."

Facebook, with its 3.9-million South African profiles, has long since attained mainstream status. Everyone and his dog is there, often quite literally (it's through Facebook that I got to know Earl, the Great Dane who would later find the Blue Bulls serial killer's fifth victim). In contrast, it has taken longer for Twitter to reach the same kind of critical mass - though in many ways, Twitter is more influential.

Even Twitter's crustiest critics are finding it harder and harder to dispute the fact that this is the world's most powerful five-year-old. Major news stories routinely break in the timeline before they appear anywhere else and now that most journalists have Twitter profiles, the line between reporting and tweeting is more and more blurred. If you want to know what is going on in the world, go to Twitter first.

Yes, the proportion of inanity to insight can be depressingly high. The fact that Justin Bieber routinely dominates the list of global trending topics is evidence - possibly - that the Rapture actually did take place and we are in fact the Left Behind living through the Apocalypse. Yet to assume that Twitter is inherently shallow is just a little lazy. You can follow the Kardashians or the Paris Review, or both - it's up to you. Kurt Vonnegut tweets. So do Margaret Atwood and Alain de Botton. Want to know what's been published in The Atlantic or the New York Review of Books? Find them on Twitter. In fact, it is thanks to Twitter that I have found the links that have inspired me most.

So Twitter is a useful and convenient source of information. But it is more than that. It is in the shared experience, in the tangibility of the collective, that much of Twitter's power lies. This has interesting implications for that thorniest of topics in the country formally known as the rainbow nation.

Historian Benedict Anderson once argued that a nation is an "imagined community". The members, he said, of "even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." He was writing in 1983, but the idea that this could be something that Twitter does rather well is hard to resist.

For all of its relative elitism - the "desktop activists" famously dismissed by the ANC Youth League - Twitter offers a glimpse of a nation in conversation with itself. Discussions can become heated, even divisive - just try suggesting that Cape Town is racist - but there's a difference: lives that would have once remained anonymous now become visible. We can follow everyone from Malusi Gigaba to Steve Hofmeyr, but we can get to know ordinary South Africans too. How else would we know that our fellow citizens can't believe it's raining in Joburg in June, or got no sleep because their neighbours had noisy sex half the night?

This collective stream of consciousness can be both disarmingly intimate and disconcertingly public. For those who tweet, Twitter at its heart is about sharing with the imagined other: venting about a bad day, letting on that they've just had their heart broken. It's the emotional equivalent of parading around naked on stage and yet people are happy to do it.

I have watched strangers share the news that a close relative has died or a friend has been diagnosed with cancer. When something important happens in their lives, their first instinct is to tweet about it. Somehow, putting @ in front of a name gives them permission to let it all hang out. Twitter is your agony aunt, your IT guy and your peanut gallery rolled into one.

So, in the spirit of sharing, I asked my followers what advice they would give someone thinking of signing up. "Don't. We're full," tweets @gussilber, generally considered to be the preeminent practitioner of the art of the tweet. "Choose a short handle!" suggests @brodiegal. @MadamMichelle advises newcomers to think about their identity. Have a purpose or focus, recommends social media consultant @MelAtree. Most of them agreed that it was important to follow ordinary people and interact with them. As @Squidsquirt suggests: "Don't waste your time kissing the rear ends of A-list celebrities. But do jump into normal conversations." @hurricanevanessa (otherwise known as Vanessa Raphaely, editor of Cosmopolitan), declares that the correct and only appropriate response to a tweeted compliment is: "Thank you very much." "If you're looking for friends, rather concentrate on Facebook," tweets @NatalieGovender.

Some, like @mpum_mpum, express cynicism about the narcissism of Twitter; others warn of its addictive appeal. But there's also a sense that for most of the people behind the avatars, it's the chance to connect with others that resonates with us. Even if we call each other by our Twitter handles when we meet at tweet-ups, it's the sense that there's somebody real behind the @ that appeals to us. In the words of @epherb: "Be original, opinionated and truthful."

Like anything in life, Twitter is what you make of it. Yes, it's a direct channel to the mindless effluvia of celebrity egos. But it's also a link to the genuinely thought-provoking, and illuminating, a fascinating real-time dipstick into the zeitgeist. It's like radio, to use Cowen's analogy, but where all kinds of people can talk to all kinds of others, all at the same time, a many-to-many broadcast model that would have fascinated Marshall McLuhan if he had been around to witness it.

Sign up, and see for yourself.

TWITTER 101: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

  •  140 characters is the maximum length of a tweet. On Twitter, brevity is the soul of wit.
  • The @ symbol designates a Twitter profile - for example @LadyGaga or @PigSpotter.
  •  Your biography is an important part of creating your Twitter persona. Most Twitter profiles try to sound as intriguing as possible: dreamer, coffee addict, FHM model whisperer.
  •  The retweet. Repeating another tweet to your own followers. This is how news spreads so quickly on Twitter. Retweeting is central to Twitter etiquette.
  •  Hashtags. The # sign is used with words or phrases to highlight them or make them more searchable. Popular hashtagged phrases in South Africa include #deathby (to laugh hard at something) and #thuglife (to disregard others).

  •  Follow Fridays or #FF used to be the traditional way for people on Twitter to encourage their followers to follow newbies, but this is less popular now. It's considered polite to thank the people who recommend you.
  •  Lists. These are a convenient way to organise the profiles you follow. Click on the list, and you will only see tweets from the people specified in it. The more lists you're on, the more influential you are.
  •  Tweet-ups. A tweet-up is a social gathering organised via Twitter. It's a way to take virtual friendships into real life.
  •  Unfollow. If you don't like what somebody tweets, simply click on "unfollow". Easy.

  •  Trending topic. The most popular discussion topics on Twitter are called trending topics. These can be tracked globally or locally. To make it into the top 10 trending topics is considered an achievement.

FIVE NEWS STORIES THAT BROKE ON TWITTER

1. News of the death of Osama bin Laden broke on Twitter before President Barack Obama's speech, after it was leaked by Donald Rumsfeld's former chief of staff.

2. Witnesses tweeted about seeing a US Airways Airbus landing on the Hudson River in New York City as it happened.

3. The Fishhoek shark attack in January 2010 was reported by an eyewitness who immediately tweeted: "Holy shit. We just saw a gigantic shark eat what looked like a person in front of our house."

4. An unconfirmed report of the death of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang in 2010 was tweeted nearly an hour before her official time of death.

5. In the early hours of June 9, Locnville (pictured) tweeted about being maced by police after an incident at a Cape Town service station.

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