I’m going to start this with a dramatic statement: twitter is the most powerful communication medium I’ve ever used.
Twitter gives dynamic, real time interaction with people all around the world. It’s like being in a room with the all the most interesting people you can find, and being able to listen to all their conversations and interact with them. This is why the 140 character limit is useful – to prevent information overload.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that although twitter is often characterised as a social network like Facebook, it’s really quite different, and there is a substantial body of research to demonstrate that twitter is more of a news media that a social network: people follow each other because they are interesting and share useful information, not because they are friends or acquaintances in real life.
Twitter is widely used by social movements and political campaigns, but it’s under utilised by the trade union movement: LabourStart’s twitter survey shows only a tiny fraction of trade union activists are using twitter.
There are few significant union tweeters, though Derek Simpson of Unite made headline news for sending updates during BA negotiations – and gained 1,500 followers in 24 hours.
There are reasons trade unions don’t use twitter more. The first is that, generally, unions are quite conservative organisations that don’t adapt to change well, and are slow to adopt new technology. Also, despite its simplicity, twitter is surprisingly difficult to master. It takes a little while to get used to the strange syntax of #hashtags and @replies, and to understand twitter etiquette. Its strength is its simplicity – you’re restricted to short messages of 140 characters. This causes the first difficulty: how can you possible say something worthwhile in 140 characters? You’d be surprised – especially since you can include links and hashtags in your posts.
Twitter teaches us to focus our message, to be clear, concise and succinct in our communications. If you can’t reduce a concept to 140 characters, maybe it’s not clear enough in your head.
Another reason is that it takes time to build up a network on twitter. Simply put, you need to follow people, and be followed back, to have any meaningful interaction. And as in real life, this takes time.
It’s the human interaction that gives twitter its power. Most new users have a moment when they ‘get’ twitter: they post a message, and a stranger responds with helpful advice. Or a public figure they’ve admired for some time replies directly to them. This was the moment I ‘got’ twitter:
The first time I really understood twitter’s power to provide live, breaking news – unmediated by the mainstream media – was during the G20 protests in London in March last year. I blogged about it here.
What makes twitter especially dynamic is the use of hashtags: by preceding a word with the # symbol, it becomes a searchable term on twitter: for instance, #unions.
Twitter puts us in direct contact with people around the world, in real time. I used twitter quite extensively during the general election campaign to ask my MP about his stance on issues that are important to me, and I follow hashtags for issues I care about: #flotilla, #bastrikes and so on. It’s particularly exciting when you can make an issue that you care about ‘trend’, by being the most spoken about subject in the world at that time.
One of the things I love most about twitter is crowdsourcing: if I need advice, or an answer to a question, I often just ask twitter, and see what responses I get.
I recently gave a talk on trade unions and social media at the CCISUA general assembly in The Hague. As part of the talk, I gave a live twitter demonstration, and asked my followers to say “hello” to the participants, and to say what they liked most about twitter.
Ten minutes later, I had 35 @ replies from around the world:
People sent messages back saying what they liked most about Twitter – that it’s easy to use from a mobile phone, that it provides a wider range of information more quickly than any news source, and that it is interesting, quirky and human.
Twitter makes you part of a big conversation.
Also, if you really want a social media overload, you can use twitter to update your Facebook status. If you do this from a mobile phone with a camera, you can post live updates from a picket line and share them with your contacts immediately. If you have a smart phone with an app like Qik, you can live stream video and share it through twitter.
As a fan of Open Source, I feel I should be advocating StatusNet and Identica, but I haven’t found them as useful because there isn’t a wide enough range of users.
If you’re not on twitter, I urge you to give it a try. Create an account, and follow some interesting people.
The most powerful means of communication I have seen is the spoken word.
I’ve been “tweeting” for several months now, purely as an experiment to see how beneficial Twitter could be for our movement.
As a barometer of political opinion, Twitter is superb. As a political campaigning tool, it is awesome.
But unions are different. Our strength comes from workplace organisation, and I still don’t really get how Twitter is going to be a major part of that.
I can see that if large numbers of Trade Unionists used Twitter, that it would be more possible to get union issues into the public arena – eg debunking “gold plated” pension myths etc etc. But then we are back to Twitter as a political campaigns tool. That much, I do get.
Part of my reluctance to get over excited about Twitter is my own experience. I’ve now tweeted 244 times during the last 8 months ( @rickcoyle99 ) – usually on union related issues. I’ve only got 56 followers, and half of those are organisations who I think have auto-followed me because I’m following them. On the other hand, I guess my lack of success is simply a reflection of the fact that there are so few Trade Union activists using the darn thing!
This has been a fair bit of effort for not much reward. And in any case, even if I had 10,000 followers, who and where would they be ? This is the complete opposite of what we know – we have regional, sectoral or workplace organisation. We’ve never organised the unknown before…
I think Twitter is a great tool for activists to network with other activists. And at the moment, it is a fantastic way to influence the media
The jury is still out – I’ll keep on tweeting for the rest of 2010, but I don’t think it’s doing a lot ! Please convince me why I should persevere !!
Thanks for you comments. You are spot on about a lot of issues, particularly the importance of workplace organisation. But where twitter can help is in building solidarity, sharing important information, and getting our message out. It is more than just PR – it can mobile people really quickly too. During the Vestas occupation, thousands of people turned up at the factory in support due to twitter messages, and twitter helped to publicise the Visteon occupation too. The Linsey wildcat strikers used text messages – twitter would have achieved the same, only more efficiently.
As I said in the blog post, there’s usually a moment when you either ‘get’ twitter, or give up on it. For me it was the G20 trade union march. I really wanted to be on it, but couldn’t make it down to London. I followed the #G20 hashtag on twitter, and suddenly got messages from scores of trade unionists who were on the march – it was almostlike being there. Importantly, when I put on BBC News to follow the march, I realised that twitter had given me a better impression of what was happening than a professional news organisation, and I saw how twitter can be a distributed, crowdsourced news medium. At the time, I was where you are now: I’d used twitter sporadically for a while, had around 50 followers and wasn’t sure I saw the point.
In terms of enhacing your experience of twitter, I see that you’re using Ubertwitter on your Blackberry and Gwibber on Ubuntu. You can enrich your experience of twitter by adding columns to Gwibber (Gwibber > New Stream), and following interesting hashtags in those columns.
Follow hashtags that interest you. For instance, I follow #bbcqt (BBC Question Time), because you get a lot of sharp political commentary. During the general election, I followed the hashtag for my constituency (#GlasgowS), and made contact with a number of politically active locals. We live-tweeted the hustings, and got a lot of commentary from people who were following us.
Over time, I have followed the best commentators using the hashtags I am most interested in, meaning that my twitter feed is always full of useful and crucial information. I read twitter first thing in the morning (on my phone), and find it gives me a much better idea of the day’s news than BBC Breakfast.
I would suggest using twitter more – 244 tweets over 8 months isn’t a lot. It only takes a few seconds on your BlackBerry while you’re waiting for your train. Tweet about everything that interests you, not just unions, and use hashtags. You’ll pick up diverse followers and have interesting conversations.
Also, follow more people: I primarily use twitter as a news source, rather than a broadcast medium, so I follow anyone who has something interesting to contribute. Over time, people have begun to follow me back, which is how I now have close to 700 followers. At this level, the interaction is really quite rich – I get lots of replies to my tweets (like the 35 mentioned in the blog post) which makes me feel like I am part of a large conversation.
As you point out, twitter doesn’t really work for trade unionists yet, because there are too few of us there. Also, most unions tend to use it as a one way communications medium, rather than engaging with people. So I would recommend enagging – – reply to people’s tweets and comment on them. The more trade unionists there are on twitter, interacting with each other, the better.
In the end, the amount of followers you have isn’t important, it’s the quality of interactions. There are probably only about 30 people I interact with regularly on twitter, but the quality of interaction is very high.The amount of information we share, due to retweets, is high too.