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.