Friday, 27 February 2009

The art of twitterquette

I had an encounter with an interesting new aspect of the Twitter experience this week, having been pretty much converted to the whimsical charms of exposing my soul to Stephen Fry and wondering if Jonathan Ross might follow me back in 140 characters or less - and what the hell I'd do if he did.

So, to set our scene, a couple of days ago I decided to go through the list of people who I was following and have a bit of a purge. I kept all my strange internet friends and I kept my work contacts, but some of the celebritwits would have to go.

Step up Elijah Wood (never updates his feed), David Mitchell (funny guy but marginally less interesting on Twitter than Mark Corrigan) and Boris Johnson (is Boris Johnson).

"Just purged my following list for the first time," I tweeted. "Farewell Boris Johnson, you horrible Tory oaf. I don't know what I was thinking."

I can't stand Boris Johnson. His policies and his racist, homophobic attitudes appall me. His buffoonish exterior is unbecoming of a career politician and I fear that he is being used as a test-bed by the Conservatives for their style of government when they inevitably walk away with the next election. Perhaps most of all the the god-like 'ironic' regard in which he is held by many of my peers makes me vomit a little in my mouth when I think about it.

Oh, let's be clear that for the record I loathe Ken Livingstone as well, but he used to be my near-neighbour in Cricklewood for a couple of years and you feel more inclined to forget the Marxist past and corrupt present when you've seen him in Martins' paying his paper bill.

Anyway, cue an @ reply from someone who was not following me but, from the looks of his bio found me on one of those 'people who are like you' tools.

"Fell better now you've got that off your chest?" he asked. I assume he meant feel.

Be in no doubt that I don't feel flamed or put upon or insulted, but it put me in an odd position and got me thinking. I didn't know this guy from Adam. Still don't, as it happens. But up he had jolly well popped and at the moment of first contact he'd ... well, I don't really know what he'd done. I guess one of three things. Either it was genuine concern, gentle ribbing, or overt hostility.

From the looks of his profile he seemed to be a reasonably successful businessman, and from the nature of his tweets unlikely to be the sort of man I'd click with - lots of @ replies to people I don't know or care about, little original material. From the evidence I saw, and without wanting to speculate too much on his motives I am drawn to the third possibility.

I'm not a great believer in many businessman's maxims but I am quite fond of 'you only get 10 seconds to make a good first impression' and try to hold to it when I meet people for work - eyes up, nice tie, firm handshake, read the business card, you get the picture.

On Twitter, you could say you get 140 characters to make a good first impression, and by leaving me slightly confused and suspicious of his motives this feller had blown that one.

Twitter is all well and good but the trouble is it doesn't lend itself to in-depth communication. It's fine for pithy one-liners or sharing an interesting link, but you wouldn't want to debate Obama's stimulus package there, for instance. A little over a hundred characters is simply not enough space or time to convey anything other than the barest of contexts for your statement. This is what our chap missed.

The internet's been around a few years now and there's a pretty firmly established code of netiquette that most of us know. We don't use capitals unless we want to appear as if we're shouting, we avoid textspeak abbreviations, we don't post 'FIRST' in comment threads. Above all we take care to consider the context of what we say and how we say it, because it's too easy to forget that at the other end of the phoneline is someone else sitting at a computer, and they have feelings too.

Is it that Twitter is still a relatively new platform and the usual rules haven't been applied to it yet? Or is it that Twitter does not lend itself to the usual rules of the internet?

Let's look at how Twitter is already diverging from the social networking norms of Facebook, MySpace or Livejournal, where the decision to follow or friend - or unfollow - is not taken lightly and can lead to social awkwardness. On Twitter, it is already understood that to follow is not to make friends, and that to unfollow is not necessarily a tacit way of ditching someone. Look at the celebritwits; I know Wil Wheaton won't follow me back and that's cool, but equally if he notices that I stopped following him he won't care. Equally, I would imagine Stephen Fry won't sit at his computer rending his garments and declaiming 'But whyyy!!' if I go on my merry way.

I think that to a certain extent the 'art' of twitterquette is still very much in its infancy. We've seen how a new platform that's gaining mainstream acceptance is rewriting the rules, so why shouldn't the social rules be more fluid as well? It would be interesting to see develop some kind of system whereby people can be more open about their context, or even a code - a Prime Directive - for making effective first contact in an @ reply situation.

Here are my suggested thoughts on random @ replies between regular users, and don't apply to a situation where you might direct a tweet at a popular or famous user. I'd welcome thoughts in response.

1) Firstly, there should be no stigma to replying @ a twitterer who you do not follow and who does not follow you but in this situation, avoid ambiguity and overt emotion; channel your inner Vulcan. Make it clear what you are replying to and what you mean by it. You only have 140 characters to play with so be concise but use smileys to reinforce your point only if entirely unavoidable.

2) Don't tweet and run. Follow up by following the person you tweeted at; someone who follows me will almost immediately get my attention and send me to their profile page or blog. It doesn't mean you're best buddies, but it does mean you're interested in what they have to say and makes them more willing to engage with you. If they follow back you can direct message them, which adds an off-record dimension to your conversation that I believe can make relationship-building easier. I like having some conversations in private instead of in a succession of @s.

3) Learn to sit back and take it on the chin. If you stumble on someone who's knocking something, say, abortion rights, or someone, say, Boris Johnson, that you support, or vice versa supporting something you abhor, give them a break. Either move on entirely, or write the hostile tweet but don't send it, then open a new tab and go and read the Onion or something, and come back in five minutes. I'd stake money that the tweet you wrote will seem stupid.

4) Remember that you have 140 characters to make the good impression. If you come off badly, future tweets directed at the user will get a less objective hearing. The joke, or the debate, can come later in the relationship. Equally if you don't want the relationship, walk on and don't send the tweet.


Chris M. Dickson said...


On Twitter, it is already understood that to follow is not to make friends, and that to unfollow is not necessarily a tacit way of ditching someone.

Your mention of this comes as a surprise, but this probably indicates that I've not really dabbles with Twitter as much as anything else. Certainly at this point I'm at the stage where I'm only following people who I follow through other means.

I think social networks are defined by their verbs; on Facebook you beFriend someone, you poke them and user-generated applications give you plenty more verbs you can use to interact with other people, from "play Scrabulous with" to "unfavourably compare to a house-gnat". (Probably, or if not, it's but a matter of time.) On LiveJournal you beFriend someone, you read them and you respond to them, and the medium lends itself naturally to moderately extensive comments. On Twitter, you follow someone, you might DM them and otherwise you just @ them all day. (To me, the cleverest part of Twitter is where you can set it so that you only see someone else's @replies if the person they're replying to is someone else you're following.)

I am surprised by the way that the @ reply convention has taken off across other messaging systems across the Internet, but it is intuitive enough.

CycleFreak said...

Found this because you began following me on Twitter.

Followed you because I like this post & your "tweets" are not boorish :). Still don't know you from Adam, but you seem like an interesting chap and I assume you found me due to a shared interest in cycling.