For four years, I tweeted and blogged under a pseudonym. This is Part 2 of my story, as well as some things I learned along the way. I hope people find it enlightening.
I was, for the first part of my pseudonymous life, one of a crew of people tweeting facts and figures in response to the lies raining forth on #auspol. There are those who these days claim that these organised groups of people tweeting the same message don’t exist on the “left” of politics, but they do on various sides of politics – you quickly pick up the talking points of the day and will retweet whatever fact, picture or message comes across #auspol and go for it.
It was fun for a while, engaging in almost hand to hand (or should that be slogan to slogan) contact with your opposite numbers. In that, Twitter becomes as close to a free sporting event one can do from the comfort of one’s loungeroom. That became dull and repetitive pretty swiftly though, especially after the August 2010 election. So I stopped and thought about what I actually wanted to do with this account.
It occurred to me that perhaps I should try to say something interesting and different to the range of slogans and comments flying around on #auspol. It was also very clear that during the 2010 Federal Election that the coverage of places outside the inner cities and Canberra was pretty slight and verged on the stereotyped frequently.
This stereotyping of outer suburbs had annoyed me for some time, especially as I was a subscriber to the Sydney Morning Herald for many years and almost never read positive stories about the outer suburbs, nor read reviews of restaurants or had even seen articles in Domain about anything much west of Strathfield. I put it down to the regular subscribing readership of the Herald, which wasn’t very large in Campbelltown, where I lived for many years and had unending problems with newsagents never understanding why someone wanted the HERALD not the Telegraph delivered to their front door.
I figured that I might as well start tweeting things about where I lived and see if anyone on Twitter was interested. That was pretty much my goal. I had no idea how to do that, except just starting to work out how to follow and be followed.
One of the greatest pieces of advice I have read on Twitter was written by Malcolm Farnsworth, a former teacher who started the outstanding archive that is AustralianPolitics.com, which contains all sorts of treasures about our political history. He said that the real worth of twitter is in the following list you make – and that the list really needed careful scrutiny. He would give other Twitter users (henceforth tweeps) a trial period and then stop following if they didn’t really provide what he wanted. (He gave me such a trial, and I didn’t measure up – I respected him too much to ask why.)
So it went that I assembled a list of people to follow and found journalists that I had seen on TV, read in the paper or heard on the radio and then saw whom they either followed or retweeted. That was quite a lengthy process, but ultimately rewarding as I discovered who the most reliable, insightful people were and who weren’t really all that good. I also discovered quickly who were the funny tweeps, nice tweeps, friendly tweeps were and followed them. After a while, I had a pretty interesting and varied timeline.
All the while of doing that, I tweeted and found that there were three big ways of gathering followers:
- Say something new / different / funny / insightful / pithy / concise
- Respond to people who respond to you
- Contribute tweets during big TV events where there’s heavy use of hashtags, such as #qanda.
I found that it was the Q and A hashtag that probably gathered the most followers in the first place, probably because it was still relatively early days for Q and A and it was a hive of political tragics like me, all competing for the pithiest statement to be RTed and/or placed on the screen. It was fun too in those days.
After gathering a few followers, then I found it was a matter of keeping up the tweets, contributing thoughts whenever something big was happening in politics. I also found myself asking questions of various journalists from various news organisations – some more harsh in tone than others, I’ll admit, but I thought it was a good way to see how journalists work.
As an aside, it is true that a number of teachers are frustrated journalists and / or writers, wishing that they could write all day and have an audience outside the confines of classrooms. This could be said for me, except that I have no desire to work in the media full time, for a few solid reasons
- I did work experience in a suburban newspaper at the age of 16. When I saw them leap about because Terry Metherell didn’t like an article of theirs, I thought that they lived an odd experience.
- I realised early on in my career that I like teaching and helping people understand stuff in person, rather than trying to engage a remote and varied audience on a permanent basis
- Having to produce words when you don’t want to would be horrible for me
Having Twitter, though, gave me a chance to find out exactly why journalists do what they do and why they do it. For that, Twitter has been an invaluable tool for my teaching. Whenever I teach texts relating to political events and media in general, I have been able to impart all sorts of insights into the gathering skills and activities of journos.
On that issue, one of the most important and enjoyable parts of developing a Twitter persona was in engaging with journalists and others, having a social interaction one could never have had in previous days, when journalists would write their stories, go to the pub for a quiet one then head off to wherever they lived / socialised. Now here they were, talking to regular people.
What I discovered in this interaction was that journalists have a variety of approaches to Twitter and the interaction with regular people. I have realised that it must be tough to have regular engagement with members of one’s audience who are particularly well informed and quick to judge one’s work harshly – I don’t think I could work under such conditions. I have seen, in the past four years, a variety of approaches from journalists and columnists to various tweeps (these are four broad ones – there’s other smaller sub groupings):
- Respectful, patient and warm. These are usually experienced journos who understand the frustrations of some, and will act with respect and calm in response to them. They will also act in a personable and considerate way with others, engaging on a meaningful and often warm level with a range of different people. I’ll call this the Mark Colvin / Jonathon Green / Katharine Murphy / Bridie Jabour approach to Twitter. (There are many others in this category) It still to this day surprises me that people like this followed me, some nobody teacher from the outer suburbs with nothing much to offer but opinions and a few tales from my personal experience.
- Polite but Sparse in Response. These are journalists who clearly don’t have as much time or interest in engaging and will only respond to one or two questions – being polite, but not detailed in answering. For them, Twitter is a chance for them to broadcast what they have written and answer some queries in regards their work, but then they will go back to just looking at their twitter feed and tick off that they have engaged with the general public. (I’m not naming names here – this is not that kind of memoir).
- Cliquey and Arrogant – or The Non Responders These were journalists that would talk to their fellow journalists and a select club of non journalists they found funny / engaging. They would rarely – if ever – answer questions or engage with those who didn’t make their criteria of “interesting”. They also liked to communicate to each other with subtweets that meant something to them, but no-one else. This is not to say that these people should be engaging with people they didn’t like / find much in common with. After all, every profession has this category of people. All playgrounds have this category of people.
- Rude and Hypocritical. The higher one goes in the food chain of media stars and opinion shapers, the more rudeness one can find. In my experience of Twitter, it was a select few columnists and commentators on TV that were unwilling to engage with people unless it was to insult, mock or belittle. And then block when tweeps would object to that treatment. Curiously, it was often people who tried assiduously to assemble a nice “everyday person” persona who were the most rude and abusive.
These categories, however, did not just apply to journalists. Over the four years of my Twitter experience, there were new people emerging that were tweeting and writing opinion on blog sites. I was one of those, writing my own blog and contributing to those started by others. I will write about that experience more in the next post. However, what was interesting was that bloggers and tweeps with ever growing followings were falling into the categories that journalists were in. It was a curious phenomenon when people with no media profile other than their blogs and occasional opinion pieces in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section were refusing to answer questions and comments and then making comments that suggested “who are you and why should I respond”? Human nature means that we get these repetitions of patterns, I am guessing.
In that respect, one of the more interesting phenomena on Twitter was this development of cliques and places that resembled more a school playground at lunch than a polite amphitheatre of ideas. And just like my own experience at school, when I found myself being ignored by various people, it wounded my ego and I asked why. I always tried very hard to respond to everyone who asked questions of me on Twitter, no matter who they were – and continue the conversation. I think it’s not only polite, it’s also meaningful and I have made a number of great friendships that way.
I found after a while that the secret of Twitter wasn’t your follower numbers that’s the thing to have – it’s the meaningful relationships you make. It’s the people with whom you make genuine connections that end up being the most important thing about Twitter. This is why I realised that on a rational level, I was developing strong, warm, lasting relationships with great people, I knew it was only a small number of people who were being rude. Rationality, however, is frequently absent when one is mixing socially and Twitter makes it harder because the others aren’t in the room with you. It is for this reason that my penultimate piece of advice on this post is:
Expect your ego to get bruised frequently when engaging frequently on Twitter. Because it will be.
The final piece of advice is, however:
It is possible to be just some person, get a following, get your questions answered and have your voice heard.
Getting one’s voice heard is for the next post.