There are a couple of pieces of advice that I have seen many times in articles about Twitter that irk me. One is that you shouldn’t actually answer the “What are you doing?” question at the top of the Twitter box. The other is not to get involved in an extended conversation with someone on Twitter. Rather, you’re supposed to take it to private IM, email, or send a Direct Message through Twitter.
Before I respond to either piece of advice, I’d like to take a side trip. At my last writers group meeting, a couple of us began discussing our online activities with group members who aren’t online. I was talking about the merits of Twitter and another writer was praising Facebook’s ability to bring her together with past friends. As we talked, I realized that Facebook works best with friends and family, whereas Twitter allows people to converse with strangers, as well as with direct acquaintances.
This insight led to the thought that Twitter is like a giant cocktail party, wherein people are rubbing shoulders and listening in on conversations with strangers, only it’s far less threatening than a real cocktail party. (I can’t deny the possibility that this article may have planted the cocktail party analogy in my mind, but I hope my post adds to what has already been said.) You can follow people’s tweets indefinitely without ever saying a word to them, whereas at a cocktail party, you, at the very minimum, must clear your throat and say, “Excuse me” and “Good to meet you” and “How about this weather?” and other inane things to people that you know nothing about. With Twitter, you can learn a great deal about someone through their tweets, plus you have an opportunity to take time to think of a response, rather than stress over coming up with something witty on the spot. And no one will see your sweaty armpits or shake your clammy palm or get a whiff of your garlic & blue cheese breath on Twitter.
It is because Twitter is a non-threatening cocktail party that I think answering the “What are you doing?” question is wholly appropriate. It gives the Twitterer something to say when s/he doesn’t know what to say, and if the tweet is inane (just like at a cocktail party, only the favorite inane topic on Twitter is what people are having for dinner), it allows followers to sense the Twitterer’s personality and interests. This seemingly useless chatter is a great prelude to getting to know people better – an ice breaker, if you will. And there isn’t the awkwardness of craning to hear what’s being said while you’re standing outside the “trendy people” circle at a cocktail party.
As for the “rule” about not having conversations with people, at it’s base, what else is Twitter for but to converse? Sure, two friends sharing a string of tweets might seem annoying, especially if the tweets don’t say anything and refer to some inside joke, but a true conversation between friends can reveal interesting information that goes deeper than a two-tweet exchange. If you’re only seeing half of a conversation and it piques your interest, you can quickly start following the other Twitterer and get the whole scoop, with the benefit that you can unfollow when the conversation ends. There’s also no law that says you can’t jump into the tweet stream between friends and join into the conversation. It’s public, after all, so add your thoughts while enjoying your cocktail.