New to Twitter, Failing to Find Conversation

“What’s a tweet?” I asked Digiday’s editor-in-chief in my first days as copy editor. Suddenly unsure of his decision to hire me, he mentioned something about Twitter and, understandably, quickly changed the subject.

My subsequent immersion in Digiday’s coverage of the Internet-advertising industry has exposed me to, as you might expect, quite a bit of news about Twitter. Articles regularly refer to it in relation to “conversations.” For example, assessing Twitter’s influence on digital media, Josh Sternberg wrote, “For brands, Twitter enables companies to have a two-way conversation.” I was at first puzzled by the large role conversation plays in Twitter because of the enforced brevity of users’ tweets.

Curious to find out what the Twitter conversation was all about, I got on board and assumed the moniker of @tomcopyeditor. I started to “follow” several people I’ve never met who work in the digital media industry. Then I added some famous people I like, like Jonathan Franzen, Larry David, and my mayor in Lexington, Ky. I sat at my computer, took a deep breath and waited for the conversation to begin. I stared at the screen, and, alas, not very much happened. Before long, however, tweets appeared. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times passed on that “#Romney spent $18 per vote in primaries & $126,000 per delegate.” On the heels of this news, I learned from another tweet that workers at Buzzfeed now have standing desks. Next, my mayor let me know that a busy road in town was closed due to a gas leak. And so it went.

These tweets were interesting, certainly, but I didn’t quite see an opening for conversation, which, as I understood it, was a hallmark of Twitter. Another person I follow but don’t know (making him or her, I suppose, my unknown leader), @Chapinc, tweeted, “When people who don’t use Twitter ask me to describe it, I say it’s just like normal conversation, which is to say illiterate.” Literate or not, it still passes as conversation. But just what does it mean to refer to the Internet’s version of social activity as conversation?

The word “conversation” has its roots in the idea of a specific, fulfilling way of being. A 17th-century English edition of the Bible translates St. Paul’s conviction this way: “For our conversation is in heaven.” Conversation suggested intimacy and comfort before it had anything to do with an exchange of words. It gained a presumably more carnal shade of intimacy in Shakespeare, as in “Richard III” when Gloucester brings up Hastings’ “conversation with Shore’s wife.”

I think it’s fair to say that intimacy has little to do with “conversation” as we think of it nowadays, particularly in relation to digital media. So what does count as a conversation? Twitter reminds me of a news wire or of a stock-market ticker. Some of the information is informative or funny but rarely does it engage me for more than a few seconds.

But my cursory reading of tweets is not conversation as brands conceive of it. Apparently, I need to “engage” with them for the conversation to take shape, and so today I did: a tweet from Runner’s World asked me to fill out a survey about my experience running half marathons, and I spent one minute clicking on the appropriate circles.

In her new book “Alone Together,” whose basic argument appeared as an op-ed in The New York Times a few weeks ago, Sherry Turkle underscores the irony of our preoccupation with digital conversation: the more we engage with online conversations, the less we’re able to converse. Online “engagement” makes us think we’re connecting with people, but it inhibits the skills we need to actually live with people. She writes, “Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.”

On a similar note, Stephen Marche recently wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” His answer is that we are indeed becoming lonelier, but Facebook isn’t to blame. Our embrace of Facebook and digital media, however, aggravates our loneliness. What we think of as online conversation isn’t worth much at all. He points to a study led by researchers at the HP Social Computing Lab. They, Marche writes, “studied the nature of people’s connections on Twitter [and] came to a depressing, if not surprising, conclusion: ‘Most of the links declared within Twitter were meaningless from an interaction point of view.’ I have to wonder: What other point of view is meaningful?”

Perhaps more people are beginning to realize that a Twitter conversation isn’t really a conversation. This realization then sparks the important question: What is the value of a Twitter conversation? Ad Age recently gave voice to this matter when it cast some doubt on the marketing value of the vaunted “two-way conversation”: “Many social-media ‘experts’ insist that a ‘two-way conversation’ between marketers and consumers is the whole point of social, and anything less than that is a reflection of outdated, broadcast-style thinking. But the reality is that many people follow and friend brands simply because they want to hear from those brands, not necessarily talk back.”

It just may be that Twitter gives us access to many monologues. Some pique our interest, some inspire us to respond with a monologue, and some just pass on by. As Ben Kunz tweeted last week in a different context, “I’m curious as to why Klout matters since nobody in this space is listening to anybody.”


Tom Butler is a professor of English literature at Eastern Kentucky University. He moonlights as Digiday’s copy editor. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcopyeditor.

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