At the Tweet Treats launch, Twitter kept popping up in conversation. It being a book created through Twitter – it’s a cute stocking-stuffer with 140-character recipes from celebrity Tweeters, profits going to charity – that perhaps wasn’t surprising. Perhaps more surprising was the mix of attitudes towards it (in between wishing people had name-tags with their usernames on them) – the kind you don’t get from, oh, your average group.
Your average group will have many people who have never used it – “I just can’t get into it”, “I just don’t see the point”, “I have an account but I don’t actually do anything with it”, “I’ve heard of it, I think”, etc. Then at the other extreme, you’ve got the business-y, network-y, social-media-guru-y end of things, spouting on about the amazingness of Twitter and/or whatever the new shiny internet thing might be. The kind of people who talk about ‘branding’.
Like many writers I find myself quoting from the latter group’s bible every so often, as a kind of justification for spending time on Twitter. Particularly when you’re online during typical ‘work hours’ – the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday thing – it can feel as though you must justify having a spare second or three to share something with the universe (or, more realistically, a certain percentage of your followers). It’s very visible – unlike the casual chat you might have with a co-worker in the next cubicle, say, there’s a record that at, oh, 10.13am, you were not at that moment working. Unless of course Twitter counts as work. In which case it’s all okay and your spiralling Tweetcount is proof of your incredible productivity.
It’s not that simple, of course. The mixed feelings kick in when people start apologising for not keeping up with the Tweeters they’re following, or when they talk about how they can’t find time to Tweet anymore, or we hear or read figures of the number of Tweets posted over the past year, usually paired up with “that’d add up to a book/two books/ten books”. The latter is nonsense – or it should be. If you want to write and there’s as much energy goes into your Tweets as would go into a book, you’re doing something wrong. But we’ve justified it as work, or work-related, and suddenly we start looking at it through lenses that might not quite suit.
I suspect that for most of us spending time on Twitter, it’s hovering in that awkward area that is both work and play – that zone familiar to anyone working more than one job, which applies to so many freelancer types, so many people working from home, so many people trying to write a novel or do other creative work alongside a day job and/or caring responsibilities. And that makes it a difficult one to justify or to factor into your life.
For me, going on Twitter is partly work-related. It’s where I get some of my information about upcoming events, many interesting articles about creative writing, information about publishing, etc. It’s one of the places where I share details of events I’m involved in. But it’s also where I connect with other writers – and this is the tricky part. Is this supposed to be ‘networking’, that semi-soulless calculated approaching of people, assessing their potential worth and then cosying up to them accordingly? Because if so I’m doing it wrong – it feels more like a casual chat, overhearing something said in the office, tossing a reply out, and seeing what happens, or throwing a question out to the floor and catching the responses from all corners as they come in.
That’s water-cooler talk, not networking.
Does that make it any less valid as something to be spending a few minutes of my time on? I work from home much of the time, often at strange hours; half an hour in the morning is often outside of my ‘working day’. And again, like so many of us without a clearly defined one-thing-that-is-work, with passions that spill out into our ‘free time’, much of that day is blurry.
For example: in the past week, I have read books for a variety of reasons. One to review, with a critical eye open even as I kept turning the pages to see what would happen. Another to consciously dissect from a writer’s perspective – why does this story work, and how can I apply those techniques to my own writing? Another, non-fiction, to see what it says about writing, to see how or whether I can apply these things to my own writing but also what from it I can incorporate into classes I teach. And then others for fun, allegedly, but at the back of my brain there’s always the chance for a reading experience to turn into something more critical or useful – what am I learning about this book as a writer? Or, oh, isn’t this book a good example of that aspect of writing we were discussing in a workshop last week?
We speak of ‘switching off’, like we’re the gadgets or computers so many of us work with or next to all day long. If we don’t – if we can’t – then it’s not just a technology issue, and it’s not just a Twitter issue. It’s because in so many cases, there is a potential ‘work’ component to even the supposedly ‘fun’ things we do. If I go for a drink or two with some writerly friends, and we talk about work – what we’re writing, the state of publishing, what-have-you – is that work or play? If the stressed-out mother logs on to Twitter and finds tips for dealing with a kid-related issue, is that a break or part of her job as a mother? If we’re in an office and exchanging gossip at the same time as working on a project, does that distract us or keep us at our desks working on it?
And it goes the other way – there’s a potential ‘fun’ component to most ‘work’ things, too. The internet makes it more visible, but in many cases it doesn’t ‘make’ us waste time – it just redirects our attention during that time. We can’t be working all the time.
So I am sceptical of books like ‘How to leave Twitter’, or the aforementioned “if only I’d been writing instead of Tweeting and I’d have a book by now” mentality, because they seem to ignore that grey work/play area that’s present in so many lives anyway. Because they seem to ignore the need that we all have to do things other than just ‘plain hard work’, that we can’t be 100% productive all the time, and that just because parts of our quasi-productive time are documented online doesn’t mean that they’d have been any more productive were we offline.
My manifesto for Twitter, the next time someone asks: yeah, I use it. I like it – it’s the best way I’ve found to keep up with stuff I like and that’s useful online, and to connect with people in a casual chatty way. It is not the One True Way of being a writer, a writing teacher, a part-owner in a small business, or anything like that; it is not something that I am obliged to spend time on if I do not have it; it is not where I spend my productive time, only my quasi-productive time. It is not the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread, but I like it, and anything that continues to complement real-life friendships and acquaintanceships rather than replace them works for me.
Of course, anyone who’s asking for such a thing will almost certainly wish I’d managed to cram all that into 140 characters.
Tags: networking, the internet, time management, tweet treats, twitter