I was just responding on Facebook to writer Kathy Conde, who read my last post about Why Writers Should Use Twitter (and my 5 Top Tips). Kathy is a fabulous writer in Colorado . We met through online forums, but she expressed her reluctance with Twitter as arising partly from the cryptic brevity of twitter-speak.
Not just hashtags, not poetic brevity. Twitter is more like semaphores, is it not? Like telegram days, when you paid by the word. “Not dead. Home soon.”
We rose up from being cavemen, right? Grunted, “Talk gooder,” and invented grammar for clarity. Spent centuries melding language from hundreds of cultures to achieve elegance and exactness in word and sentence and intonation. Wordsmiths from throughout the ages must be smacking foreheads in their graves over this ugly Twitter relapse in language skills.
On that we agree. I shudder to type “r” as a verb when 140 characters doesn’t leave room for the “a” and “e.”
But here’s the thing. If I were a sentry on a Revolutionary hill who spotted troops advancing, I might later have written a letter to my mother with real words and exclamations to describe the experience — but, in the moment, I would have been pretty stoked to have signal fire on hand to warn the distant village.
What’s odd about that metaphor is part of why Twitter is actually more intimate than one would expect. All that sentry can do is light a fire. Yet imagine the people in the village, the moment they see the plumes of smoke. Instantly, they know what the signal fire means. They experience communication of the shared fear — internally getting all it implies. They build their own fire to signal back, “We saw it. Thanks,” and to relay the warning on to the town next distant.
The signal fire at work for writers: Writers (Cheryl Strayed, Meghan Mayhew Bergman, Rebecca Makkai, Saeed “Ferocious Jones”) post that they have a reading at a book store tonight. I’m not in their town, but I know immediately their mix of expectation and hope for an audience. I have followers in that town. I retweet, lighting signal fire for the next village: “Are you in Brooklyn/Minneapolis/Pittsburgh… ? Go see…”
Twitter does this, but accomplishes what the fire only wished it could. That sentry, now long in his grave, nods in envy, because his fire could signal only “danger.” The citizens of London neighborhoods tweeting about riots last summer could name streets, buildings, the kinds of danger and, when details got longer than 140 characters, add a link. The sentry could have linked a blog on the number of soldiers, if they were on foot or horseback, a map with the direction of approach.
The signal-fire-plus-link works for writers partly through the access it gives us to immense cross sections of useful reading. One Sunday morning I stumbled across a post with a hashtag for a publishing industry “non”-conference held in NYC, with countless industry players tweeting streams of the current issues and thoughts in the industry live from the various panels and roundtables they attended. Another morning began with link to a lighthearted and candid New York Times feature sharing Nathan Englander’s plans for the day, from coffeehouse and dogwalking, through writing and editing, through evening dinner plans. My last two Mondays, morning writing was kicked off by inspiration from Twitter links. This week, it was an hour-long conversation between Michael Chabon and Andrew Sean Greer, recorded at the Aspen Institute’s Winter Words. They became the conversation in the room, as I re-envisioned a scene for my Irish novel (random piece about the character’s difficulty to steady his key to open a lock), that I now love.
Of course, the signal-fire-plus-link also serves writers as a chance to reach readers, by sharing links to new work or blogs, or simply things that interest us.
The main reason I have come to prefer Twitter over Facebook in recent months comes partly because of Facebook’s constantly shifting respect for its users — I begin to doubt the company’s integrity in how it will use our information, and many of my friends have begun to shun it, which makes it less useful to me. Beyond this, Twitter offers a different kind of access than FB. The benefit of Facebook conversations is they are comparable to a chat you’d have with someone you know over coffee. In that sense, they are more full and extended. The benefit to exchanges on Twitter is you have access to anyone. Exchanges are more limited, like what you’d say passing someone in the hall or riding on an elevator or passing on the street, possibly handing off a paper to be read. But think about that “passing on the street” essence: How often, passing a stranger on the street would they pause in their step to tell you about the fab article they just read? On Twitter, they do. And that’s the difference. Like living in a friendly, small town — but populated by everyone you could hope to connect with, in any industry or area of interest.
I describe it as a warm environment, but key to that is the amount you participate. If you rarely post or connect, then exchanges will be as cold as that stranger reading the paper on the subway. As you become more engaged, those “on the street” exchanges seem more like the way people in small southern towns used to call out to each other, sitting on front porches, to trade news. The people on the street may still be strangers, but with the familiarity of people in your village.
A couple weeks ago, Nova Ren Suma (author of Imaginary Girls and other young adult fiction, whom I first discovered through a Twitter #YAlit chat) was one of dozens of people tweeting that she was going to see Hunger Games. Only, I knew that her tweeting this news was different from the hundreds of others reporting on the movie’s premiere, because she was in her second week of a monthlong writer’s residency in a grassy-hilled retreat overlooking the distant Pacific, so it took the coincidence of an excursion into town for her to be able to see the movie. I’ve read enough updates by New England writer Meghan Mayhew Bergman about her children, her marriage to a country vet, and their countless dogs, cats, chickens and other animals, to feel it when she posted about the sadness she felt, watching their aging dog approach her up the drive.
That said, I completely get the blank cryptic feel Twitter has.
In my post the other day, I said it took me months (years?) to warm to Twitter. Even now, I don’t feel that connection every time I glance at the feed. The reason I post an article like this is because all the new forms of media are continually evolving grey areas for all of us. I once loved Facebook, wrangling all my friends to join. Now, I use it less, while a few of those who once refused to join are the ones prodding me to get back to it. I was reluctant with Twitter, now I sing its praises, although maybe six months from now I’ll be posting what a time-drain it is and no one clicks my links anyway (grinning, to imagine). Oh, now friends, don’t let’s even mention Pinterest. I was complete skeptic there, but do you know the greatest linker to my blog these days?…
If you want to find me on any of these media forms, I do welcome connection. In the comments, I’m sure we’d all love to hear what media has worked for you and which ones you avoid.
- Elissa Field on Twitter
- Elissa Field Fiction on Facebook (yes, you can connect with me there, even if we’re not BFFs)
- Elissa Field on Pinterest
- Elissa Field on LinkedIn
- Stubborn moment: Elissa Field is not on Google+ or Tumblr — Are you? Argue me in!
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