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But more than just what it is, these people who ask me "why Twitter, why now" have a lot of reservations, reservations that often belie a quiet fear of the unknown and an unwillingness to try something new. It's #sad. And since I'm handing off the reins of @Chicago_Reader this week when I pack up my desk for another one at a California newspaper where I won't have to tweet every half hour, I thought I'd pass on my wisdom to soothe the angry social-media neophytes into joining the Web's most au courant social network.
What follows is an explainer written for an entirely hypothetical Luddite we'll call "Dad."
So, Asher, I keep hearing about this Twitter thing. What's the deal?
Oh man, Dad, Twitter rules. It's where everything happens these days: breaking news, the best jokes, real people having real conversations in your industry. Everything is connected! It's like high school, but everyone's smart. Basically.
But why do I need to get the news really fast or read funny jokes? I assume that by jokes you're referring to "lolcats," by the way.
Lolcats are sooo 2009—there are lots more memes by now. But I assume you get most of your news by going to the website of the Trib or the Times, right?
Well, yeah. And from Perez Hilton.
Then you're getting your news pretty late. How do you know something has happened that you should check up on, like a shooting in your neighborhood, Joe Biden saying something funny again, or Snooki getting pregnant? You have to take the initiative yourself to stay up on the news, where with Twitter, the news comes to you.
But I don't really need it to co—
Wait! There's more. When you check a couple of sites, even five or six, you've only got access to a couple of points of view, a few sets of beats. The people I follow on Twitter tell me about all kinds of things, from their stories to the ones they find really interesting, even from far-flung places. And you have access to a lot of their sources, too. Instead of reading that Splash piece on what Kanye said to Kim online, you can see it yourself. No need for all that extra reading and surfing. Between the speed and the variety, it's like the difference between waiting for the the newspaper you subscribe to and heading to the newsstand to pick one up. Only this time, everything's free, and Kanye West is hanging out nearby.
Wait, aren't we still supposed to subscribe to newspapers? And I don't really need the news to come to me.
You're right, subscribing is still good. But this isn't meant to replace the kind of reading you do, just like newsstands didn't replace subscriptions. Those articles are good! Twitter's just a way to stay connected between visits to that home page you're so fond of. And if you don't think you need the news to come to you, consider how much news comes out every day about the little stuff. Rather than checking in with one paper's coverage, you can follow That Gal Who's Obsessed With Labor Statistics or That Guy Who Keeps Tabs on Carly Rae Jepsen at All Times and get your fix in quick. Plus, Dad, there's the fantastic jokes.
What, like "Knock knock, who's there, Twitter, Twitter who?"
No. Well, OK, that does exist. But whatever topic you care about and want to keep up on—baseball, Chicago politics, My Little Pony—there's someone making fun of all the breaking news about it in a way that'll make you feel like such an insider. And then you'll reply to them and they won't respond but you'll still feel pretty cool.
Now you're getting to what I'm afraid of.
Mom's new boyfriend?
Having to listen to the vast amount of people talking all the time on Twitter.
Yeah, it's great, isn't it? Democracy in action or something.
Not at all. I don't care about what some guy's eating for lunch or my old friend from college is getting at the store. Thanks but no thanks.
That's what Facebook's for; nobody does that on Twitter, and if they are telling you what they're doing, it's because it's funny and/or pertinent to some larger discussion. And if it turns out someone really is getting into TMI territory, just unfollow them.
That's not rude?
Maybe a bit? But they'll never notice. And more importantly, this gets me to my Big Twitter Metaphor™!
This won't be like that time you offended that girl in high school, will it?
Could be. Look, the best part about Twitter is that you make out of it whatever you want. I'm really into the news, so I follow lots of news people, and if the news bores you, you may think my feed and what I talk about is terrible. But on your account, you get to do your own curation.
They have Twitter accounts?
Yeah Dad, everyone has one.
Hey, the Louvre's Twitter is in French!
C'est la vie.
But I can kind of make it out. And the links are great!
Mais oui! Now, we follow a few art dealers, maybe the Artforum account, a couple of professors and journalists you like, any cool museum curators, and voila! You're connected to the latest and most interesting developments in the art world.
So then what happens?
Here's where the Metaphor™ comes in: You've just organized an art-world dinner party.
Red and white, but whatever. Why a dinner party?
So, you've invited all these people into your home. Nobody really knows anyone else so they're all on their best behavior and trying to get everyone's attention. Out come the bons mots, the fascinating pieces of news, the heartwarming pictures of people's cats.
The cats aren't as bad as they sound. But it's a really interesting time, because you've made sure everyone there will say something that'll interest you. And you get to sit at the head of the table and soak it all in.
That's another thing I'm kind of worried about—I don't have to tweet?
No, you can just hang out on the sidelines and listen in. The technical term is lurking. But it's fine, because you're the host at this party, and the conversation is sparkling already. You did your job, and anything you add is extra. Plus, I advise against anyone tweeting right away. Listen to the conversation for a bit and get a feel for how it sounds, then jump in.
That seems fairly manageable.
Yeah! And it's only the first party! Because you get to invite everyone back the next time—or not! If someone's annoying or rude or self-centered at your party, you'd kick 'em out right?
And you can start inviting your friends' friends—the people they talk about or follow—to find more interesting people. I had no idea that Bruce Arthur was the funniest sportswriter in Canada until Twitter exploded when the NFL's replacement refs robbed the Packers of a win by blowing the last call of the game. Someone retweeted him; I liked his stuff and followed him. If you were tweeting, I might like your stuff, and follow you, too.
So what you're saying is that Twitter isn't a daunting ocean of information, but a relatively stimulating and benign way of passing the time online.
Exactly! It's like a tailor-made CNN news ticker of occasionally fascinating information.
OK! I can deal with that. Is there anything else to know? What's up with hashtags?
Don't worry about hashtags. They're #annoying.
And the Donald Trump Twitter account?
Even #moreannoying. Like, #toxicallyannoying.
And you're saying there are no drawbacks to this.
Maybe having too much fun! Although, yes, sometimes I wonder if Twitter addiction is a real and terrible scourge on our nation's youth. By youth I mean me.
Everyone needs an addiction, Asher.
Thanks, Dad. When you start your account, give me a follow. I'm @kleinstar, and I can use a few new followers.