Is Twitter An Acquired Taste That Needs a Gourmet Chef’s Touch to be Really Effective?

About Twitter: some can and some can’t. Those who can, in some fashion or another, have been doing it all along, because, at its most basic, tweeting is gossiping. Those who can’t do it well simply won’t, at least for long. According to the Nielson Company, that includes about 60 percent of those who at first thought they could, and would. But they quit when they realized that, for some folks, tweeting is the imagination’s equivalent of gout. On average, Nielson says discovering that takes about a month.

I’m not sure which camp I’m going to end up in. Along with 25 million others, there is now a Twitter account with my company’s monicker on it. I’m going to see how quickly I can get the hang—if I can get the hang—of producing worthwhile “thoughtoids” of 140 characters or less. But at the moment, I’m having fun as a Twitter groupie, hanging out at the edges of the microblogging movement and pondering profundities from the company executives like this one: “You don’t make time for Twitter—you grout your day with it,”

Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone often says short things like that. Or like this: “Tiny bits of information can have profound impact.”

Well, yes, even Plato understood what yelling “Fire!” in a crowd can do. (Plato would not have liked Twitter. Remember, he was against writing things down at all, fearing we’d lose the ability to remember.)

A “tweetiquette” learning curve
Even among proponents of tweeting, there is already ample criticism of bad tweeting habits and practices. For example, Irish telecom entrepreneur Pat Phelan’s Apoplexy Meter shoots off the scale when he hears sellers of software programs promise to ensnare “10,000 Twitter followers for you in 30 days.” He calls such marketers “Social Meeja” (for social media, natch) whores.”

Already, there are rules of tweetiquette. The author of “The Twidiot’s Guide to Twitter Etiquette” suggests things like, “Don’t think that you are a celebrity when you hit thirty followers.” And there’s scads of advice on what it takes to build a decent Twitter following. “Social Meeja” expert Mike Prasad told one of those Rehab-Sundays-at-the-Pool-like “140” conferences in LA the other day that all it takes is a “great product and some ingenuity to build a decent following on Twitter.” Computer games expert Jeff Greenspeak opines that tweets works best if you just “take a specific, funny angle and stick to it.”

How will you know that you are getting the hang of it? Greenspeak says you’ll begin to make mental note of things that you want to tweet rather than blog. Like the other day, he overheard a co-worker dining out in Cologne complain—seriously—how annoyed she was that most German restaurant menus were in German. For a budding Twitter carnivore, that’s tweet meat.

So what do really good tweets read like?

Before sharing some examples that get kudos from both cognoscenti and rift raft, perhaps it would help to share some examples that get brickbats from everyone.

Good tweeters are probably born, not made

I snared these barf stirrers from a site called tweetingtoohard.com, where you can vote for your “tops in tastelessness” favorites. Here are tweet writers whose creations did well with voters:

• The Mary Kay executive who tweeted: “I make multi-million $ decisions on a regular basis—why is it soooo difficult to decide what to do with my hair?”

• The rich broad who shared, “OMG i was saying how i couldn’t afford the gas to fly daddy’s jet to the riviera this summer, and this barista totally rolled her eyes at me.”

• The narcissist who prattled, “The people who say I’m arrogant and shallow don’t see me when I’m at home with my wife. Did I mention that she’s a former swimsuit model?”

In visiting a site called Best Tweets, I noticed a couple of things about tweet writers who draw raves—and followers. I’m not taking about the rich and famous like Britney Spears (3,888,252 followers) and Ashton Kutcher (1,000,000+ followers) but simply tweeters who seem to have the knack for tweeting. I think you’ll agree that it helps if (1) you have a sense either of humor or the ironic and/or (2) if you are a natural born storyteller.

For example, there’s @badbanana, a blogger named Tim Siedell (maybe), who comes up with tweets like “The Kindle version of Dan Brown’s new book is outselling the hard copy on Amazon. Meaning nobody wants to be seen reading it.” And, “I question the president’s decision to start a trade war with China this close to Christmas stocking stuffer season.” And, “Hugh Hefner is getting a divorce? Well, there goes his conservative Catholic fan base.” Is this guy one of Jay Leno’s writers or what?

Tweeterers are young, but not too young

There is @Blue_Crab (probably a young woman but who knows?), who writes stuff like “I swear, if it’s not one thing, it’s my mother.” And, “So I sat on the baby and it just wriggled and screamed until the tequila hit. Babysitting is hard.” Or Adam Isacson (@adamisacson), a policy wonk on Latin America, who pens “smile if you love archness” gems like this one: “I honked and flipped someone off while listening to the Dalai Lama’s book on CD, and I–well, I think I attained enlightenment.”

There’s this one from @donchiefnerd, which I love: “Ahmadinejad!” “Ahmadidtooejad!” “Ahmadinejad!” “Ahmadidtooejad!” I hate it when 6 year olds debate world politics.” And @trelvix’s “Sarah Palin will speak in Hong Kong on Thursday.This’ll be the former governor’s first trip to Europe since visiting Maine in April.” And @secretsquirrel’s “Unemployment: discovering you can put spreadable cheese on both sides of your toast & wondering if there’s a way to patent it.”

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the average age of Twitter users is 31. When Pear Analytics studied a sample of 2,000 tweets, most of what it found was trivial: spam, self-promotion, pointless babble and tidbits of chit-chat (and some news, too!) . The other day investors coughed up another $100 million for Twitter executives and staff in that giant industrial warehouse in San Francisco to play around with. And the company does have goals, such as the announced desire to reach a billion users and become “the pulse of the planet.”

Does brain research offer any ideas on why Twitter has expanded so rapidly—and on whether it will continue to do so?

Yes, but most of it is inferential and not directly produced by studying the effects of tweeting. A primary reason why tweeting is like gossiping is because both trigger the feel-good hormone progesterone. But Twitter can overstimulate your brain, too, (the scientific term is “continuous partial attention”), and always being “on” can affect the brain like smoking pot or missing a night’s sleep. It subtracts IQ and interferes with focus.

Important, but destined to fade?
Like Google, Twitter’s look and MO are streamlined. Fewer pictures, fewer words. The brain likes this. It means you get stuff quicker than you expected, and this triggers dopamine, another feel-good neurochemical that shows up when outcomes “are better than predicted.” On the other hand, Twitter is addictive. It seems to trigger seeking behaviors—as in always seeking the next fix, the newest buzz.

60 Minutes and Vanity Fair announced the first result from a new monthly U.S. poll the other day. The age cohort most likely to view Twitter as an “important new tool” was the 18-to-29 group (22 percent). However, this age bracket also was the highest to deem Twitter “a fad that will fade” (51 percent). The poll’s experts were puzzled. They noted, “In other words, the 18-to-29s believe in Twitter’s importance and its inevitable obsolescence, making them … what? Brooding and pessimistic? Wise beyond their years? Too busy tweeting to grasp the question?”

I just don’t sense that Twitter provides anything all that essential to the new communications mix even though it can be entertaining, some times informational and on a few occasions may turn out to have planetary significance as an early-warning, quick-alert service. So I suspect it will turn out to be more Alka-Seltzer than Viagra. The thing you have to discover is whether there’s enough people out there who can benefit from frequent reminders of who, what and/or where you are who really want you in their face that often.

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