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Oh My Twitter!

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Understanding How To Understand Social Media -Inside - In, Inside-Out

In a piece in Wired Magazine, circa 2007, entitled Clive Thomson on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense, he attempts to counter criticisms of Twitter in a rather unusual way, albeit one that has the feel of reaching to justify something that has little justification. Clive suggests that "Individually, most Twitter messages are stupefyingly trivial." He goes on to suggest that the value of Twitter is in monitoring the cumulative sets of tweets.

But the true value of Twitter — and the similarly mundane Dodgeball, a tool for reporting your real-time location to friends — is cumulative. The power is in the surprising effects that come from receiving thousands of pings from your posse. And this, as it turns out, suggests where the Web is heading.

He also suggests that Twitter cannot be understood without actively participating on it, since it's experiential, which is probably just another way of saying: "I have no idea how to explain its value", which is at best an intellectually questionable strategy. There's some truth in it however, because we don't really know why Twitterites really do what they do.

In any event, his comments have been twittered and re-twittered by others, presumably as an effort to justify using a tool that is so horribly limited as to defy any objective distanced explanation of why people use it. Which bring us to the point.

If you cannot stand Twitter, you will read Clive's comments, wring at least one hand and say: Oh what prententious crap. From OUTSIDE Twitter, and social media, that's what Twitter looks like. However, when one is immersed in Twitter, or from INSIDE your reaction is going to be: "Yes, yes, that's why those people who don't like Twitter don't like Twitter - They aren't IMMERSED."

Here's the reality. It's like religion and faith. The religious people who, now and again, come to your door to save your souls have a frame of reference we can call immersed. They are inside their belief system, and while they may have some vague recollection of being outside that belief system, its rudimentary and distant. If you refuse, they feel bad for you (patronizing), pray for your soul (nice, but still patronizing), and off they go to the next on the block. That's what happens with social media people like Clive Thomson and the people that felt so impressed by his "take" that they had to retweet what is really quite nonsensical. They ar e also immersed in social media, locked into a set of beliefs and behaviors from which they cannot see out. There is little difference between the thought process of zealots who are stuck inside.

There IS a difference in context. With religion, unless we are sociologists or anthropologists we don't need to understand religion in a wide context. For example, when was the last time a pastor on the pulpit asked "Does religion work?", or "What function does religion play in every day life?" Religion is not about whether it works, per se. It's about FAITH. If you believe, you believe. Whether the beliefs are objectively true is unknowable and irrelevant.

Social media as tool, particularly for business, should not be based on faith. Social media should be about results, effects, causes, at least on the business and commercial side. Decisions about whether business should invest in using social media need to be grounded, not in FAITH, or COOL, but in measurable realities. Is it profitable. Does it help the customers? Does it create revenue? What are the real costs?

That's a different context than religion. And, the business context is yet again different from whether an individual uses or does not use a specific social media platform. That's personal taste. You like Facebook, like Twitter. Who cares? Business is different, because there are real world consequences to going on faith and being wrong.

Two points. What does it say that someone like Mr. Thomson would take the time to try to explain why those who dislike Twiter aren't "getting it"? Why does he care? Is he and his re-twitterers upset that all the great unwashed people who reject Twitter as a functional tool will somehow to go Hell? Just wondering. This is a really common thing.

Second, the majority of information about social media comes from those on social media and they are immersed in it. Immersed in it like the religious people coming to your door. Are they able to convey a balanced, true and useful picture of social media complete with its flaws, and huge issues and problems? No. They aren't in that business.

To understand social media, you may have to be able to immerse yourself in it, but you must be able to un-immerse yourself, step back, and see things from the outside. If you want a complete picture. And if you want to make informed decisions about using social media as tool, you need to listen to people who are inside, and outside at the same time.

Otherwise, all you get is hype and hope.

His post is at


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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