Twittering twits?

When the Dutch Queen made some denigrating comments about the internet and social media in her Christmas speech, it elicited a barrage of protest on the internet. Are the technological developments and social media the cause of individualization as Beatrix stated, or do they generate more human contact?

On twitter the topic generated interesting discussions. In a letter to the Queen, ‘Off-license girl’ Petera de Boevere wrote that social media are in fact combating isolation: ‘People call help lines if chat contact is offline for too long, they find like-minded people and have real new contact.’

Living on Curacao I have noticed that the contemporary technical possibilities do lead to more contact, whereby distance is irrelevant nowadays. This can have a significant positive impact on feeling being balanced and having a grip on your life. Friends who live abroad get their children to talk to grandma and grandpa via Skype. Sometimes, the grandparents even read a story to them before bed… More often than when everyone lived in the Netherlands!

People also help one another via twitter. Off-license girl: ‘Recently there was someone walking down the street in Roosendaal, crying, because he had got into the wrong train and couldn’t get home any more. Tens of people tried to find him a place to sleep through their networks. It’s like the nativity but then 2000 years later.’

Like the Queen, I used to find all these network sites and social media stupid. Something for people without real friends, too much time on their hands, living in their own little worlds. But three months ago, just before my book was published, my publisher thought I should have a twitter account. Reluctantly I succumbed.

First I looked at what others were twittering about. There were a few distinct groups:

  • People who only discussed their business and clients: ‘I am on the way to see company X.’ I wondered how interesting that was to read for those outside the sector.
  • Next there’s the group of people who take the twitter question “what are you doing” oh so literally. They twitter about their precise activities several times a day: ‘am currently eating a sandwich with cheese.’ Or even worse: ‘Am twittering.’
  • People who twitter about twittering are irritating anyway. ‘Haven’t twittered for an hour’, or ‘Twexit’, etc.
  • Fortunately there are also Twitterers who pass on interesting tips, links, films, etc. about their profession (such as Martijn Baarda and Martijn Aslander). Interesting!
  • Then there are those who are simply funny writers and are fun to follow (such as Off-license girl).

When I was recently invited for a presentation and the contact person told me she had found me via Twitter, my interest was certainly tweaked. I started experimenting with a mix of private/business and funny/serious and looked to see which got the most reactions. Via the twitter search function you can find out exactly what is being said about you and which messages are being sent. So I collected some feedback. I try to focus mainly on fun, daily details, food for thought and eye-openers. And of course I abuse the fact a little that I spend much of my time under the palm trees… Within two months I had 500 followers!

These people now react to messages I post and questions I ask. Such as to an appeal for collecting stories for my new book Heb jij al een foute man? (ed. trans. Do you have a bad man yet?). But also when I was on the road one day and had forgotten a particular phone number!

There’s a sort of ‘twitiquette’ to follow someone who’s following you. You may get hundreds or thousands of messages crossing your screen in a day. I regularly hear complaints that it’s really tricky to read everything that’s said when you’re offline. But it’s not something you have to worry about. See it as a group of friends already in the bar when you arrive. You’re not going to ask everyone to repeat what they’ve said, are you? You simply get involved in the ongoing discussion.

I would recommend anyone to start twittering and if you already have an account, to experiment a little more.

A number of tips:

  • Make clear choices. Want to profile yourself as an expert? Then twitter mainly about your topic and give practical ideas, links and tips.
  • Want to give people an insight into your life? Then always think about whether it’s interesting for others to read.
  • Don’t post more than three tweets per day. Nobody’s waiting to be overwhelmed by messages.
  • Consider taking two accounts – a private one and one for business, or for Dutch and English.
  • Search regularly on your own (user) name for reactions. This is the most direct feedback you can get.
  • Think how twitter (and other social media) can help you gain greater balance in your life. So don’t sit for hours behind your computer aimlessly for hours a day but think about whether you can outsource something, or make something more fun or interesting because of the new possibilities.

The fact that the world is really small, also on the internet, was clear to me when I posted a tweet from Curacao around Christmas time. ‘Christmas in the tropics … I just saw a water skier with a Christmas hat!’, when I received a reaction from a total stranger: ‘Was it a red boat? I was sitting next to you on the plane!’

Published in VCV Magazine, January 2010