Twitter: I thought I was unTweetable!

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a social messaging service. It is free, and designed for sending and receiving short messages in real time. The messages (tweets) are limited to 140 characters. Communications on Twitter leverage common functions. Some common functions are the use of the @ symbol in front of a user name. This is used to primarily get another’s attention, direct message (DM) a user, and sometimes simply to associate with a particular user. A second, is the use of hashtags (#) in front of phrases. These are used to index keywords or topics. It allows people to easily follow topics they are interested in. Analytics are done on these phrases so that popular ones bubble up as “trending”. Users can also retweet messages that they find interesting. All three of these functions were organically driven by the early users of the service, and eventually incorporated into the platform itself; @ symbol to identify others, # to track topics, and the use of RT in front of a message to indicate a retweet.

Communication is enabled by users creating a profile, then following other users. Any messages tweeted by someone you follow will be sent to you via whatever Twitter client you are using. So, a user with multiple followers is really sending (and likely receiving) group messages. But the technology is not reciprocal, so anyone that you follow does not have to follow you. This is a one reason for the use of the @ symbol.

The platform has been characterized in other ways. It has been called a social network, and since it is based on profiles, connections and communications, this is arguable. It has also been called a micro-blogging service, and since it about information updates, albeit very small, this is arguable as well. But Twitter is really just an incredibly powerful and popular instant messaging medium. Originally, Twitter was imagined as a SMS-based communications method for friends to keep track of each other, based on status updates (like group texting). The 140 character limit actually came from the design to be a SMS mobile phone-based platform (140 characters was the phone carrier limit on SMS messages). Although the current web platform could easily exceed that limit, it has remained the boundary of the platform; this has been termed a “creative constraint”.

One important characteristic of Tweets is that they are, by default, public. This means that anyone on the platform can search, and read, and retweet, your posts. It is possible to use the DM feature noted above, but this severely limits the functionality and vision for the platform; you might as well simply text then. This point leads into the limitations discussions regarding Twitter.

 Limitations of the Twitter platform:

 As just noted, it is a public platform. As a public platform, anything that you post on the platform is available indefinitely, for anyone that wants to read it. This means that smart employers now have access to much more information on potential employees – which could be used for good and bad. What might be youthful exuberance to some, may be serious character flaws to others.

Another downside would be its 140 character limitation. I was not a Tweeter (ergo the title of the blog), but when I started experimenting with my first Tweets, I quickly ran into the constraint. For my Doctoral work, this is actually a healthy exercise, as “economy of words” is a necessary requirement for good writing. But 140 characters severely limits the messages that can be sent.

 Many of these platforms have been proven to be quite powerful. Twitter is certainly one of them. It has provided a valuable platform for celebrities and politicians. But the public nature, and short message format has also facilitated digital spats that often resemble kindergartners hurling one-liners back and forth in a schoolyard. “My daddy is tougher than your daddy” could never be proved, but when the DIGITAL school bell rings, the peacemaking that was provided by the homeroom teacher comforts and protects nobody in the digital ether – which leads to the leadership question.

 How might leaders use Twitter?

 My position as a leader (I am a senior individual contributor versus manager) is mostly about influence. Leading without explicit authority is a greater measure of a good leader, rather than having an explicitly defined chain of command. Twitter would likely prove a good tool in that situation. I could communicate domain knowledge to followers, and promote them through the medium.

Reflecting on the use of the tool as a general leader would lead to a much longer blog than is allowed for these posts. We are living in a natural experiment, seeing the transformation that is occurring for, and to, leadership due to technologies such as Twitter. We see this with President Trump (as of tomorrow) leveraging the Twittersphere as a vehicle to communicate directly to the electorate. By my math, 10% of those who actually vote follow him (20.4 million). But the nature of the platform means that his tweets are likely seen by many more folks due to retweets (trolls or not). He is changing the way Presidents will communicate with their electorate.

But this is also a platform that transforms how leaders can interface, and interpret the world. A study from MIT noted that the Egyptian coup d’état of 2013 could be predicted by early Tweets, and the recent coup attempt in Turkey was averted (good or bad) by Twitter communications. For company leaders, it provides a new method to communicate with customers and market products, but an unlikely tool for internal leadership communications.

 Web sources leveraged for this blog: 

https://www.lifewire.com/definition-of-twitter-2654620

https://www.lifewire.com/history-of-twitter-3288854

https://support.twitter.com/articles/49309?lang=en

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peggy-drexler/the-top-pros-and-cons-of_b_5213691.html

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13 thoughts on “Twitter: I thought I was unTweetable!

  1. Nice review. I use Twitter in my two Masters level Ed classes, using the hashtags #EDU6323 (the current one) and #EDU6333 (which ended last month). My students have in the past reported that the use made the class more engaging, and more importantly, that for the first time in their online program, they felt that they actually connected with and got to know their fellow students. So my comment/question back to you is around the idea that tweets can help build (or destroy) a company culture. Thoughts from anyone? (…particularly on building culture…)

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    1. Twitter is too public to be very useful as a tool by a company to change its culture, but could be pressured to change its culture. If a company seeks to change its culture using it, they could encourage users to follow the CEO for important messages. But since Twitter is public, it really has only limited use to change the internal culture of a company since the messages, by nature of being public, will be filtered for public consumption – particularly the media. But being hashtagged in the public may force a company to be more transparent, or change certain policies.
      There was a story today about the Interior Department being banned from using Twitter (http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/interior-department-banned-from-twitter-after-retweet-of-smaller-than-usual-trump-inauguration-crowd/ar-AAm5cZ3?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartanntp) due to the retweet of a message regarding the size of the inauguration crowd. Understandably, that Twitter account is to be used for official communications out from the Interior Department, but the nature of Tweeting led to an official retweeting what he/she thought was interesting. So the culture of instant and often communications that comes with Twitter, can influence its use – even when intended in an official tool for agency communication to constituents.

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      1. I thought about the free speech issue, as many of the comments on the article did a hyperbolic dive for that amendment. But after thinking about it, this was the official Twitter account for the department, and not a personal account. If the actions targeted the initial tweeter, or the personal account of the official, then there may some argument there. It is more likely that it is a discipline issue with an employee who used their power to tweet (representing the department) in a way inconsistent with the policies and standards of how that tool is to be officially used. Companies would do the same thing, and it would be hard to argue against their right to manage official company communications.

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      2. Good point about the company account. I used to run both my own account and the Center account at Northeastern. I was very careful to ensure that only approved tweets went out on the Center account.

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  2. I enjoyed your review about Twitter and well as your leap into the Twitterverse. First of all, welcome! While I appreciated your points about the character limit, it is clear to me that avid Twitter users have developed their own SMS language using many of the shortcuts they use via text messaging. ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), I am a huge Twitter fan.

    Just today I was struck nearly over the head with your observation on how leaders can use this tool to deliver their own messages. The question I have for you, is can it be too much? Even if the Tweeter provides ample disclosures about how the opinions shared over this tool are his/her own. In mid-December Andy Slavitt, the current head of the agency that runs Medicare and Medicaid starts using his personal Twitter account to provide his thoughts on the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Bluth, 2017 http://www.realclearhealth.com/articles/2017/01/19/one_foot_out_the_door_medicare_chief_launches_his_own_twitter_barrage_110392.html). In fact, his Twitter bio now reads “after Jan. 20, the mission is not over”. Until December 6, Slavitt had a very dormant Twitter account, but since that time, he has tweeted more than 3,000 times (Bluth, 2017). Is this the correct forum to express his opinions? And, what are the potential ramifications?

    Thanks-Krista

    Reference:
    Bluth, R. (2017, January 19). One foot out the door, Medicare chief launches his own Twitter barrage. Real Clear Health. Retrieved from http://www.realclearhealth.com/articles/2017/01/19/one_foot_out_the_door_medicare_chief_launches_his_own_twitter_barrage_110392.html

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    1. Krista,
      I think that part of the title provides insight into that answer: “one foot out the door”. The person in question is using this new communications method to either complain or somehow influence what they perceive is to come. The consequences of these communications would be different if they were to remain in the job. It is not something I would do, but they certainly have a right to do it.
      In my reply to Dr. Watwood, I noted a story today about an Interior Department official retweeting what was considered a political statement – but from the official Twitter account for DOI. This individual should not be using a department account to tweet out personally driven messages (or retweets in this case).
      I think that your question is an excellent one, but one that is too often answered based on individual tweets, and political leanings. For example, critiques of Trump tweeting came when he responded to Representative Lewis’ remarks about his legitimacy, but not when he stopped the Senate from canceling an Ethics committee.
      Personally, I think you should apply the same rules you would apply to normal conversation. For me that is, if I am not proud of what I am saying, then I am not saying it (at least I try!).
      Sometimes I think that this is all trial and error, but understand that it will change some rules – some need to be changed, some are more sacrosanct (at least to me).
      Thanks,
      Shawn

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Enjoyed your mention of the economy of words. I love that about Twitter. I was teaching a class on creativity and innovation to university students the year Twitter was released and I and a few other faculty beat most of our students to using it. And I promptly began using its creative constraints to help students understand how finding the essence of an idea makes the possibilities of that idea far more powerful. And you also bring up the downsides of brief messaging in that the writer may not spend any effort on finding the essence and thus communicating a larger idea, but rather communicate a very small minded idea in a simple minded way. I would hope more leaders would opt for the more thoughtful approach. Current practice does not necessarily indicate my hope will bear fruit. Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek’s article posits ways that Trump’s use of Twitter has contributed to chaos around the globe http://www.newsweek.com/2017/01/20/donald-trump-tweets-16-categories-542173.html . Agree or not – it is an interesting read – divides his tweets into 16 categories. The most common type of tweet according to categorization the are ‘whining’ tweets where Trump tweets his displeasure. You certainly chose a hot topic! Enjoy tweeting – Tricia

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  4. Tricia,
    I think that current practice is the thing that will evolve. There is not a standard for Twitter, but perceived standards for how certain categories of people should use it. So, for celebrities, that is pretty much out the window (i.e., our standards are very low already), but for politicians, and the President, people expect more. Those standards tend to be double standards though in a political world. That article was interesting, but also had its bias, given away by its content and language (e.g., maniacal tweeting). Trump, and the people that are anti-Trump, luckily provide us with much material to work with when talking about leadership and technology (at least Twitter).
    In ten years, it will be interesting to see what the generalized standard is for Presidents, and other politicians, around Twitter. And what will be the next Twitter that shakes up that new standard?
    Thanks,
    Shawn

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  5. Shawn,
    I too will be interested to see how this all plays out over the next decade. What will communication look and sound like at that point? Which is why I feel your point about finding some standard at least ethically may be particularly important now. People can choose to follow or not but establishing ethical guidelines at least for elected officials might help keep us on a trajectory to responsibly use communication vehicles.
    Thanks,
    Tricia

    Like

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