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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Twitter is More Real than the Real World, with Special Guest Stars Wil Wheaton and Doge

Episode 3 of Season Two of Orange is the New Black has Larry on a date. She gives him a surprisingly sanguine reaction to his seeming lack of direction and ambition:

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You know, I am just so tired of going on dates where I have to listen to guys go on and on about how they're turning their Twitter feeds into blogs, their blogs into books, and their books into Twitter feeds.It's exhausting. Stop pretending that your podcast is work, right? Right. No, it's just it's really refreshing that you're not doing anything. Yeah? No, it's great.A guy without ambition is at the top of my list.


So it seems that, like everyone else, I am in this unholy mix of book-blog-Twitter feed (BBTF, let's say). We all enter it from different places, but for me, I started the BBTF grind to highlight (SELL) my book (Oh, you mean you didn't see it over there on the right? Well, let me tell you . . . . ). Now I have a Twitter feed (There's a button for that on the right, too! Wow, let me SELL you some more) and this blog.

To be fair to myself, I really think I have something to say in these venues that no one else is saying about public speaking. Hopefully if you found your way here you agree.

The BBTF thing has shown me the deep, dark, marketed underbelly of Twitter in a way that was not clear to me before. So much RTed crap, so much spam, so much time wasted. 

And yet....

I really think this tells us something. Hence this blog post's title. I think Twitter is, actually, more real than the real world.

Don't let this make you feel better if someone is telling you social media is a waste of time. For all I know, that might be true for you if you are @ing Justin Bieber or RTing Buzzfeeds. But the thing about Twitter is that is is totally honest in all of its self-serving nonsense, like the second half of an E True Hollywood Story.

"Real life" is just pretending it's not Twitter.

So here's what I learned about "real life" from Twitter:

1. Your Audience Doesn't Care

How many people read/favorite/retweet what proportion of your tweets? 

Let's do some math with Wil Wheaton. Called out by Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory for his "endless tweeting," Wheaton has 2.6 million followers right now. He sometimes tweets dozens of times a day, having the kind of very specific @-heavy interactions with fans that most regular folks dream about when Twitter makes them follow 5 famous people after they sign up. 

The other day he posted this inspirational quote from Dumbledore, which is like retweet/favorite baiting your readership:
He got over 700 retweets and more than 1300 favorites with that. He got more views, surely, but let's call the retweet/favorite bit a proxy for how many people actually listened or cared about his message. Some quick math: his message got love from about 1% of the people who could have been paying attention to him.

And this is nerd god Wil Wheaton! His audience chooses to follow him. They want things like inspirational Harry Potter maxims.

Because I write mostly about public speaking, I immediately think about that context. This is about right. A friendly audience will be interested in about 1% of what you have to say. There's lots of research that supports that kind of skepticism in terms of "real world" one-to-many interactions like a public speaking situation (You can find that research reviewed in Chapter One of my,. ahem, book.....).

The main difference with Twitter is that Wheaton is not looking at you while you ignore his tweets the way a speaker does.

Twitter is more real than the real world because no one is faking attention, no one is pretending that they are inspired by 40 minutes in a plastic chair watching Power Points stream by, no one is trying to tell you you can inspire! and change!! lives!!! by going on a speaking tour!!!! People on Twitter are exactly like they are in real life. And we mock Twitter because we'd like to believe differently.

2. And When They Do Care, It's Not For The Reasons You Think

When I retweet something, it is not only love for you or your tweet, it is a bid for others to love me for being so cool/smart for noticing the tweet. That means that all love on Twitter is self love.

And that's true of "real life" audiences as well. 

Your audience is not listening to you so that they can absorb what you want to say. They are looking for their next own idea, their own takeaways, their own stories to retell or jokes to regurgitate in the elevator later. We listen with selective attention, yes, but we listen as predators, looking for that one bit that we can use later. Do we miss your larger point? Probably. But we are totally going to look up that particular doge meme you used for your attention getter to use as wallpaper.

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And that is if we have a friendly audience. A hostile one is waiting for the mistake they can pounce on. A neutral audience cherry-picks your content in a different way. Think about Cliff's Notes for readings you didn't do in school. Think about the grad-school-skim where you read the introduction, conclusion and one specific sentence you commit to memory from somewhere in the middle in case the Prof calls on you. We listen for details only so we can prove to someone (Maybe you, when you sidle up later and ask, "How was my speech?") that we listened.

Twitter "listeners" are engrossed in self interest and self promotion, performance of self and love of self. 

Hmm.

Just like speakers. And audiences. And book/blog writers. And readers. And people who might comment on the bottom of this blog.

We cannot be competent speakers if we don't understand what our audience is really about. This post is just a few hundred words toward that and is not enough, but at the very least, if you imagine a scrolling Twitter feed in the mind of everyone pseudolistening to you, you've got something you can work with.

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