Rules of engagement
May 25th 2011, 11:34 by G.F. | SEATTLE
A FRIEND has been toying with Twitter, and wonders how best to get her feet wet. Whom should she follow? What should she read? Here are some thoughts.
Viewed as a loudspeaker for others—celebrities, creative types, or just acquaintances, pronouncing on what are all too often fatuous banalities—Twitter does indeed resemble the empty medium derided by those outside its embrace; like sitting around an abandoned and empty pool in a solitary chaise longue, with TVs blaring nearby—an experience that is neither convivial nor informative.
Sticking to the bathing analogy, an alternative (though by no means the only one) would be to attend a crowded ocean beach, with swimmers constantly throwing themselves in and out of the water, some more expertly than others. The beach is likely to be lined with reclining observers listening to the water-borne banter, but they are not the ones having the most fun.
Twitter rewards engagement in a way that few other media do (the sea is such a medium, albeit only in a physical sense). The relationship between users is nearly always asymmetrical: following someone does not entail being followed by them. That leads to enormous mismatches: the glitziest twitterati amass hundreds of thousands, even millions of followers, and yet themselves follow just a few dozen people.
Babbage's friend had thrown her lot in some months ago, following a small number of people, and issuing a few tentative tweets. She was not impressed by the response. Her view of Twitter was of an unplugged toaster where the bread neither browns nor pops out.
Suffer as he does from logorrhoea, this Babbage blathers through the day. He also, like his departed mother, knows no shame in striking up conversations with complete strangers—she, in public; he, on Twitter—that he finds interesting. As a child, he complained of her habit. Now, the grudging inheritor of it, he finds easy sociability indispensable in the digital world.
Enter what is perhaps Twitter's greatest, and inadvertent, innovation: the goad in the form of an at-sign (@) followed by a Twitter handle, known as a mention. Twitter did not invent this referral, which was picked up from older chat-system conventions. But the firm adopted it and uses it to create threaded conversations. The mention is distinct from a direct message (DM), which Twitter created intentionally, and which allows a private bit of text to pass between two parties, so long as the recipient follows the sender. The DM is reserved for those who have established a relationship; the mention, meanwhile, works for anyone.
Mentions may easily be ignored—@stephenfry, say, with 2,647,917 followers as this sentence is being written (likely to rise by the time Babbage is done with the post), would be physically incapable of responding to all. To make life a little bit more manageable, most Twitter software, whether from the company itself or innumerable third parties, can be set either to list all mentions in a main chronological stream mixed in with tweets by those the user follows, or only to include the mentions by the latter.
Your correspondent, with 4,000 or so followers, is small fry, as it were, and has the time to engage with nearly everyone who mentions him. ( @EconSciTech, Babbage's official feed, currently nudges 10,000 and engages a little less fully.) He has made many acquaintances, and even some new friends. Over time, he has ditched nearly all those who, whether with ten followers or 10m, never reply to anyone, or reply to just a small coterie. Such tweeters are listening to the sound of their own typing.
Twitter users who are not household names tend to start by following loved ones, colleagues, favourite writers, etc. Replying to those you do not know personally is no faux pas, whether or not they are extremely well known. And if a popular tweeter retweets you—ie, redistributes the tweet to his followers—that can do wonders to your tally.
What should Babbage's friend make of all this? She is a writer, filmmaker and former television presenter, yet Twitter makes her strangely shy. Your correspondent's advice: the only way to go is to take the plunge and start talking, loudly and often. Well, not too often.