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My Twitter Obsession

03/04/2009

They warned me.

They warned me that Twitter would drain my blood like a vampire, sap my vital bodily fluids.

They were right, of course. My friends in marketing at my publishing house thought it might be a good idea for me to start Twittering, or Tweeting (whatever it’s called). My editor and my assistant were dubious — both knew how prone I am to getting caught up in things and spending way too much time on something that, let’s face it, only gets in the way of writing my next book. My editor does tend to treat writers like children who must be kept away from sharp objects lest they hurt themselves.

So I ignored Twitter, dismissing it as this weird thing that other people did, like clogging or snowshoeing or curling.

But I met a couple of much savvier guys at Ben Mezrich’s birthday party a few weeks ago who told me I had to, so I dipped in . . .

And got addicted.

My editor and my assistant both tried to stop me, but it was too late. As readers know, I’m a gadget guy, and I love new technology. Two weeks into this, I’ve already developed a following (everybody develops their own following; it’s not like I’ve gone all Hollywood on you), and my followers post all kinds of fascinating stuff — about books and bookselling, journalism, movies and TV shows. One of them even got me to start watching “American Idol” against my will! Honestly, no hype, I think we’re witnessing the birth of an entirely new type of communication — halfway in between private and public. It’s very strange.

In some ways, too, it’s like being back in high school. Like: I “followed” her, how come she’s not following me back? Some people seem to have nothing to do but Twitter — they don’t seem to have employment. People you’ve never heard of have twenty, thirty thousand followers. Some celebrities, like Ashton Kutcher, have huge followings; other, even bigger celebrities lock down their “updates” so that you can only follow them if you’re approved. (One movie star I’ve written a movie for, for instance, let me into his exclusive, private group of followers, fewer than I have; he seems to use it mostly to communicate with his girlfriend.)

Some Tweeters seem to accumulate followers and follow nobody, or only a chosen few — wannabe cult leaders, I guess. I have no patience for them. (One is a book person I know personally . . . sort of tacky, I think.) They’re treating it like a one-way broadcast medium, which isn’t the point.

At its best, Twitter is a multi-sided conversation. It’s interactive. It’s like a dinner party in some ways, where some people say nothing and just listen, others hold forth way too much, and you meet some great people and you learn interesting stuff. For some people, Twitter seems to be performance art — 140-character haikus — and some of them are quite clever. I do feel a pressure to be entertaining; if I’m not entertaining, people will Qwitter me. (Seriously, that’s what it’s called, and unlike Facebook, I get notified every time it happens.) The really entertaining, really involved writers on Twitter have amassed serious followings. Neil Gaiman has 36,361 followers as of this second, and only follows 179. (Wait, it just became 36,363.)

No doubt about it, there are also the TMI (“too much information”) Twitterers — who update you on their sinuses acting up or they’re standing at a urinal. Clogging your feed with useless trivia: Twitterhea.

It wouldn’t be exactly accurate to say I’m a reluctant Twitterer, but I’m certainly an anxious one. I love it – but it scares me, too, and I’m torn about its cost-benefit ratio. I ask myself, would Charles Dickens Twitter? You bet. He’d have a Facebook page and a TV series and a bigger branded presence than Jim Patterson. No question he’d be Twittering. Mark Twain, too.

Unlike e-mail, where you can take your time answering and filtering your replies, Twitter is instantaneous. You also get very public feedback. For example, I was Twittering at dinner last week, at a fundraiser, saying stuff like, “Sitting across from Tess Gerritsen” and “Michael Palmer just walked in.” And one of my Followers cracked: @joefinder = name dropper.

Yesterday one of my Followers wrote:

“I wonder what a “real” author hopes to gain from engaging in the sick masses.”

I told him I wasn’t sure.

The novelist’s life is a great one, with two major exceptions. First, it’s very solitary; second, the feedback process is necessarily delayed, since by the time a book gets published the author is already working on the next book, or even the next book after that. I’ll get emails asking me about why characters in High Crimes did or said certain things, and I have to go back and look up the answer; I wrote that book ten years ago, and have written several hundred thousand words since.

Twitter addresses both of these shortcomings. I can walk in and out at will; I can check in on the people I follow, and they can check in on me. It’s the equivalent of passing notes in class, or making snarky comments to a friend in a movie theater – did you see that guy in the purple suit? What’s with her today?

It’s also a way for readers to connect with me in a way that provides immediate feedback. You’re reading one of my books, you want to know what a reference means; you can send me a direct message. (You could always send me an email, too, but sometimes it takes me a few days to respond. If I’m on Twitter, you’ll get a response a lot faster.) You can tell me that you like something, you can tell me that you don’t. On a day when I’m writing, it reminds me that I’m not just talking to the wall – I’m writing for readers, and the readers are with me.

But I can already see the dangers of it. It’s more fun to gossip on Twitter than it is to work. I already have half a dozen different ways I can avoid writing when I’m at my desk, and Twitter’s just one more; every link to a great article or piece of new information someone sends me is another justification for spending time on Twitter when I need to be writing.

Twitter creates a sense of intimacy that’s both seductive and dangerous. I’m not a celebrity, but I admit to tweeting about things like what my dog’s doing, or what I ate for breakfast; it amuses me, it seems to amuse the people who follow me, and it doesn’t do any harm … or does it? I’m not stalking any of the 300+ people I follow on Twitter, and I trust that none of my followers is stalking me … but if you wanted to stalk someone, wouldn’t Twitter be a great place to start?

So check it out — follow me on Twitter, where my handle is @joefinder. I promise I’ll follow you back.

But do it soon. Before they take the sharp object away from me.