April 18, 2011

The Twitter puzzle

Okay, we're back.

It's been a while since I used this space for a full-on rant—was my needling complaint about The New Yorker's cartoons the last time?—but brace yourselves. I will try to be minimally ranty, but I will be honest. Really, I think this post will be more questioning than anything else, so join me, will you not?

I'd like to discuss that seemingly ubiquitous aspect of our modern culture, Twitter.
I use Twitter, of course, mainly because I feel I have to—more specifically, I feel the Big Quiz Thing has to. I'm not sure I would if I weren't invested in maintaining a public profile. Twitter-speak reads like gibberish to me very often, and I tend not to absorb information in such tiny chunks, believe it or not said Mr. Trivia Question. The first time I really began to appreciate the unique nature of the medium was in January, the day Gabrielle Giffords was shot. I'm a politics junkie, particularly interested in this politician, and I found it fascinating helpful to receive a ping on my computer every time there was a new development in the story. But such incidents are rare.

So I use it because the prevailing wisdom is that any public entity must these days, if it wants to walk through this modern world with its head held high. Thus, @bigquizthing. And I actually put quite a degree of effort into the BQT's Twitter feed. (Side note: I really hate it when people refer to "my Twitter"—as opposed to "my Twitter feed" or "my Twitter account." It rankles me as horribly lazy language. "Your Twitter"? You own the company? Then again, why is this any worse than someone saying, "My Schwinn," as opposed to "My Schwinn bicycle"? I'm not sure. Blame the proscriptivist grammarian in me.)

Where was I? Yes, the effort I put into Twitter. Almost every day (I usually skip Sundays, because of, you know, God), I post a Google-Proof Question, which is a trickier task than you'd imagine:

The process: I dip into my trivia archives, pick a query, rephrase it to make it at least somewhat Google resistant (my admittedly imperfect standard: if you plug the question as is into Google, the answer isn't obvious on the first page of results), then make sure it meets Twitter's 140-character limit, then schedule it to publish at the appropriate time. Considering that Google is all-knowing and I can be rather long-winded, it involves a lot of trial and error. I've also begun doing a "Today in Trivia" tweet every day, which requires a small degree of research (this site is a blessed thing), coming up with an appropriate witticism to go with the factoid, then its own character-shortening process. I enjoy this work—it's the reason I got into the trivia business—but it is work.

Especially when I'm not sure exactly why I do it. I'm clearly entertaining a handful of folks, and I'm thrilled by that, but it doesn't seem to be very many—the BQT is at 359 Twitter followers, as of this writing, which is paltry in the world of entertainment, especially since on a good night, we manage to cajole a third of that number to leave their computers and come out and pay us to entertain them in person. I know C-list local entertainers who have thousands of Twitter acolytes, merely for tweeting their mundane day-to-day activities. I defiantly don't do that, or at least not very often. My standard for tweets: Would it be interesting to someone who has never met me, has never seen the Big Quiz Thing, who's not even sure what it is and is following only because they're attracted to the word quiz? Perhaps this is too stringent—one of the hallmarks of Twitter is that it features thousands of people sharing thoughts to thousands more with absolutely no filter—but it's how I'm comfortable representing myself, and the business that I stand for, to the world. Besides, it's when I drift into the personal that I find myself losing followers.
So why only 359? I recently met someone who considers herself a mainlining Twitter junkie, far more followers than I have despite having no profile as a public figure, and she told me that 8% of American adults are active on Twitter, and that this number seemed too low to her—she felt like more than half the people she knows are obsessed with it. Whereas I think it sounds too high (I can't attest to its accuracy, it's just the number we discussed)—hardly anyone I'm especially close with is on Twitter. I just did a quick scan of the people whose numbers are programmed into my phone, and I estimate that 13% of them are on Twitter, and that includes myself. I may not work in the tech sector (as the 8%-citer does), but I'm a white liberal New Yorker in show business, so you'd expect it to be more than the national average.

It's puzzling. A couple weeks ago, we did a private BQT event for 70-plus employees at Google, which was great fun and a huge opportunity, but I was confused the next day when we picked up exactly zero new followers. The show was a solid hit, we hyped our Web presence to the moon, and not one of them followed up on it? These people work at Google! Isn't that, like, their job? What am I doing wrong?

I don't know. But this all leads me to the more pertinent question: Why do I care? What difference does it make if the Big Quiz Thing doesn't have a lot of Twitter followers? I guarantee you there are people out there with hundreds of thousands of followers who don't even make milkshake money off their fame, whereas the BQT consistently operates in the black. Sure, it's frustrating when I issue a tweet soliciting opinions/responses and receive paltry amounts of information, but so what? Most Twitter cross-talk is probably just unhelpful noise anyway.

But let's cut to the chase here: It's a pride issue, isn't it? It bothers me that the Big Quiz Thing doesn't—that I don't—have thousands of Twitter followers because it makes me feel unpopular. I mean, why else did I get into show business in the first place? That little blue "Followers" number is a seemingly quantified measure of your and your business's value. Twitter frustrates me, because it's a flashback to middle school, when there were the cool cliques, and you were either accepted into them or you weren't and if you weren't, you were shoved into a locker after third period and no one would go with you to the Harvest Moon Dance and blah blah blah, I try not to remember. Twitter takes me back to a better-left-forgotten era of my life, and for that, I sort of resent it.

And then I dig up a memory: I worked really hard in middle school to be admitted into the cool-kids club, and lo and behold, by the end of eighth grade, I'd somehow attained my goal…only to discover it wasn't worth it. I was eventually invited to the "cool" parties, and pretty much always had a rotten time (the jocks used me as a punching bag or ignored me, the girls weren't interested in making out with me), and I realized that I was better off sticking with real friends. Which is what I did in high school, and is why I had a better time in high school than most people who end up with personalities as adults. Maybe this is a lesson.

Nonetheless, please follow the Big Quiz Thing on Twitter and tell your friends to do likewise. It costs you nothing, it's actually a lot of fun, and c'mon, please? You are indeed real friends.


Anonymous said...

Worse feeling: not getting twitter followers despite your best efforts or pouring your heart into a blog/forum post and not getting any response? I vote for the latter.

Noah said...

Oh, you had to go there!