Twitter: What’s It For?

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By Kimberly Reyes (@CommDuCoeur)

One of the biggest issues affecting business throughout 2010 and before has been how much the media that covers business has compacted. This summer at the eXL Pharma conference, ex-CNBC reporter – now MS&L director of media strategy – Mike Huckman ran a panel about how this is affecting Pharma. A useful topic, and a very appropriate moderator.

The thing was, he declared the panel to be unTweetable – the new version of off the record. (For a detailed summary and another point of view, check out John Mack’s post.) Later, Huckman explained (via Twitter, ironically enough) to Laney Cohen that he did it because he “wanted people to be present after observing earlier panels w/audience on their devices. Given that the panel was about how there are fewer traditional media, preventing citizen journalism seems even more ironic to me. Were I running the conference, I would have disagreed. Nonetheless, it brings up an interesting question that Ive thought about every time I Tweeted in the second half of 2010.

What is Tweeting, after all?

Is it just another way to multitask, distracting you from participating and being present, as Huckman said? Or is it more like taking notes, helping you to focus in on the most important information – just doing so publicly? As far as I can tell in my half-year observation, its both. On the one hand, livetweeting gets down the pithy quotes, the startling statistics, the funny retorts. Youve saved them for yourself, and at the same time youve shared them with interested people who cant be there. Certainly, thats useful. But if youve tweeted at a conference, youve gotten involved in the backchannel conversation, which more often than not includes a little sarcastic sniping. On top of which, youre probably not just tweeting: youre also reading your incoming tweetstream. So youre not only doing the 21st-century equivalent of passing notes in class, but youre also distracting yourself with unrelated information. Sometimes those can be useful, too, though. Ive been at conferences where logistical issues – room temperature, wi-fi strength, electrical-outlet availability – have been raised and resolved smoothly through the backchannel. And there have also been moments when external information or updates were pertinent to the ongoing presentation or discussion.

The question of where Twitter fits was the topic of a New York Times article, “I Tweet, Therefore I Am by Peggy Orenstein. She suggests Twitter is “blurring the lines not only between public and private but also between the authentic and contrived self. Huckman would seem to agree that Twitter is blurring the lines between listener and nonlistener, or at least between respectful observer and active reporter.

Perhaps the confusion lies in the fact that most of us dont use Twitter for just one thing. If youre reading this blog, chances are that youre one of the 6% of all Americans who use Twitter. What are you using it for? Do you think of yourself as a citizen journalist, livetweeting conferences or sessions? Do you try to be funny and pithy with observations about life? Do you use it as a mini-email for quick conversations with friends? Do you use it to find news or interesting links? Is it a grandstand for a carefully honed personality, or just another place where you say the first thing that pops into your head? Or is it a little of everything?

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