When Tweets fail to chirp

By Reginald gray (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Doug recently came back from the Marketing Profs B2B Forum in Boston raving about Larry Smith’s Six-Word-Memoir project. The idea is simple: sum up the essence of your life in six words. Apparently, the concept goes back to Ernest Hemingway who was challenged to write a novel in six words. Here’s what he wrote:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This is great stuff. An entire world of love, life, passion and tragedy ready to burst out. A container of condensed narrative.  And, like the TARDIS in Dr. Who, it only looks small on the outside.

Doug gave it a try, too, and came up with his response to Larry’s project:

“Highly paid copywriter. Lost for words.”

Nice one! Combines a little bragging with some self-deprecation only to counteract the latter with the clever flourish of turning even writer’s block into a crafted little parcel.

Formal constraints can boost creativity

Modernist art was all about this idea of creating within a tightly defined set of rules. Such constraints can be freeing, and they can inspire great art. Imagist poets like Ezra Pound used simple and precise language to write visual poems that were inspired by the strict form of haikus, like this famous one:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Two images combine into one, but remain separate. One does not displace the other. An amazing metaphor. And it even rhymes. Plus: have ever a headline and two lines of poetry worked so well together? I think not. Pound created something great within the formal limits he set for himself. And with only 99 characters (including spaces), it would easily go on Twitter.

Always rethink your tweets

That’s the thing, though: although they all qualify in terms of shortness, I wouldn’t recommend putting any of these examples on Twitter. They would probably drown unseen without even as much as a wave. For the simple reason that on Twitter, the 140 character limit isn’t really the only hard thing to master. It’s just a little complication to keep people from abusing their followers’ attention spans. With limited success.

I recently attended Our Social Times 2013, a conference dedicated to social media marketing. Attendees were invited to tweet using the conference hashtag. The tweets were projected onto the wall in real-time: some of them were announcing the speaker that was up next, others were bullet points from the current presentation, some were summaries of or reactions to something that had been said. They were all less than 140 characters. But with a few exceptions, the tweets were banal, and what’s worse, they were irrelevant and obscure to anyone who wasn’t attending. They just weren’t clever tweets. They were tweet spam. If I was connected to these people, I’d unfollow/block/unfriend them.

Each medium has its own rules

The reason that even professional social media marketers fail to get it right is that they seem to assume it’s enough to stick to the character limit and tweet on a regular basis. But it’s not. The real constraint of Twitter is less clearly defined than the 140 character limit. It’s in the reality of how real people use the platform every day. So while I think that the above Hemingway, Pound (and even Kessler) are great examples of short writing (i.e. they are content I am interested in), I probably wouldn’t pay much attention if I came across them on a social site like Twitter. Here’s why:

  • Twitter is time-sensitive: timely reactions to other tweets and current events are more likely to be read than general observations (and eternal truths).
  • It’s fast-moving: Tweets quickly get replaced by new ones. Users consume and discard. I might find the Pound poem fascinating for one second there… Ooh look, an airplane! Good Twitter content is easy to consume: informative, quick and funny is great (and shareable) on Twitter. Deep, crafted and hard-to-understand may be better suited to a different medium.
  • Twitter is contextual: it’s important to know what other people are doing on Twitter. If you do haikus, your audience will be limited, unless there’s a big haiku hashtag trend going on. And your limited audience will be wondering what you’re on about.
  • Twitter is often used as a jumping-off-point to content to be found elsewhere on the web. That’s why it makes sense to tweet a snappy headline that will get people to check out your link (rather than play all your trump cards at once). Give them the tip, don’t try and stuff the iceberg in.
  • It’s personal: WHO says things on Twitter is just as important as WHAT they say. That’s why celebrities are a big deal on Twitter. Comedians are perfect. And while Twitter is potentially a great platform for poets, they don’t tend to be alpha chirpers with a huge number of followers.  Sorry @EzraPound.

When it comes to Twitter and other social networks, concision is always great, but it’s not the only challenge. The challenge is that to get an audience, you need to understand how the social network is used in practice. And when even social media head honchos don’t realise that good tweets are a combination of people, content, form, and topicality, they are wasting their efforts and are potentially doing more damage than good.

P.S. There are many other examples for the power of limitations that are worth checking out. Have a look at some of these inspiring links.

  • www.sixwordmemoirs.com is full of amazing six-word life stories, including happy, disturbing, and hopeful ones. Check it out.
  • Give someone access to Powerpoint and a microphone and they’ll abuse it: that’s why Pechakucha is a set presentation format that limits each show to 20 slides, which are visible for 20 seconds each. No going back and forth. Interesting concept, but will probably not convince the astrophysicists at NASA. Maybe their PR department…
  • Snapchat: a picture-sharing app that allows smartphone owners to send an image to their contacts, who can see it for up to 10 seconds before it disappears (make sure to use the word ‘ephemeral’ a lot when talking about it)
  • Another research snippet: This is the fun-loving guy who’s responsible for the 160 character limit in text messaging: read to learn how he came up with the totally random number.
  • The comedian David Schneider and his company Th@T Lot tweet funny stuff for businesses. Have a look at their great work.
  • And finally, this is my own six-word confession: Will start tweeting soon. I promise. 

—- Image: Dead Bird by Reginald Gray 

Comments

Speaking of constraints: http://www.michalkrasnopolski.com shows that all you need for an amazing movie posters are a circle and two lines.

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