Thursday, April 1, 2010

One thousand tweets: A retrospective

It’s a great feature on Twitter that everyone’s home page keeps track of their tally of tweets. With my affinity for metrics and counting and tracking, I like knowing exactly how many times I’ve put pen to paper – I mean fingers to keyboard – to generate those 140 characters. And what I just discovered when I logged in is that as of right now, that number is 999. Announcing my daily blog entry with a tweet, as I always do, will make it Tweet #1000.

One thousand tweets, I find myself thinking. Wow. What exactly is the take-home message from knowing I’ve written one thousand tweets?

As I blogged about early on in my relationship with Twitter – which began last August -- at first the 140-character limit was so tough for me. As a journalist, word count is my nemesis. It’s no exaggeration to say that per story, I exert more effort cutting out words from successive drafts to match an editor’s prescribed word count than I spend identifying a story topic, contacting subjects, researching the story’s background, conducting interviews and writing up a first draft. In sum, it is really difficult for me to limit my words. And most of the time an article allows me space for eight hundred or so words. So how, I wondered, could I possibly adapt to Twitter’s 140-character limit?

It will come as no surprise to any editors who read this that I quickly learned that the more you have to cut, the more you realize how much of what you thought you needed to say was extraneous anyway. I can say all kinds of things in 140 characters. I once summarized the plot of Hamlet in a 140-character tweet. I use no more than 140 characters to track my daily running streak – including not only the day of the streak but also the distance I ran, the route, and a few notes specific to that run – and less than 140 characters every day to sum up my daily blog topic, since I need to leave some space left for the characters in the link text.

Like a lot of Twitter users, once I started to build momentum, I found that other communications became more abbreviated as well. Especially if I’ve just been on Twitter, I often write emails that would fit into the 140-character box even when they don’t need to. I have a little less trouble limiting word count in article drafts than I used to. I just find it easier to distill a point than I once did. And I’m really hoping this newfound ability seeps into my blog eventually, since my entries here still trend toward close to one thousand words most days.

But speaking of one thousand words, back to the one thousand tweets and what I’ve learned in the process. Well, for one thing, I’m careful on Twitter, and that’s a good lesson in itself. I type something and then, if it seems to carry the potential to be misconstrued, I erase rather than post. If I’m trying to be witty or sardonic and it’s not absolutely clear to me that that intent carries through, I erase. Wish I could be so circumspect and self-restrained in my spoken communications.

And since I don’t always know who’s reading me on Twitter, I’m more prudent about whether what I’m saying is worthwhile. It’s not that my tweets have to be profound. They never are. It’s just that knowing my tweets are filling up someone else’s queue, I make a genuine effort to try to justify whatever I say before I post it. My running streak may not be of interest to anyone else, but I’ve decided it’s worthwhile to me to post it daily. I post links to my blog in the blatant wish to get more people to read my blog. Again, perhaps not honorable, but worthwhile to me.

I tell funny anecdotes about farm life and the kids, but I try to judge whether they are actually anything that anyone else will gain even the tiniest grain of amusement, entertainment or wisdom from. Occasionally I’ll start to post a cute comment made by one of the kids or an observation of my own that I consider particularly trenchant, only to stop myself and think, “Am I saying this just to say it? Or because I honestly think anyone else’s life will be enriched, even the tiniest bit, even for just a few seconds, by reading it?”

Sometimes I have to admit that whatever I’m saying in those 140 characters really won’t do anything but make me feel clever, important or like an admirable parent for a few seconds. And then I scratch the tweet rather than post it.

I’m always surprised by how often I’ll draft a tweet in Twitter’s character-counting box only to see the character counter at zero when I’m done. It’s like karma when what I want to say on Twitter fits like a glove. But it’s not really just karma. It’s really that saying things in 140 characters continues to be a great exercise for me. When it comes out perfectly, with no need to go back and cut words or even letters, I feel like I’m finally making progress: learning to form my thoughts in more concise and pithy phrases thanks to Twitter.

So here I am at Tweet One Thousand, looking back on seven months with amusement and pleasure. Calling it pride would be going too far. There’s nothing to be overtly proud of in my Twitter feed. It’s just fun to have learned something important these six months: How to write – and yes, how to speak and even how to think – in more concise, more direct terms. It’s still fun, 140,000 characters later.

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