Using Twitter in Real Life
Something happened to me this past weekend that hasn’t happened in a long time. I was without an Internet connection (gasp!). Family-vacationing in the North Woods of Wisconsin (best place on Earth btw), it was just me, a beautiful lake and a pile of bratwursts and cheese curds. Frankly, the lack of Wi-Fi was terrifying and unnerving, but a small part of me DID relish in the fact that I was (mostly) off the grid. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of “disconnecting” is wonderful, but it is easier said than done for most of us. Yes, I did have a cell phone connection (albeit not a great one), but the fact that I couldn’t access my computer gave me all kinds of excuses to ignore doing things like replying to long emails and working on a PowerPoint presentation that is due this week. The only REAL downside was that I couldn’t edit this blog post and upload pictures, so I was forced to wait until today to post the concluding chapter to this Twitter love-fest.
So here we are. Part III. The grand finale. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest in social media, made Twitter feel slightly less intimidating and MAYBE even convinced you to sign up for an account if you didn’t already have one. But now what? Now that you’re ON this thing, why should it become a site that you visit every day?
All good questions. And hopefully Part III will offer some good answers. Figuring out “what” to use Twitter for was something I grappled with as well when I first starting using the service. So I’m going to detail a few ways in which I use the platform, with the hope that you’ll finish reading this post truly believing that Twitter is more than “what your friend ate for lunch.” And furthermore, understand why it has become an indispensable tool in my everyday life and how it can be in yours too.
For me, the single biggest every-day use case for Twitter is news consumption. And not just reading random articles about random things when I’m bored. Through the thoughtful “following” of users that offer content I’m genuinely interested in, I’ve been able to make Twitter my very own one-stop personalized new digest that is almost impossible to replicate anywhere else.
If you read my post on the death of Google Reader, you may remember that I mentioned Twitter as a potential replacement for the beloved RSS feed reader. Now, that might be a bit of a stretch because the difficult thing about Twitter is that it don’t stop for no one. Content flows through your timeline at lightning speeds (depending on how many users you follow of course), and if you’re not “on” Twitter when a particular Tweet is posted, there’s a chance you won’t see it unless you go searching for it later in the day. This is much different than a traditional feed reader where content stays “new” until you read it or at least mark it as read. On one hand, this constant flow of information is what makes Twitter unique and great, because it’s truly “real-time.” There is no “tape-delay,” so to speak. Tweets show up in your timeline as things happen, and content is not time-shifted. Nor does it appear in the order of “importance” or the number of favorites. But on the other hand, the sheer pace of things can make you feel anxious and create a terrible case of FOMO (fear of missing out) deep inside of you (or maybe just in me).
However, if an event or story is “big” enough, it will probably show up in enough Tweets that you won’t miss it entirely, and there’s always the chance that it will show up in the “Trending Topics” list, which is typically the first thing I check each time I visit the site. So in the end, you have to take the good with the bad and decide if it’s an acceptable way for you to consume news, but personally I find it to be an incredible way to stay up to date with current events and breaking news.
Breaking news has become somewhat controversial, but Twitter as an outlet for such news has been proven time and time again. It was the first place I heard about Osama bin Laden’s and Whitney Houston’s respective deaths (quite the pairing, I know), the Hudson River plane crash, the Royal baby’s sex and news that the“Boston Bombers” had been captured.
In many of these instances, news has actually broken on Twitter BEFORE mainstream news organizations reported it or were able to get an official journalist on the scene to cover what was going on. In addition, in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, major outlets like CNN were actually directing users to Tweets to keep its readers up to date with what was going on.
Now of course, there ARE alternate sources that you can use to find information about these things, but as this article bluntly states – if you think Twitter doesn’t break news, you’re living in a dream world. Whatever your opinion of Twitter may be, the bottom line is that traditional media is no longer the only source of news. The entire news industry is going through an amazing transformation in front of our eyes, and Twitter (along with other social media platforms) is a huge part of this.
Some traditionalists argue that Twitter plays a disruptive role and encourages knee-jerk, and potentially inaccurate reporting. But the same can happen in traditional media. Two recent examples that come to mind are CNN falsely reporting that the Boston Bombers had been caught (before they actually had been), and a ridiculous gaffe made by KTVU in San Francisco around the names of the pilots of the plane that crashed at SFO. And hey, look; the TV reporter who embarrassed herself on national TV even apologized via a Tweet! Maybe these mistakes were a result of the added pressure that social media places on traditional media outlets to break a story first, so it will be interesting to watch how the landscape continues to evolve.
Ultimately I’m not here to debate which is a better way to follow the news, just that giving you a place to consume news (whether breaking or not) is one way that Twitter can make its way into your everyday life.
Prior to moving to New Orleans, I had never really experienced a natural disaster that hit close to home. Sure I grew up in Ohio, part of the infamous “Tornado Alley,” and I studied and worked in the Bay Area where an earthquake is primed to strike at any moment. Thankfully I escaped both locations with only minor occurrences, but a hurricane was as foreign to me as going out in the sun without sunscreen coating every inch of my body twice-over (for those of you that know me, I hope this analogy gives you a chuckle).
So upon arriving in New Orleans in August of 2012, while I vaguely knew we were smack dab in the middle of “hurricane season,” I had no idea what I was in store for. Now just as a disclaimer, this account of my Isaac experience is in no way meant to make light of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Or even Isaac itself, because I know there were hundreds of people that suffered real loss during this storm. And I imagine each and every storm brings back haunting memories that can never fully be erased. I didn’t live in New Orleans during Katrina, and would never pretend to completely understand the devastation that the city of New Orleans and its people felt in Katrina’s wake. But after getting to know Rebecca over the last few years, and hearing about it from someone who felt the effects of Katrina first-hand, I do feel I have a better grasp on what New Orleans went through, and I truly admire how the city has seemingly come out stronger and more vibrant than ever on the other side. Hurricanes seem to be part of the rhythm of life down here and seeing how the city responds and muscles its way through each storm makes me proud to call NOLA my home.
That said, let’s go back to August of 2012. I was just starting my first year in the MBA program at Tulane University, and if the stress of being back in school after seven years, meeting dozens of new people like it was the first awkward day in my freshman dorm and coming to the realization that I had just taken a massive risk by quitting my job and moving to a city where I virtually knew NO ONE wasn’t enough – the hurricane chatter and whispers of an evacuation started to fill the air.
Being a bit naïve, my first thought was – hurricane – cool! As long as it’s not going to put me in imminent physical danger, I want to stay here and ride it out. I pictured myself sitting in my apartment eating Oreos by candlelight, taking pictures and videos of the storm and capturing Mother Nature in all her fury (exciting!).
So against the pleading of Rebecca’s Mother (and my own Mother), I finally decided that yes, I was going to hunker down and stay in New Orleans. I was not going to evacuate to Baton Rouge, or Houston – I was going to camp out in my new apartment (alone) and create my very own hurricane memories. Little did I know that “riding it out” would not be NEARLY as fun as what I had pictured in my head. The other thing I wasn’t prepared for was the WIND. I never realized how powerful and relentless wind can be until experiencing the wind that comes with a hurricane. It comes in waves, you feel it in your bones and it seems like it is never going to stop.
In the end, my adventure turned out to be 144 hours with no power (that’s six days for my fellow math-challenged readers). And no power = NO TV (no biggie), NO Internet (manageable), NO water (ok, now I’m panicking) and NO air conditioning (someone put me out of my misery). If this sounds terrible – it was. The worst. Lesson learned. I’ll never do it again. I honestly don’t know WHAT I did for those six days. Slept? Maybe hung pictures by candlelight? Possibly ate three bags of Oreos and two dozen pre-hurricane cupcakes? Blacked out? It’s pretty much a blur. I did get some decent pictures and videos (some you can see throughout this post), but I literally had no connection to the outside world.
Except through Twitter.
While it was fine and dandy to be playing Survivor: New Orleans in my quaint Uptown apartment, there was certain information that I NEEDED and was having a difficult time getting.
During the storm, a slew of questions ran through my head: What did the radar look like? Was the storm moving slowly or quickly? When would it pass? Was it getting worse or better? What parts of the city were being hit the hardest?
And then when it was FINALLY over, even more questions remained: Was anything in NOLA open? What about the highways? Was it even safe to drive? When would my power come back on? When could I take a shower or flush my toilet? Where could I get food? Gas? ICE?
It didn’t do me any good to try to call people because most were without power as well, or if they did have power, they were too far away from Louisiana to give me accurate information. I was in the dark (literally) and needed to “talk” to people that were right here in this with me.
Having just left my job at Twitter a few weeks earlier, I decided to go sit in my car to charge my phone, fire up the mobile app and see if anyone in NOLA was using it to communicate. And sure enough (thank goodness!) they were.
I was amazed. NOLA was on Twitter in full-force and I was able to get virtually all the information I had been without and was desperately seeking.
One night in particular, during the height of the storm, I was glued to my phone essentially following a live broadcast of the rescue efforts going on in Plaquemines Parish where flooding had become a dangerous threat. It was riveting and heart-wrenching. My chest pounded as I laid sweating in my bed, and I felt a connection with these people that up until the time rain and wind began to pelt the city, were complete strangers. A couple of times I Tweeted to these “strangers,” and they Tweeted back. I asked questions and they were answered. I sent prayers and they were echoed. It was an unbelievable thing that I will never forget.
And you say Twitter is just for pictures of food and mindless, attention-seeking drivel.
It doesn’t have to be a hurricane, it can be any natural disaster or current event going on around you – but in my case it was Hurricane Isaac, and Twitter became my lifeline. I had worked at Twitter. I loved Twitter. I didn’t need to be convinced of the power of Twitter. But what Twitter showed me in those 144 hours of darkness was that 140 characters could provide all the light I needed.
And for anyone that is from New Orleans, lives or has lived in New Orleans, has visited New Orleans or just loves the city to death — I stole this from @FleurtyGirl’s Facebook page and felt compelled to re-share.
These are mostly New Orleans focused — but I wanted to include a list of @usernames I found useful during Isaac.
@dearneworleans (local NOLA news)
@evacuteer (NOLA non-profit that recruits, trains and manages evacuation volunteers)
@FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency)
@NOLA411 (more NOLA news)
@NOLAready (official emergency preparedness handle for NOLA – a must follow!)
@FleurtyGirl (NOLA native and local entrepreneur who is in the know on just about everything)
@MargaretOrr (my favorite local weather-gal!)
@WWLTV (NOLA CBS affiliate)
@MayorLandrieu (New Orleans Mayor)
@twc_hurricane (The Weather Channel Hurricane Central)
@wdsu (NOLA NBC affiliate)
@Entergy (local power company)
@JenHale504 (NOLA sports reporter)
@UptownMessenger (Uptown news reporter – love him!)
@TulaneNews (Official Tulane University News handle)
@GOHSEP (Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness)
@usNWSgov (National Weather Service)
@Readygov (a National handle with emergency preparedness tips of all kinds)
@NOAA_HurrHunter (Hurricane specific news and updates)
@NHC_Atlantic (MORE hurricane news)
@NOAA (and more…)
@RedCrossSELA (Red Cross of Southeast Louisiana)
@EntergyNOLA (NOLA-specific Entergy handle)
If I missed any, feel free to leave them in the comment section or post to our Facebook page!
Wide-spread adoption of these hashtags made it incredibly easy to find all the information I was looking for:
#hurricaneisaac (substitute whatever the next storm’s name is)
#isaac (the fact that each storm is individually named actually helps you find information about it on Twitter much more easily)
#NOLAfood (helped me locate which grocery stores and restaurants were open after the storm had passed)
#NOLAgas (let people know which gas stations were open and pumping gas)
#NOLAice (you’d be shocked at what a hot-commodity this becomes when you have a refrigerator/ticking time bomb full of food and you’re trying not to let everything spoil)
#NOLAopen (let people know which businesses were open, when they would reopen, which had damage/flooding etc.)
The local ABC affiliate, WPBF, has a helpful hurricane-tracking app that can keep you up to date on threat level, cone path and general radar information.
Still Not Convinced (or just being difficult)?
Connecting with Brands – Twitter forces brands to be creative and “human,” so don’t be afraid to interact with them. The platform offers me and you an opportunity to see what a brand is truly about, and on Twitter I find it to be less corporate speak and more of a window into the heart and soul of a brand. Of course brands ultimately want to win your loyalty and your wallet – but on Twitter they can’t just push traditional advertising in your face because they know you can easily turn the other way. Ads are part of the fabric of the Internet and for better or worse they are here to stay – but Twitter ads are much less intrusive than the ads on many other platforms (you may have never even “seen” a Twitter ad before!). I used to have to look at brand’s Twitter campaigns for my job, but now I voluntarily look at them because many of them are actually very cool. Seriously. Check some of them out. Engage with them. They might surprise you.
Sporting Events – following a live sporting event on Twitter gives you a play-by-play look into the action. I followed the Blackhawks’ road to the Stanley Cup when I wasn’t able to be near a TV, the Wimbledon Final when I was stuck on a runway at the Boston airport and the Cincinnati Reds NLCS collapse (sad face) when I was forced to take a Statistics final during Game 5. Not only can you get scores, highlights, pictures and video – but you can also get AMAZING color commentary from a variety of parody accounts and sports reporters from all over the Twitterverse. If I can’t watch a game on TV, “watching” it on Twitter is the next best thing. And total bonus if I can do both at the same time.
Festivals & Concerts – many concerts and major music festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and SXSW have huge presences on Twitter, and even integrate their own hashtags throughout the events. If you’re attending, it’s a way to figure out what’s going on around you and navigate what can often be an overwhelming environment. And if you can’t be there, it’s a way to vicariously get in on the action.
TV Shows – a recent study showed that Twitter statistically affects TV ratings, and vice versa. While more research will surely continue to be done, as a watcher (and lover) of trashy reality TV, I think this link is fairly obvious. Look at the Sharknado frenzy, the spectacle caused by the blue-jeaned Grand Canyon tightrope walker or ANY episode of The Bachelor and you’ll witness this “phenomenon” first-hand. Strangers literally “gather” to watch shows together and communicate as if they are best friends in the same room. And if I see an interesting Tweet about a show I’m NOT watching, I’d say about 90% of the time I flip the channel. More and more we’re observing this idea of Social TV, and I think it’s here to stay. Watch a Presidential debate while following along simultaneously on Twitter. It’s fascinating stuff.
Twitter has really become the social soundtrack to the world we live in. I totally stole that phrase from Deb Roy, who is Twitter’s Chief Media Scientist (sweet title!), because I thought it was amazing and perfect and sums up Twitter better than I ever could.
I hope y’all have enjoyed the week-long Twitter extravaganza and I’ve convinced even a couple of you to give Twitter a chance. I know some of you might still be skeptical and/or overwhelmed, or even feel you’ve wasted precious minutes of your life reading this nonsense. But step away from the computer, take a deep breath and consider revisiting these posts again in the future if you’re not quite ready to take the plunge. And if you never are, that’s ok too — hopefully I’ll see you on Instagram, Snapchat or whatever next big thing might be 🙂
And fingers crossed for a mild 2013 Hurricane Season!
*click on any of the images to enlarge