In case you’re in the tiny minority who haven’t heard of it yet: the Twitter “microblogging” service allows people to post short messages from a computer or cellphone. The messages are limited to 140 characters, which reflects the system’s origins in SMS messaging: 160 characters, minus 20 characters used for Twitter metadata. I originally tried it soon after its introduction, while I was visiting India in December 2006, but gave up on it after a few weeks. I didn’t see the point at the time, but it made more sense in the second half of 2008, and is still gaining in popularity.
One surprising development has been the increasing popularity of Twitter among celebrities. This is a major driver in Twitter’s current popularity, yet it does not appear to have been planned or orchestrated in any way. I’ve been pondering the reason for this development, and I have a hypothesis that relates to “levels of engagement”. I expect that some of the following may appear obvious upon reading, but sometimes even the obvious needs an explanation, and knowing why you do what you do is never a bad thing.
What is a celebrity? My definition of celebrity is: someone famous for being who he or she is. There aren’t actually that many of those as you might think, at least not in that strict sense. More common are the celebrities who are known for what they do: art, acting, music, cooking, etc. Either way, being a celebrity typically comes with a requirement for promotion of yourself or your work. I’ll use the term “celebrity” as a catch-all here, for anyone famous (or seeking to be) for their work or otherwise.
This is hardly news to any author on a book tour, or movie star on a press junket, but how does this relate to Twitter? One phrase that’s been bandied about for a decade or more is “attention economy”: the idea that attention is a commodity that is becoming increasingly scarce. There is so much stuff out there that wants a piece of my time, it’s impossible to follow it all, far less pay for it. Consequently, the promotional demands on artists are steadily increasing, with the aim of grabbing a slice of my attention.
Here’s a recent example that may explain where I’m going with this. The actor and author Stephen Fry was in Dublin in May 2009, took a walk down the coast during the daytime, and sent Twitter messages from various places along his route. That evening, he went on Irish TV for a standard interview session. I found it instructive to compare and contrast those two forms of communication and others, in terms of their purpose, how well, they fulfill it, and the cost of such communication.
If you are an interviewee, an interview is a form of communication over which you have only partial control. You control your answers, but you do not control the questions, nor do you control the timing of your answers. You are on the spot, and you are expected to provide an answer of the required length in short order. This is a skill that celebrities develop to varying degrees: some generally enjoy the process, others dread it; some try to answer the questions honestly, while others steer the interview in the direction they want it to go, usually promotion for whatever it is they are promoting at that time.
Personally, I do not like being put on the spot, and prefer to control all aspects of my response to a question; what I say, how much I say, how I say it, and even when I say it. I need to edit myself, which means that I prefer to communicate by email, forum, or blog-type writing such as this. They are just fine for my minimal requirements. However, what would happen if a celebrity tried adopting this approach when responding to fans? I say “if”, since I know that though some have tried, they don’t tend to keep it up, for reasons that I’ll explore further.
The first obvious problem is time: responding in writing to a fan question requires that you type a message in reply,whether that is on a forum or blog post, or in an email. How much time you spend doing this is up to you, and replying to fan messages can fill in time spent waiting for other things to happen, or while travelling, which sounds great. However, if it becomes known that you (the celebrity) does that reliably, the number of questions increases, and in some cases (popular celebrities) the situation becomes unsustainable. It’s not fair to reply to only some people, and not others, so you often have to cease making personalised replies.
One way of managing this situation is the concept of “frequently-asked questions” or FAQs: since certain questions keep coming up, it makes sense to have stock answers to them. In his recently-published autobiography, jazz composer and drummer Bill Bruford uses these FAQs as chapter titles and as a thematic structure, deriving additional humour from the inherent doziness of the questions. In an interview situation, it takes real skill to make a FAQ answer sound different every time, tailored to the interviewer. (According to bassist Tony Levin, who worked with Bruford for many years, Bill has those skills and makes a great interviewee.) Conversely, replying an interviewer or a fan with “read the FAQ” can seem impersonal and dismissive, and it takes time and effort to avoid giving that impression.
Another approach is the mediated offline interview: typically, an editor (of a website, magazine or other publication) accepts submissions from the public, for questions to be answered by the celebrity. The editor collates the most interesting questions and submits them to the celebrity, who replies. This preserves some of the spontaneity of audience questioning, but allows the celebrity to reply in his or her own time. The role of the editor in these situations is not to be underestimated because, to be blunt, celebrities are not obliged to be good writers – unless that is their job, of course.
This is the second problem with the direct reply approach.Writing concisely and well is a specific skill that has to be learned. These days, spell-checkers can help you avoid embarrassing errors, but grammar can still be a challenge. Just as serious is the question of length, in my opinion: it is far to easy to rattle on ad nauseum, pouring your thoughts on to the keyboard. However, an editor is not always available or desirable, and even if one is involved, it does not prevent you from rambling away at the keyboard before submitting your answer. Engaging with your fans can become a time sink, if you do not keep control over the time you spend formulating replies.
This is where Twitter seems to fit in: you can still make personal replies to people, but the requirement to keep them concise appears to be perversely liberating. Brevity is the soul of wit, as the saying goes, and on a good day the limits appear to inspire creativity in the vocabulary and phrasing of a message. It helps to have portable devices such as the Apple iPhone, and others, which make Twitter easy to use while away from the computer – or even if you don’t like computers. There is only so much time that you can spend on a single Twitter message, which reduces the likelihood of it becoming an impediment to other social activities.
With all these factors combined, it’s possible for a celebrity to engage with his or her fans in a personalised way, without it becoming a chore, or taking up too much time per message. Combined with other media, such as websites (with FAQs), and standard interviews when necessary, I’ve come to appreciate the way Twitter can fit in to a celebrity’s communication strategy, in these times when it’s difficult to find recognition for your work alone.