I sign up for social network accounts with very little persuasion. You can find me in all the usual places—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest—and some not so usual ones too—Quora, Path, Google Plus, Posterous (but not for much longer), Medium, Vine, even Diaspora.
I had a conversation yesterday on app.net that made me think a little bit more deeply about my Twitter usage, and what I’m always on the lookout for in new social networks. (Apologies to @mattgemmell & @fields for dragging them into this—but it’s good to have people write things that make you think, so thanks for that.)
I was an early adopter of Twitter—I opened a pseudonymous account in March 2007, when it was only a year old. I didn’t get it, at first. I used it infrequently—that account has just over 3,000 tweets, and it’s six years old. And I didn’t have any idea about how it would change the way I worked.
The first inkling that I had of just how disruptive Twitter would be came in the summer of 2009, when the Green Revolution started. I’ve always lived in a time where “breaking news” included video and photographs of graphic images of war, but for most of my life, those images and videos were shot by “dispassionate” (or at least, not directly involved) professional journalists.
It’s a little different to be following someone on Twitter who is posting hourly updates about where the police are marshaling their forces, or requests from families searching for loved ones who have mysteriously disappeared.
The other big difference? No professional journalist ever broadcast directions to teach me to set up my computer as a proxy so that people in Tehran could look like they were tweeting from the U.S. The first time that I saw that—and saw that people were doing it—I understood that something very different was happening on this kind of social network. It became apparent to me that, for better or worse, technology was going to disrupt the ability of governments to control their citizenry—and would also lead to activists being able to find each other in ways that were previously unimaginable.
So I set up a Twitter account to use for work in September 2009, and I started following people who were engaged in Pennsylvania politics—activists, electeds, journalists and I started evangelizing about Twitter, because I wanted smart people to understand how they could use it to promote activism, to create new strategies, to engage new constituencies.
For what seemed like a year, the only people on Twitter I ever talked to were Mark Price and Brett Banditelli. The Pennsylvania Twitter-sphere was an empty space, full of virtual dust clouds and not much else. But early in 2010, the Bonusgate trials started, and since Twitter was still so new, the judge didn’t ban reporters from tweeting during the trial (oh, the salad days!). The journalists’ tweets from the trial were raw and full of detail that never made it into the official stories. I started following a bunch of new reporters—and I started to understand the difference between the kind of news that could capture a reporter’s attention for a minute, and the kind that made it into a story.
That understanding, that following, made me a hell of a lot better at my job—which, when you boil it down, is essentially making sure that the voices of ordinary workers are heard, whether that’s in the newspaper, at the ballot box, or in the halls of the legislature.
I have been a good organizer for a long time. Twitter helped me become a better one. I walk into legislators’ offices now, and staffers I’ve never met tell me they follow me on Twitter (which, btw, if you do it, always makes me think, immediately, “Did I tweet something snarky about your boss recently?”)
In 2011, it wasn’t a very good time to be a progressive—and certainly not a progressive union leader. But there were people occupying Madison, and even though I didn’t see them on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I knew they were there because they filled up my twitter timeline.
Later there were people occupying Zucotti Park —the first night of Occupy, people there crowd-sourced a generator on Twitter, so they could keep tweeting and posting photos. Imagine how different the world would be if their batteries had all died, and the cops scooped them up the first night? No Occupy Wall Street Journal, no People’s Mic, no Strike Debt, no changed conversation about the economic priorities of our country. For want of a generator, a shoe was lost?
I said, in my conversation on App.net today, that I’m not a developer—and that it feels like a developer-heavy community. Both Matt Gemmell & Adam Fields pointed out that there are more than just developers on App, and I can invite people to go there, to have better conversations than are available on Twitter.
That is all true, and maybe it should happen.
But Twitter didn’t replicate a community that I already had—it gave me a new community that I needed. A series of new ones, really.
And it didn’t give me a slightly better way of having the conversations I was already having—it gave me a disruption in the way that I do my work, for the better.
That’s my gripe with many of these social networks that want to be “the next Twitter” or “the new Facebook.” I don’t want a slightly better version of a conversation I’m already having. I want to find out how to do a new thing, a thing I haven’t even conceived of yet. I want to find a new community of people to talk to—people I don’t even really know are out there, right now.
I have faith that better networks will lead me to new tactics and to new people to learn from. All I’m looking for is a technology that will help me get there.