Like many independent authors, I’ve long understood the value of Twitter as a networking tool. Even so, regardless of what I “understood,” and no matter what any experts said, I would not embrace it. I recently realized I can blame my child-self for that.
As a kid in middle school, I was the wrong kind of nerd. Skinny, big teeth, goofy-looking. I hated being looked at. The thought of walking into a crowded cafeteria at lunchtime was so unnerving it became my daily mission to be the first one out of the classroom when the lunch bell rang. That way, I could be one of the first to the lunch room. As the end of the class period drew near, I’d start watching the clock. At the first in the upbeat series of chimes (an unwelcome revision to the harshness of the straightforward bell), I’d launch out of my desk and fly through the hallway, take the stairs two at a time (I became a pro at this), and make it to the cafeteria hot-lunch line before even the sack-lunchers had had time to take their seats at one of the long tables.
A couple of decades later, I still have the same anxiety. It makes me very uncomfortable to enter cafeterias, cafeteria-style restaurants—and crowded classrooms and buffet lines and nearly full airplanes.
And, it turns out, Twitter.
Though I’ve maintained accounts over the years (if “maintain” means the same thing as “not deleting”) because they say that’s what writers are supposed to do, I’ve always been quick—even proud—to say “I hate Twitter.” But why? And what does that mean? My best answer is Yoda’s: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate.”
It occurred to me that Twitter resembles an online cafeteria: a bustling environment crowded with an assortment of different-sized cliques, the amount of chatter upon entering so overwhelming a virtual cacophony that it seems impossible for any one person to be heard over any other one person.
What business did I have thinking I could add anything to that? I would never be the cool kid Neil Gaiman (@Neilhimself) is. I’m nowhere near as smart as popular “geek” Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson). And I’m no @GuyInYourMFA class clown.
Hitting the “Tweet” button after agonizing over what my 140 (or fewer) characters would say felt to me like calling across the cafeteria to get the attention of a group of kids I didn’t know and had never hung out with. I was afraid of being heard, being seen. (“Oh. My. God. She’s actually trying to talk to us, bless her heart!”) I was also afraid of not being heard, not being seen.
All of these factors combined to form a clear and simple truth: Twitter was not for me, and I was not for Twitter. I would use it occasionally to share links and respond to direct tweets, but that was it.
Then, one day in early December, I came across Engaging Audiences through Twitter in 15 Minutes a Day by Kirsten Oliphant (@kikimojo). I saw the headline, thought, “Fifteen minutes? Riiight,” and clicked the link. At the first mention of Hootsuite and Buffer, I was out of there. Forget the social anxiety synapses Twitter liked to tickle—anything requiring me to learn an entirely new category of social media language was something that would take far too much time away from …
Well, from what, really? Had I not spent two hours that morning not-really-listening to a political yammer show? Did I not have one little free half hour sometime between my writing quit-time of four o’clock and dinner at eight-ish? Yes. Yes, I did.
Still, what was the point? Millions of tweets fly at and past each other. What chance could I possibly have of being appealing to anyone when all the appealing people were already out there doing their own appealing things?
The answer to that, I think, is one of the early pieces of advice parents give their kids that’s too easily discarded or forgotten: there’s no reason to mimic or compete with any other person’s “thing,” which is effective precisely because it is that person’s own unique thing; just do you.
Important for kids to know, and equally important, I think, for this emerging Twitter user to know. I’m not sure, yet, what my thing will be, but I’m looking forward to finding out. Not only because a second stop at “Twitter in 15 Minutes” revealed the overall process to be an intriguing challenge far less complicated than my defensive shutdown would let me see, but because of the exceptional nature of the internet: in the real world, you can step outside of your house and smile and wave, and it will be known that you’re there, you’re alive, you’re a being in the world. But if you aren’t actively present and engaging online, in that world, you—your books, your businesses, your blog entries, your thoughts—simply don’t exist.