Up the Stream With a Paddle: Twitter as a Writer’s Tool

Last night’s Prairie Home Companion took a good-natured swipe at Twitter, the online blog-like service that restricts users’ messages to 140 characters or less at a time. Garrison Keillor’s detective character, Guy Noir, was walking through the Minnesota State Fair and found a Twitter booth, at which the attendant was posting updates like “I am updating my status”; “I can’t think of what to say next, so I’ll leave it that”; etc.

I immediately checked to see if Garrison has a Twitter account. While my search was not exhaustive, I didn’t find a likely candidate. (Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that the user claiming to be “garrisonkeillor” is an impostor).

This makes sense. Twitter gets a lot of abuse from people who don’t actually use it, and fair enough: when you first hear the thumbnail description of the service, and if you’re still getting used to the idea of blogs, Facebook, and the rest of what the kids are calling “web 2.0” and “social media,” it’s easy to assume that such a format is good for nothing but the sharing of trivial information.

I’ll be the first to admit that Twitter users share a lot of trivial information (I’m certainly guilty), but the great thing about this and other services is that the recipients don’t have to keep listening. As soon as someone’s feed-or “stream,” as the whole combined Twitter/Facebook/etc. output is often described-bores you, you can opt out.

My friend Brad wrote about this recently, comparing the relative intrusiveness of unwelcome/unneeded information sent by Twitter to that sent by email:

If you are like me, you have probably heard a number of friends complain bitterly about Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook status updates) by saying something like: “Why do you think I care what you had for lunch?” It’s a fair enough question if you discount the opt-in nature of most social media. That is, if your analogy is “Why would I want an email about what you had for lunch?”

But that’s a false analogy – I’m not emailing you, and if I were, I would definitely not email you my lunch menu. It would be rude. But, there may be some people who might find it interesting that I am eating at a particular restaurant, or eating a particular dish, or just that I’m having lunch. The transaction cost of letting them know is near zero, and the burden on others’ attention is near zero too.

Besides, to anyone who actually uses Twitter, it quickly becomes clear that the people who lampoon the medium by saying “I don’t care what you had for lunch” are telling us more about the limits of their own imaginations than they are about the limits of this mode of communication.

This morning, I experienced an unexpected upside to the opt-in nature of “the stream.”

Most mornings these days, I try to get in a little work on my novel (tentative title: Learning to Lose). I’ve decided that two of the supporting characters-a married couple-are struggling to conceive, and I wanted to know what sort of books, gadgets, medications, and related items they might have lying around. My first stop was the Wikipedia entry on infertility, and I did find it to be a good start.

Then, on a whim, I posted the following question on Twitter, which-because I’ve set up my account this way-then updated my status on Facebook:

For my novel, can anyone tell me some things a couple undergoing infertility txmts might have lying around? (Hold the ribaldry, please.)

In response, I got the following advice. Even the non-writers among you will easily be able to see how much more usefully, idiosyncratically human these details are, as opposed to the more schematic view offered by something like a Wikipedia entry.

Commenter 1: pregnancy tests, sex toys, porn, alarm clock (so you can get up early enough to get ur daily ultrasounds done before work), under eye concealer, knitting/books/etc for dr’s ofc waiting rooms, lots of rx meds including gross stuff like vaginal suppositories, bedside calendar & pen for recording “activities”. and no, i’m not in this process. i just happen to be in the car w/a doctor & parent who’s gone thru this. she sez feel free to contact her for more info if needed.

Commenter 2: Baby name book, syringes, what to expect when your expecting. they are already living as if they are expecting a baby.

Commenter 3: prescription drugs with names like “medroxyprogesterone-135.” Mine were actually compounded specially by a local pharmacy. Many women use a cream or gel for this purpose, but I couldn’t sleep with the constant sensation of having peed myself. Let us know if you have other questions.

Commenter 4: Thermometor! Sutton, never having “been there” I did egg donation for a cousin in 1990..let me recollect..(sometimer’s disease strikes in your 50’s)..I’ll get back to you on this one.

And so on. The comments are still rolling in, and, from the sound of some of them, it seems clear that I’m gaining insight from people with personal knowledge of the subject. This last fact leads to two points I wanted to make about the opt-in nature of “the stream” and how well it worked for me in this situation.

  1. For one thing, I had no idea that I knew anyone with personal knowledge of fertility therapies. But since my tweet/status update was going to be seen by, potentially, hundreds of people, I figured it was worth a shot.
  2. Even if I had known which of my friends has personal experience with this issue, I might have been reluctant to approach them with questions about such a potentially emotionally fraught issue-especially since, having been contacted directly, they might have felt obligated to help me out, even if they didn’t really feel up to it. But because tweets and status updates aren’t “to” anyone, I could just put the request out there and see who felt like responding. No one was put on the spot, and no one shared anything more than they wanted to.

Some final thoughts: I’m a Garrison Keillor fan, for the most part, so I hope this doesn’t sound like an attack on him. I think he and many other people misunderstand Twitter, but, on the other hand, if users who willingly refer to their posts as “tweets” can’t have a sense of humor about the whole concept, they are taking themselves way too seriously.

And while, I haven’t had lunch yet, I had eggs for breakfast.