Twitter and Writing

Some thoughts on a New Yorker essay.

Twitter LogoI read an interesting essay on the New Yorker magazine’s website yesterday: “The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing.” It was one of those pieces that, as you read it, you realize that you and the author are sharing the same thoughts about something that you thought you were alone in thinking. As I read through the piece, I found myself wanting to highlight different passages of it — the parts of it where the author put into words what I’d been thinking or feeling for a long time.

So I figured I’d blog a little about it to store those thoughts here.

For example, the author of the piece, Thomas Beller, writes:

Most great writers could, if they wanted to, be very good at Twitter, because it is a medium of words and also of form. Its built-in limitation corresponds to the sense of rhythm and proportion that writers apply to each line.

And that’s the challenge of Twitter. Sharing a complete thought in 140 characters. I wrote about that back in October 2010 (was it really that long ago?) in my blog post titled “How Twitter Can Help You Become a More Concise Writer.” After all, anyone can write a string of tweets to tell a story. But how many people can convey that story in just 140 characters? How many people can be interesting, funny, provocative, witty, sarcastic, ironic, or insightful?

Yes, it’s true: I do tweet photos of some of my meals. (Don’t we all?) But occasionally I get more serious. Occasionally I dig deeper and come up with something witty or profound, something that other people find worthy of retweeting or, better yet, favoriting.

(Ever wonder how the word favorite became a verb? I did, too. Then I asked all-knowing Google and it pointed me to this article that explains it. It shouldn’t surprise you that Twitter is involved. But once again, I digress.)

And sometimes — just sometimes — I can paint a visual picture with those 140 characters that’s as clear as a glacial stream on a spring day.

Two more passages touch upon why and how I use Twitter:

Does a piece of writing that is never seen by anyone other than its author even exist? Does a thought need to be shared to exist? What happens to the stray thought that drifts into view, is pondered, and then drifts away? Perhaps you jot it down in a note before it vanishes, so that you can mull it over in the future. It’s like a seed that, when you return to it, may have grown into something visible. Or perhaps you put it in a tweet, making the note public. But does the fact that it is public diminish the chances that it will grow into something sturdy and lasting? Does articulating a thought in public freeze it in place somehow, making it not part of a thought process but rather a tiny little finished sculpture? Is tweeting the same as publishing?

And:

I had always thought of Twitter as being a good place to work out ideas: a place to mull things over in public, and a way of documenting a thought to make it more likely that I would remember it. But is it like a conversation or is it “talking it out?” Is it a note to oneself that everyone can see, or is it, like iPhone photos, an attempt to offload the responsibilities of memory onto an apparatus that feels like an extension of ourselves because it is always in our hands? I sometimes wonder if I might ever be accused of stealing my own idea.

And that’s how I use Twitter: as a sort of running list of my thoughts and the things going on in my life. (That might explain why I’ve tweeted more than 44,000 times since I joined Twitter back in 2007. I think a lot and keep pretty busy.) It’s easy to whip out my phone or iPad and tweet something that’s on my mind — or to save a picture of what’s in front of me in a place where it’ll be forever (or at least a long time). It is an offloading of information so I don’t have to remember things.

Mr Beller wonders whether articulating a thought in public freezes it in place somehow. It does. It freezes it in the Twitter archive, which I can download for my account and search at any time. (How do you think it was so easy for me to come up with the tweets you see here? Imagine that archive in the hands of a paranoid and delusional stalker!) That makes it possible for me to go back in time, to see what I was thinking and doing on a specific date since my first tweet in March 2007.

I can’t think of any easier way to make life notes. Stray thoughts can be captured before they drift away, to be pondered at my leisure. And sometimes — just sometimes — they become the seeds for blog posts or conversations with friends.

Twitter was introduced as a “microblogging” service and that’s exactly how I use it. I assume other writers do the same.

But is tweeting the same as publishing? I don’t think so. It’s more like standing on a soapbox in a crowded park, making random remarks. Some folks who know you’re there and find you interesting might be there to listen. But otherwise, your words go mostly unheard. You can argue that the same can be said for publishing, but publishing seems to be a more legitimate form of communication. Or maybe that’s just old-fashioned thinking on my part.

Managing the anxiety of composition is an essential part of writing. One must master the process of shepherding the private into public. There are bound to be false starts, excursions that turn out to be dead ends. But these ephemera—notes, journals, drafts—are all composed in a kind of psychic antechamber whose main feature is a sense of aloneness. They are the literary equivalent of muttering to yourself in a state of melancholy, or of dancing in front of the mirror with music blasting when you are alone in your room. Both of these are best done when no one is home.

I’ve never found it difficult to write; there is no anxiety for me. That’s not to say that I don’t have false starts and wander down to dead ends. Or, more often than I’d like to admit, write crap.

There is an aloneness to all writing, including Twitter. And yes, tweets are like talking to yourself, but with the very real possibility that (in my case) 1600+ people are listening and may respond. No one is home here except me — I’ve been alone for a long time, even when I supposedly wasn’t.

Almost everybody who is a writer these days gets, at some point, a lecture on the necessity of being “on” Twitter and Facebook. It’s a tool of selling and career building. It is, for writers of all ages and stages, not so much required reading as required writing.

I also got this lecture from one of my publishers. I didn’t need to be sold on Twitter — I took to that like a bird takes to the sky. It was Facebook that I avoided for as long as I could. So long, in fact, that I lost a contract because I wasn’t involved enough in social media. Imagine that! An early adopter of Twitter with tens of thousands of tweets not being involved enough in social media.

Twitter gives writers the ability to put ourselves out there for the world to see. Does it help my writing career? Perhaps — to a point. It certainly helps attract blog readers and give me a steady stream of intelligent people to communicate with.

After five years and more than 44,000 tweets, I know one thing for certain: Twitter has become a part of my writing life.

Why I Made My Tweets Private

The short explanation: I was tired of being stalked by a paranoid, neurotic, and vindictive old woman.

How To Make Your Tweets Private

Shame on you! You obviously didn’t take my Lynda.com course about Twitter where I explain how to do this. But since you were nice enough to come visit me at my blog, I’ll give you the simple steps here:

  1. Log into Twitter.com.
  2. Go to https://twitter.com/settings/account. This is the Account Settings page for your account.
  3. Turn on the Protect my Tweets check box.
  4. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click Save Changes.
  5. Enter your password if prompted and click OK.

That’s all there is to it. From that point on, the only way someone can see your tweets is if they follow you — and they’ll have to get your approval to do so. While I don’t normally recommend doing this, it’s a good solution if you’d prefer to control who can see your tweets.

I just made my tweets private. It was the only thing I could think of to get my husband’s girlfriend — if you can use that word to refer to a 65-year-old woman — to stop stalking me on Twitter.

How It All Began

It’s been going on since at least November 2012.

Flushing Fish
I think the tweet text makes it pretty clear that the fish was already dead when I tried to flush it.

Back then, while I was cleaning my fish tank’s glass cover, I managed to get a cleaning solution in the water that killed four of the five fish in there. I removed the fish and attempted to flush them down the toilet. Unfortunately, the fish were large and they wouldn’t flush. For some reason, I thought that was funny and took a photo of it, which I shared on Twitter.

Well, my husband’s girlfriend decided that my flushing of a dead fish was evidence that I was destroying my husband’s property — namely, his “exotic” fish. (Nevermind that the fish tank was mine, purchased before marriage, and the dead fish were just tropical fresh-water fish costing about $5 each — if that.) She apparently convinced my husband and his lawyer that they needed an expedited hearing in front of the divorce judge to stop me from doing whatever it is they thought I was doing. They demanded an opportunity to inspect the house and remove his personal possessions so I would stop destroying them. She printed out 25 pages of my tweets — the vast majority of which had absolutely nothing to do with my divorce — and submitted them as “evidence” of my wrongdoing.

This is when I realized a few things:

  • My husband’s girlfriend was in charge of my husband’s side of the divorce. It all came from her; I had confirmation of that later by means I’ve promised not to disclose. My husband certainly didn’t read my tweets (or my blog) and he knew the fish were mine.
  • My husband’s girlfriend was paranoid, neurotic, and likely as delusional as my husband had become. What else could I think? She read a tweet about a fish being flushed and decided it was evidence that I was destroying my husband’s property. Seriously: WTF?
  • My husband’s lawyer was not giving them sound advice — or, if he was, they weren’t taking it. After all, if he’d read the 25 pages of tweets, he’d clearly see that there was nothing in there to indicate that I was destroying anything belonging to my husband. They’d simply look like idiots in front of the judge.

This kind of backfired on them — as so many of their court actions did. My husband was given a date and time to come to our house and retrieve any of his possessions that he was worried about. That meant moving a lot of crap out of the house that he would probably have preferred leaving right there. It also prevented him from accessing the house later, as he tried in May, because he’d already used up his only court-approved opportunity to remove possessions. Oops.

You think she’d learn her lesson. A smart person would. But no: she continued to watch my tweets and attempt to use them to harass me throughout the months the divorce process dragged on.

Show Me Your Weakness and I’ll Exploit It

I have to admit that once I knew she was reading my tweets, it was difficult not to taunt her. She had no life — that was clear — why else would she be so obsessed with what I was tweeting about? Despite my heartbreak over losing the man I’d loved for more than half my life, I had a great life and I tweeted every detail.

I didn’t work much throughout the winter and spring and I traveled a lot, making multiple trips to California, Florida, Las Vegas, and Washington. I shopped for a whole new wardrobe after losing 45 pounds the previous summer. I met new people home and away and did all kinds of things with them. When I was home, I had a steady stream of house guests in the house they supposedly couldn’t wait to get back into. They’d insisted on dragging the divorce on past the original January trial date by asking for a continuance — I made the best of the situation by having a great time while I was stuck there. I tweeted all winter and spring about my activities, making sure I mentioned every fun thing I was doing, knowing just how much it would get under her skin.

A normal person would have stopped reading the tweets. But she’s not normal. She’s obsessed. I accused her in January of living vicariously through my tweets. She read that one, too — I saw it later as “evidence” in court.

She was stuck with my sad sack husband, directing his divorce because he lacked the balls — or moral integrity — to do it himself. I was enjoying real freedom for the first time in nearly 30 years, doing whatever I wanted without having to look at his sour, disapproving face.

And, of course, I packed.

More Tweets in January

The tweets came up again in January when she attempted to get an Injunction Against Harassment on me. I fought it in court. More tweets submitted as “evidence.” I don’t even think the judge looked at them. Why should he? Pages and pages of my usual blather — those who follow me on Twitter know what I tweet about — all copied in triplicate as “exhibits” for the court. I could only imagine what those photocopies cost — law firms charge through the nose for everything!

They showed up with their lawyer. Three of them against me. I won. They had no case.

Another court action backfires on them. Another few thousand dollars wasted fighting the phantoms of her delusions.

The Ceiling Fans

Ceiling Fan Tweet
I really couldn’t resist. Note that I didn’t say here that I removed the ceiling fans; I just insinuated that I did.

When the divorce trial was finally over the other day, I admit I did send one last tweet intended for her consumption, one last thing to really piss her off. The ceiling fan tweet.

During personal property negotiations, she’d listed the ceiling fans as something I must leave behind. I still remember the discussion my lawyer’s assistant and I had about this demand. It went something like this:

Me: She thinks I’m going to take down the ceiling fans?

Her: Apparently so.

Me: Why the hell would I do that? They came with the house. What the hell am I going to do with six southwest style ceiling fans in Washington state?

Her: She’s just trying to get under your skin.

Me: All she’s doing is showing how stupid and petty she is. I don’t want the damn fans.

Of course, she also demanded the curtain rods. But in the final agreement, the curtain rods went to me. I took them, with the curtains — admittedly, mostly for spite, although the ones in the living room and guest room (which were the only ones I really wanted) will look nice in my new home. And although the ceiling fans were not on the list of the items they could keep — after all, I considered them part of the house — I didn’t take them. I just tweeted as if I might have. The ceiling fans had become a running joke with my Twitter and Facebook friends and I knew they’d enjoy the tweet.

Because my husband had refused to inspect the house with me present, it would be at least 36 hours before they could get in to see what I’d left behind. I’m sure her blood pressure was red-lining the whole time, thinking about those ceiling fans.

Sadly, she didn’t stroke out.

It’s Over. Really.

In my mind, the divorce was over. Everything was in the hands of the judge. We’d settled the personal property and I had come away with everything that was mine and the joint property that I wanted, leaving behind far more for them than I’d taken for myself. (My lawyer’s assistant thinks I gave too much away.) I had finally moved out of my house. I was back in Washington, living where I’d spent the previous five summers, working, playing, having a life.

My husband’s girlfriend, however, wasn’t finished with me yet. She just couldn’t let go. She just couldn’t stop harassing me. I guess that when you spend so many months catering to an obsession, it’s hard to call it quits.

I blogged about the latest hilarity here. No need to repeat the details in this post.

It does, however, all come down to tweets. She built her delusion about my ownership of property in Washington on her interpretation of my tweets. Apparently, plain English isn’t good enough for her. In her paranoid mind, she believes everything I’ve written contains a coded message. She reads my tweets and interprets the code she believes they contain. The result: “facts” to feed her delusions.

(A mutual friend of mine and my husband’s can’t wait to meet her. She’s an amateur psychologist and thinks she’ll have a lot of fun trying to figure her out. I’m looking forward to her report.)

Although I made it clear in a recent email to a bunch of people that I think her obsession with my tweets is evidence that she’s sick, I seriously doubt whether that’s enough to stop her from obsessing. And frankly, I don’t want every little thing I tweet about to feed her delusions and get her running to her lawyer to bother mine.

It’s over. I’m free. I shouldn’t have to deal with her crap anymore. Hell, I shouldn’t have had to deal with it in the first place — and I wouldn’t have if my husband was smart enough (or man enough) to rein her in. The only way to break her of the obsession is to take the object of her obsession away from her.

So my tweets have become private, at least for now.

Life is Better on My Terms

A tweet reminds me of a life I didn’t like very much.

On January 14, 2008, I tweeted:

I’ve gotten very good at making my coffee in the semi-darkness so I don’t wake my parrot.

I don’t know where I was when I tweeted that, but I do remember too many mornings when I tiptoed around our Phoenix condo before dawn so as not to wake my husband’s roommate. As an early riser, every morning at the condo when his roommate was around was an ordeal for me.

You see, when I was in the condo, my parrot Alex was there, too. If I woke Alex up, Alex would start her morning routine, which is very vocal. That, in turn, would wake my husband’s roommate and make him hate me even more than he already did. The result: an even less comfortable situation the rest of the time we were all there together.

So I tip-toed around, making my coffee in the near-dark. And then I sat silently on the corner of the sofa in the dark, drinking my coffee, waiting for my husband or his roommate to wake up so I could make noise, too.

Things are different now. I don’t have to pretend to like something I don’t — namely, living in the cavelike condo my husband selected as a real estate investment — one that immediately went under water and made him a slave to a job he hated. I don’t have to keep the same hours as someone else. I don’t have to live my life a certain way just to make someone else happy.

Seeing this tweet today, copied to my Facebook timeline, really reminded me of how much better off I am finally living life on my own terms.

Top 13 Features of a Perfect World Twitter

Ah, if only the world were perfect!

Twitter LogoMarch 20, 2012 will mark the beginning my fifth year as Twitter user.

During that time, I’ve posted more than 37,000 tweets. I’ve seen Twitter evolve from the “microblogging” service it was designed to be to one of the top social networking sites and a major source of news and information worldwide. Along the way, I’ve authored three versions of a Twitter course for Lynda.com (with a revision to come soon) and dozens of blog posts and how-to articles about using Twitter.

I’m on Twitter just about every day, checking the tweets posted by the modest number of people I follow, responding to some tweets with @replies and retweeting others. I also respond to every [non-spam] tweet directed to my account — which is often how I find new people to follow. No, I don’t “reciprocate follows” and I don’t collect followers. I’m on Twitter primarily for its social networking aspects — to meet and interact with people all over the world. Indeed, I’ve met many of my Twitter friends in person and consider many of them more than just “virtual” friends.

I guess you can say I’m hooked on Twitter.

But with all that said, I’m sure any Twitter user can agree that Twitter is not perfect. I thought I’d take a moment to list the things I think we’d find in a “perfect world” Twitter.

  • No spam. None. Not any at all. Period.
  • Twitter users who actually try to read — and maybe occasionally respond to? — the tweets of the people they follow. Seriously: why are you following people if you don’t read their tweets? There’s nothing social in one-way communication.
  • Retweets that credit the original source of the tweet. That means using the Retweet feature on Twitter except in the very rare instances that you must add your two cents to the tweet. I don’t know about you, but I like to see the name and profile picture of the witty or informative person who originated the tweet you thought was so sharable. And no, that wasn’t you.
  • Links that point to actual content instead of links to content. Don’t tease your followers with link bait pointing to your paper.li “online newspaper.” Link to the actual content people want to read. (And don’t get me started on sites like paper.li or Pinterest or FourSquare and the auto-tweets they spawn.)
  • Links to the original source of the content. Someone created that content and put it out there for the world to read. Don’t link to the site or page that steals a paragraph or two of it — or, worse yet, the whole thing. Link to the freaking source.
  • Follow Friday (#FF) tweets that list one or two people actually worth following. Not every single person who might have tweeted to you in the past three weeks, shared with your followers (those very same people) in six or seven consecutive tweets. If I wanted to know everyone you were following, I’d look at your profile and check your Following list. And how about including a reason why these people are worth following?
  • Company twitter accounts that interact with customers or provide links to valuable content (or both!) rather than just broadcast promotional messages. Why would anyone voluntarily follow an account that was a nonstop stream of ads?
  • No @replies starting with a . (or other character), thus forcing all of your followers to see one side of a conversation that they may have no interest in. Are your conversations with others so interesting that you need to circumvent Twitter’s built-in filtering for @reply conversations? I don’t think so.
  • No tweets longer than 140 characters. If you can’t express a thought within Twitter’s constraints, post it on Tumblr or a blog. When you use multiple consecutive tweets to express a single thought, you look like you’re talking to yourself. Which, in effect you are, because no one is reading it. (See above.)
  • No tweets about follower count. Pardon me, but who the fuck cares how many people follow you? If you do, you have pretty screwed up priorities. Ditto for Klout scores and any other Twitter “ranking” value.
  • No “Thank you for following me” or “welcome new followers!” or “Thanks for retweeting!” tweets. These messages are noise and a serious waste of bandwidth. (Imagine if everyone did this for every single follower and retweet. Has your head exploded yet?) While you might want everyone on Twitter to know about every new follower or retweet you get, the rest of us don’t really give a crap.
  • No automated direct messages (DMs). I cannot think of a tackier way to abuse a social networking service than to use a computer to automatically generate a message to a stranger that might just end up on his cell phone as a text message. As I mentioned to someone on Twitter just today, I automatically unfollow anyone who DMs me with an automated message. Or even a message that looks like it might be automated.
  • No social media gurus. Seriously: if that phrase (or anything like it) is in your Twitter profile, you just don’t get it.

Got anything to add to this list? Pet peeves you want to share? Wish lists? Post ‘em here.

A Positive Shopping Experience

Per the request of the Bed, Bath, and Beyond Twitter monitor.

About a month ago, my husband and I bought a set of sheets at Sleep America, which is where we bought our new bed. After washing them only three times, they were pilled — you know, those little balls of thread that get stuck to the fabric? — to the point where I could not sleep on them. (It’s like sleeping in sand that can’t be swept away. Ick.) I returned the sheets to Sleep America for a refund — which they gave without question — and went in search of replacements.

BB&B LogoOur first stop was the Camelback Bed Bath & Beyond store, which is walking distance from our Phoenix condo. As you might expect, they had quite a few options. (Sometimes I really hate the fact that we have so many choices in this country. Life would be easier if there were less options to choose from.) I was very concerned about the sheet quality. I did not want to get sheets that would pill so quickly — or at all — again. Apparently, thread count wasn’t the only indicator of quality. The sheets we’d returned were 440 thread count cotton, which we thought would be good.

One of the BB&B store staff — he may have been a manager — saw us looking at sheets and asked if we needed help. I told him we wanted sheets that wouldn’t pill. He then gave us a little lesson about sheet fabrics and recommended several brands to us, including two at the mid-range price we were willing to pay. We picked a fabric — there were samples hanging beside the sheet packages — and a color and were done.

I actually felt good about buying something that I was confident wouldn’t disappoint me. It was the sales guy who made that possible.

I went home and tweeted about it:

Just wanted to say that we got EXCELLENT service at the PHX Camelback @BedBathBeyond store. Advised on a sheet purchase by an expert!

You might think that’s kind of goofy, but after tweeting extensively about my anger and disappointment with UPS, I thought I should balance that with some positive feedback where it was deserved.

You might argue that I didn’t get any better service than what I should have expected. Unfortunately, I don’t agree. Too often these days, sales staff can’t do more than point you in the right direction. People don’t seem to know — or even care — about products they sell. I realize that being a salesperson in a BB&B store isn’t usually a person’s idea of a “career” worth investing in, so my expectations of a salesperson’s ability to help are low. It was refreshing to find someone who actually knew the product and cared enough to spend a few minutes with us. I think it’s important to reinforce positive behaviors to reward people who deserve recognition.

The person who monitors the @BedBathBeyond Twitter account picked up on my tweet and responded:

@mlanger That’s awesome. We would love 2 hear more about ur trip. Can u shoot us an email at twitter@bedbath.com with the details?

Of course, I don’t want to email them because I don’t want to get on any email list. (These days, it’s impossible to contact any company by email without them automatically adding you to their notification list.) So I decided to blog it. Not only does it fulfill the request of @BedBathBeyond, but it proves that I can say nice things about companies, too.