This from the well-regarded Pew Internet & American Life Project:

The share of adult internet users who have a profile on an online social network site has more than quadrupled in the past four years — from 8% in 2005 to 35% now, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s December 2008 tracking survey. While media coverage and policy attention focus heavily on how children and young adults use social network sites, adults still make up the bulk of the users of these websites.

Since there are more adults than there are children, this 35% share represents more actual people in social networks.

That item crossed my desk just as a friend was asking me about the “wisdom of Twitter. Seems superficial but fun… What do you get out of it? Others?”

Excellent question. My friend is a serious person who is not interested in using new tools just because they are new or groovy. She already has a LinkedIn profile. So, why should she use Twitter?

(I am keeping her identity anonymous because her question was asked in a context where privacy was assumed.)

Just as I have been blogging since the early days, I’ve had social networking profiles since the early days. I am not bleeding edge but I am an early adopter. I have had a profile on almost all major social networking sites and some offbeat ones too. I enjoy working on and within social networks.

That said, I understand that most professionals have no use or need of many of the tools I play with. I use them because I like shiny objects. However, because I work with organizations helping them change, I have a skeptical sense of what will work and what won’t.

Most professionals don’t need novelty, they need simplicity.

So, over the years, I have come to believe that just about any professional can benefit from using Twitter, from having a blog, and from using at least one social networking tool — preferably Facebook or LinkedIn.

I am not going to go into my argument for that here. I’ll save that for future posts. I will, however, answer the question about Twitter.

In my view, Twitter is a “killer app” and for anyone who has a high profile it’s a must. Why? Four main reasons.

  • Status updates. In essence, Twitter is a simple tool that allows you to announce to anyone who is interested what you are up to. These are known as “status updates” among most social network users. This may seem like trivia. But think about all the social interactions that go into your normal day, and how many are trivial but build connections with people. Status updates allow you to have a new avenue for such important social trivia. 
  • Brevity. Twitter limits you to 140 characters. Why say more?
  • Ubiquity. You can update Twitter from any device (phone, computer, smoke signals) and receive updates to any device. This makes it phenomenally easy to use as you go about your day. There’s ubiquity in another sense, too: Twitter has become an engine for many other web-based interactions. For instance, when this blog posts, my Twitter status will be automatically updated. This will in turn update my Facebook status.
  • Asymmetric follow. This is perhaps the most important element, but one that many don’t pay attention to. It is most important for people with lots of connections in the world. The idea behind asymmetric follow is simple: whereas in most email relationships (and Facebook or LinkedIn relationships), reciprocity is assumed. That is, if I want to connect to you, you need to allow this and connect back. (That is, we’ve “friended” each other.) But in Twitter, you “follow” people, and people follow you. I can follow a relatively small handful — and still be followed by a large number. This is important because there is an upper limit to the number of relationships anyone can maintain (aka the Dunbar Number, which most peg at about 150). 

But, is it rude to be followed, but not follow back? Not at all — that is one of the norms of Twitter (and other status-update networks like People who want to know what I am up to follow me. I follow the people I want to keep tabs on. There is no implied need for reciprocity.

For people in the public eye or with a high business or community profile, this is gold. I know a lot of people with large email lists, but who do not send to the list as often as they like (and should) for fear of irritating too many. That is a valid concern, and one I grapple with when it comes to my small email list.

Asymmetric follow allows me to connect with a larger number of people, more frequently. And you can do so free of fear that you are bugging people, because they have chosen to get your updates already and can “unfollow” you whenever they want.

The frequency is key, as that builds up the sense of relationship. I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked, “Oh, how is such-and-such going?” based on my status updates — as if we had discussed the subject already. I am not saying this replaces actual friendship, or face-to-face interactions. But it does augment those real world connections in a helpful way.

(There is an upper limit to the frequency of updates before people start to unfollow you — I try to keep updates to every couple hours or so.)

The trick with Twitter (and other social networks) is not to get sucked in and just spend all your time playing. Just like it is fun to hang out by the water cooler, it is fun to surf people’s profiles and just send a ginormous number of updates. And just like in the real world, that can get in the way of productivity.

So, I had better get back to work because blogging can take you away from your duties too.

But, for people with lots of connections — either real-world or social network — I really, really recommend Twitter. It’s dead simple to get started. Try it and see how it works. 

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