When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Little House on the Prairie books. I had all of them, and I must have read each one 10 times. There’s a little story in one of the books that came to my mind this morning. I can’t remember which book it was, but the general jist was that Pa had gone to town and was expected back that night. He didn’t come, he didn’t come. The family went to bed, waiting to hear the door open. Finally, the next morning, he showed up, perfectly fine and unscathed. But he had a story to tell. He had been heading home in the increasing darkness of evening when a tall black shape caught his attention. He ducked behind a tall rock and assumed that what he had seen was a giant bear. He waited all night for the bear to go away, scared out of his mind. Finally, when the sun started peeking out, Pa saw that he had been held at bay by a giant pile of rocks. He had believed he would encounter danger, and that’s what his mind’s eye created for him.
This story came to mind, I think, because I have been thinking about the whole Twitter phenomenon. Weird segue, right? Here’s the thing. If you sign up for a Twitter account, you’ll encounter tons of people who have 50,000 followers or more. You’ll notice that when they say “The sky is blue,” it gets retweeted by at least 50 of those 50,000 people. If one of these people posts a picture of French Toast, everyone comments on how well the essence of the toast was captured. You start thinking to yourself, “Man, I can do that.” Instead of seeing a bear in place of some rocks, you see your own fame reflected in others’ success. As most great motivators will tell you, if you can visualize success, you’ll find it.
Someone’s telling you you’re right
Pa didn’t have anyone with him to say, “No no, that’s not a bear.” He also didn’t have someone with him saying, “Holy smokes, that’s a BEAR!” But when you sign up for Twitter, you can be bombarded, if you want to be, about how to achieve that very level of success you see. There’s advice on how to tweet, there’s advice about retweeting, there’s advice about promotion and self-promotion. All of the knowledge you could ever want about how to become a major influence on Twitter seems to be at your very finger tips. There are blogs and webinars and podcasts telling you point blank that you can do this.
That’s just a bunch of pebbles in your hand
In fact, the sad news is that most of us are simply not going to achieve that kind of success on Twitter. Even though it seems so easy on the surface, and even though so many people go out of their way to give us information on how to do it, it’s not going to happen for us. The sad masses of us are not going to get any compliments on our photos of French Toast. Why? First of all, we weren’t here first. If you started your Twitter account in a serious way, as I did, three months ago or so, you’re so late to the game it’s not even funny. Those influencers have been on Twitter for probably four years in some cases, when most of us were saying, “What a dumb idea THAT is.” Because we haven’t been here, we are behind in accumulating knowledge. We are behind in learning. We are behind in experimenting. Unless you have real-world fame already, you are probably not going to become a major influence in the world of Twitterville.
So what is Twitter like if you aren’t a pied piper of followers?
I’ve learned a lot about how to use Twitter during the short time I’ve been working with it. So even though this advice will probably not get you to a Fast Company “most influential” list, it might get you to a place where you are content with your Twitter reality, which is still pretty good.
Holy cow, the time! This has been the biggest shock to me. You think about Twitter and the descriptions are always “micro” this and “tiny” that. If you are serious about trying to be a successful Twit (?), your time investment is neither of those things. It takes time to get to know people and for them to get to know you. It takes time to determine who you want to follow. It takes time to find questions or issues that you can comment on. This is not like Facebook where you can post a status and then leave it alone for a day or two. Facebook is to Twitter like a cat is to a puppy.
Holy cow, the pressure! Twitter also comes with a fair amount of pressure when you’re a noob. You want to respond to “mentions” or retweets or direct messages as soon as you can. You want to be there when a sudden big conversation blooms. You want to build relationships. You want to show you’re smart. You want to do all of it in a day.
You’re gonna talk to yourself for awhile. When I first started with Twitter, I often got really frustrated. I’d post something funny (or so I thought anyway), nothing but crickets. I’d post a link to a good article. Nothing but crickets. The really cruel thing is sometimes you see a mention of you and it’s just a spam bot telling you that you can win a free iPad. It can be frustrating to see all of the interaction around you and yet not be able to spark anything. Hang in there. Try to buddy up with somebody just person to person.
Those big influencers are probably not going to respond for awhile. On Twitter, it seems like everyone is on equal footing. This is really not true. Everyone has their own particular patterns of behavior when it comes to Twitter. People look for certain folks or certain subjects. It takes a long time to work yourself into either. In the meantime, you are competing with 49,999 other people who want a little attention just as much as you. Don’t get moody about it. Attention comes to those who merit it (usually). If you call out a person with a lot of influence, at most they will complain about you without mentioning you (they’re too smart to give you attention that way). Meanwhile, you’re alienating people who are actually following you and trying to engage.
If this doesn’t sound like all fun and games, what can I tell you. I have reached a point where all of this time and effort has gotten me to a place of contentment. There were definitely deep valleys and some high peaks along the way, and I’m sure that will continue. Make no mistake, though. I still see the rocks. I still see the pebbles. Though I see influential people all around me, I honor them rather than imagine myself as one of them. I don’t expect Twitter fame, and no offense, but most likely, neither should you.
Image 1: Image Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/Massicotte
Image 2: Image by eila haj-hassan. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/leilahh
Image 3: Image by Hans Thoursie. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/Thoursie