Twitter For Food Activists

If social networking platforms can play a decisive role in eradicating entrenched bad asses like Mubarak and Gaddafi, then there must surely be lessons to be learned for those of us who seek to topple the likes of McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, and the USDA. Could their perches be every bit as perilous, and might they soon fall just as hard? That may well depend on how Internet-savvy today’s food activists can become.

One wonderful quality of the Internet is that it delivers tremendous power to people of every possible skill level—everyone from Linux geeks to people who have yet to figure out how to bookmark a website in their browsers.

While anyone can get a lot from the Internet, it would be a mistake to think that the least competent users wield as much online power as those with greatest skill. In fact, I suspect that the Pareto principle is coming into play during the 2011 Middle East uprisings: that 80 percent of the Internet’s effect is being generated by the most skilled 20 percent of users. Many of these top users are making use of Twitter, a very simple platform that’s long been the butt of jokes by people who haven’t given it more than a superficial look. The truth is that Twitter can totally transform your advocacy by keeping you better informed, and deepening your ties to other outstanding activists. You can learn the basics in minutes, and master the platform within hours.

If you just dive into Twitter without some understanding of what’s going on, it’s easy to get the impression that the platform is gimmicky and that it offers nothing of unique value. The standard critique is that Twitter offers nothing more than annoying navel gazing done by people who have nothing better to do than tell the world they’re doing laundry or drinking a cup of tea. And yes, there are millions of people who post just this sort of thing to Twitter, but you only see this stuff if you choose to follow these people. And why would you?

Already in the food world, the majority of America’s most effective food and farmed animal advocates are using Twitter to great effect. And there’s no better way to get access to what these people are reading and thinking than to follow them on Twitter.

Now, admittedly, Twitter is a new experience and when you first jump in you’ll need some time to get oriented. Some people give up after five minutes, complaining the platform is too difficult to understand. Food politics blogger Adam Merberg has probably made the best response to these Twitter quitters:

To give up on Twitter for being too complicated is to resign oneself to being outdone by Sarah Palin.

The truth is, once you understand the basics of Twitter and how it works, it will all make perfect sense. So let’s get into that right now.

Twitter is really little more just another blogging platform, but with the bizarre twist that every post must be capped at 140 characters. In practice, this means that every twitter post (“tweet”) is limited to maybe two medium-length sentences plus a link. In other words, whether you like it or not, Twitter forces extreme brevity in everything you write. Suppose your thoughts come to 160 characters—tough luck, you’ve got to find a way to boil it down to the 140 character cap. In fact, as you’re typing in Twitter, you see a number beneath your tweet counting down the remaining available characters.

This 140 character cap is completely artificial and inflexible, and it may even strike you as obnoxious, but its genius lies in enforcing an almost magical level of discipline on its users. Using Twitter, you must relentlessly get to the point—you’ve got no extra space to do otherwise.

Now that I’ve explained how this 140 character cap plays out for someone writing twitter posts, let’s look at how this cap affects how people read Twitter. While you could, if you were so inclined, look at one person’s Twitter feed and read it like you were reading a regular blog, virtually nobody uses Twitter this way. Instead, the default view of Twitter involves a stream of tweets created by everyone you follow, separated, not by author, but by time.

To read Twitter is to be immersed in a stream of micro blog posts, with the flow of that stream primarily dependent on how many people you follow. I currently follow 55 people, and my Twitter stream might get 10 or 20 posts an hour. If you follow a thousand people, you’ll be getting several new posts a minute. I personally feel like fifty people is the ideal number to follow. It’s about a third of Dunbar’s number, which means that it’s simple for me to have a strong sense of the identity of every person I follow.

One of the nicest qualities of Twitter is that it only takes one mouse click to follow someone—or to unfollow them. Following someone is therefore a low-stress, zero commitment affair. If it turns out that the person’s tweets don’t interest you, unfollow them and find someone more worthy of your attention.

Many new users find the unending stream of new information overwhelming; you don’t have to follow many people before there’s a new post every time you turn around. But the experience is only overwhelming if you don’t realize that Twitter requires a fundamentally different sort of attention than email or conventional blogs.

I’d lump email and conventional blogs in with books, movies, and long-form episodic TV like “The Sopranos” or “The Wire.” These formats all require sustained attention for optimum use. If you’ve got an email account and don’t read at least the subject of each incoming email, you’ll miss some vital communication. Tear 20 pages out of Anna Karenina or Treasure Island, and the experience of the entire book will be weakened by the lack of critical information. Miss a Sopranos episode, and you’ll likewise be clueless about important things that occur later in the series.

But Twitter’s different: the optimum headspace for Twitter isn’t one of sustained attention. Instead, Twitter lends itself to intermittent attention. Unlike blogs, movies, novels and so forth, your personal Twitter feed is almost certainly different than anyone else’s. There’s no unified narrative arc, so there’s no reason to feel like you’ve got to keep up with everything appearing in your feed.

In this respect, Twitter is very much like early 1980s rock radio, before the FCC and Clear Channel combined to destroy it. Back then, commercial rock radio was pretty good, and there was far more worthwhile radio programming available than you could possibly listen to.

In my case, there were at least four radio stations that reliably played music I liked, and each was on the air 24 hours a day. This tremendous abundance leads to a casual approach to consumption, and intermittent attention. I turned on the radio when I wanted some music, and turned it off when I didn’t. You just accepted that there was far more music than you could ever listen to, so there was no guilt in turning things off whenever you’d had enough.

Same goes for Twitter. As you follow more people your stream quickly grows from a trickle to a flood. Don’t worry if your stream becomes torrential; you’re under no obligation to read every tweet of every person you follow.

Something incredible happens when you casually let Twitter into your life, and follow a few dozen interesting people. You discover that these people are consistently bringing you far more interesting things to read than you could ever find on your own. And the pithy comments that accompany these links often say as much as an entire article.

As you settle into Twitter, you begin to realize that the platform would be a tremendously useful tool even if you personally never wrote a single tweet. In fact, Twitter probably rewards listening more than posting.

And that brings me to one of Twitter’s key virtues: the fact that sharing an existing tweet can be even more valuable than writing your own. Twitter actually has a “retweet” button beneath every post in your feed. Click it, and that post gets shared for all your followers to see.

Retweeting is the heart and soul of twitter. That’s because when you retweet a great post, you’re creating all sorts of value:

  • Your followers will see something wonderful that they wouldn’t see if it weren’t for you.
  • You’re giving the post you’ve retweeted the chance to go viral: it’s possible that your followers will in turn retweet it, and then they’re followers will as well, and so on.
  • The retweet feature automatically credits the original author of the tweet. Some of your followers may therefore decide to start following this person as well.
  • The person you’ve retweeted can see that you’ve helped spread the post, which means you’ll benefit from gratitude, good karma, and warm and fuzzy feelings. So much about social networking success depends upon being seen as a cool person who inspires feelings of gratitude.

Taken together, this is an amazing set of consequences considering it takes only a second to hit the retweet button. You start to see why Twitter is the ultimate platform for fomenting revolutions: political, food, or otherwise. Everything about Twitter is geared toward instant publishing, and effortless sharing. Viral communication is baked in.

If you put your Twitter address into your email signature, or in Facebook profile or blog, you’ll doubtless begin attracting a following. And if you make interesting posts, and link to useful information, your following will inevitably grow over time. Just by doing these things, I’ve now got nearly 5000 people following me, and I’ve seen some really great things happen as a result of people acting on the things I post to Twitter. Having said that, my life is so deeply enriched by the people I follow on Twitter that I’d keep using the platform daily if my entire audience unfollowed me tomorrow.

Twitter may well be the perfect tool for enabling the rapid distribution of information to spontaneously generated networks. When you think of the fluidity of events in the Middle East, could you imagine a more perfect tool to rapidly disseminate information to the people who are most ready to act? Every participant in a given struggle becomes a gatekeeper, assessing the value of incoming information and independently deciding which items get retweeted. And the people who post and retweet the most valuable information automatically build a large and influential following within their niche. And it doesn’t matter whether that niche happens to be toppling Gaddafi or Tyson Foods.

Turns out that Twitter may well be the ultimate tool for revolutionaries; political, food, or otherwise. So get a twitter account, follow the best advocates you can find, and watch what happens to your effectiveness.

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Erik Marcus publishes the Vegan.com blog, and is the author of The Ultimate Vegan Guide (Available free here), and A Vegan History: 1944-2010. Follow him on Twitter at @VeganDotCom.