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My 140conf Talk: Twitter as Publishing

I spoke at Jeff Pulver’s 140conf a few weeks ago. My subject was the continuity of what I do, from publishing through conferences through my presence on twitter. I tried to draw the connections, and to explain how “social media” means drawing from, curating, and amplifying the voices of a community. I suggest that the role of an editor and publisher is analogous to the role of a point guard in basketball, handing out “assists” and improving the performance of his or her teammates. After all, I point out, I couldn’t possibly tweet enough to cover all the topics I am interested in. But by using my retweets to build the visibility of others, I can create and foster a community that cares about the ideas, trends, and people that I care about.

My talk starts about 1:40 into the video, after a few comments from Jeff Pulver, the conference organizer. I’ve provided a lightly edited and linkified transcript below, for those of you who don’t have time to watch the entire 15 minute video. If you do have the time, you can watch the video from the entire two-day conference at http://www.140conf.com/watchit.

What I learned from Twitter

Hi. I want to talk to you a little bit about Twitter and media. I’m a publisher. I’m a publisher in print. And it turns out I’m also a publisher on Twitter. I want to explain the roots of media and how that connects with what we’re doing in this newest form of media.

When you think about the original use case of Twitter, which @Leisa described so wonderfully as “ambient intimacy,” it’s really news from your close friends. But it’s news nonetheless. And sometimes the news from individuals becomes news that matters to a whole lot more people. When someone in Tehran today is reporting their personal news, it’s news that matters to all of us. And so you can see the continuum between the personal and the international in those moments.

But that continuum exists all the time, and it’s existed always in media.

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was part of the newspaper revolution of the 1700s. (We forget that newspapers were once new media.) And what was fascinating in this account was how being a postmaster was a competitive advantage in the newspaper business because you got the news from people in remote towns first. And, of course, Franklin, being a very canny businessman, used this very much to his advantage in building his news empire. He actually built up a chain of printing shops and cities all around the country and eventually retired rich in his mid-forties and then went on to become a scientist and inventor.

But when I think about this process of news, we think about it today often in its bastardized version. That is we hear about these crumbling news empires where people can’t continue to make the kinds of profits that they made before. And we think that being in the news media is about making money. We think that being in the news media is about having a massive audience. What I believe about media is that it’s about serving a community. When I started as a book publisher, I didn’t start by saying, “Wow, where’s the money? What are the hot topics? What should I publish about?” Instead, I was embedded in a community of technical people. And what we said was, “Whoa, there’s no good documentation on vi. There’s no good documentation on sed and awk — all of these obscure UNIX programs.” When we started, we were a consulting company. And in our spare time, we started writing the books that we wished we had and that the people we knew wished they had. And guess what? It turned out that many of those books had a very big audience.

But we didn’t do it because we were going for the audience first; we did it because we were trying to serve a community. We found the community. First, we were writing our own experiences. So, for example, I wrote a number of our early books. There was very little documentation for any of the early Unix programs. And I would figure stuff out. I would write it down, and I would share it with other people. And then they shared right back. In particular, our best seller in the late ’80s was a book about a now long defunct program called UUCP which was a predecessor to the internet that let us all connect over dial-up lines. It required very complicated chat scripts to talk to different modems and different kinds of hardware. And, of course, I didn’t have all of the hardware that people were using. So people would always send me in notes. I’d get an email, “Hey, here’s the chat script for the AT&T 5510 port contender.” And I would just drop it right into the book. And that book over five years grew from an 80-page tutorial that I’d written into a 250 page comprehensive book written by a community. So I was effectively a focal point and an amplifier for that community of users.

I’ve tried to carry that on throughout my career. I eventually defined my job as a publisher as the job of finding interesting people and then amplifying their voices.

In the mid 90s, I became a conference producer. And here’s the reason I did it. In 1996, we published the second edition of our book Programming Perl. The book buyer at Borders told me it was the top 100 books in any category in the previous year. And I thought, “How odd that Perl isn’t being covered by any of the traditional computer news media.” It was never mentioned in InfoWorld or any of the “media” of the computer industry. And I thought, “Wow, that’s because there’s no company behind it. It’s just a network of individuals.” And I said, “I’m going to actually try to raise the profile of this community.” So I actually brought them together. I organized that first Perl conference. And it felt a lot like this [conference]. It was a gathering of people who were [already] connected. They all knew each other. The dominant first line of people meeting for the first time was, “Oh, you’re Larry…. You’re Randall.” It was like the online become real. And so I realized that a conference, too, is a way of bringing together and organizing a community.

And so this is what I do in my conference business. I’m effectively selecting, noticing and then trying to use the platform that I have built to amplify the wisdom and the knowledge of the people in my community.

So fast-forward to Twitter. I started using Twitter. I played around with it. Didn’t do much with it. Kind of went on to other things. And then one day I looked up and said, “Whoa, 5,000 people are following my updates. I should start offering them something.” Now a lot of what I do in my day is I read. I read stuff and I find interesting things and I pass them on to my editors. Or I hear things. I spend a lot of time in email and chat and meetings. And so I’m getting all of this input. And so what I did was I started publishing chunks of that input. The most common thing I did was to retweet things that I saw on Twitter. And I actually even started “retweeting” things that I saw in email. So you’ll see in a lot of my tweets, I’ll say, “Via so-and-so in email.” They’re not even on Twitter.

What I’m doing is [acting as] an aggregator and a distributor of content. And what I really try to do in my Twitter feed is to build my community. One of the reasons so many of my tweets are retweets is because I realized I can’t possibly cover all of the topics I’m interested in. I would give you what @sonamoon calls “stream fatigue.” If I tweeted — in fact, I did this early on when I was not thinking. Sometimes I would blast out 30 tweets in an hour. And then I went, “Whoa, whoa. That’s just not right.”

So I actually started curating my tweet stream. I use a text file, and I basically form the tweet and then I paste it into the file. And I say, “Okay. I’ll go back and look at that and figure out later whether I should actually post it.” And then I try to do a mix of the various topics I’m following. I’m really interested in, for example, Government 2.0. (And, by the way, Jack, we’ve got to have that conversation because I want you to give that talk at my Gov 2.0 Summit in September. That was just awesome.) I’m interested in alternative energy. I’m interested in the future of media. I’m interested in all of these technology topics. Now I can’t actually tweet as much as I’d like to about [any of them.]

If you look at people who use Twitter like old media, let’s say the New York Times, they start basically tweeting their headlines. Now think about that for a moment. Okay? How many headlines do you think there are in a day in the New York Times? They’ve got to pick and choose. So if I were just tweeting about O’Reilly, I couldn’t do justice to everything that I publish. We have books. We have articles. We have conference events, all of these talks. And there are people in my own organization sending me links all the time saying, “Hey, could you give some attention to this?” Because, of course, I have lots of followers. And so it has some value [when I tweet]. But I’m not thinking about that; I’m thinking about how do I add value to the community. So I try to restrict the amount of O’Reilly content.

And, instead, I say, “How can I actually start to build the team, the people who I follow?” So I say gosh, if you’re interested in venture capital, follow Fred Wilson. So I retweet Fred. If you’re interested in the financial crisis, follow Paul Kedrosky. So I retweet Paul. If you want to follow energy, follow Chris Nelder, @nelderini. And so I retweet him. What I’m effectively doing is, I’m building a team. And I’m actually handing out assists. If you think of me, I’m a little bit like a point guard in basketball. I’m trying to identify the best people in a community of whom I’m following, and I try to use my tweets to build their following so that the news I care about gets broadcast more widely. Because I can’t retweet everything they do, but I want to make sure that they’re in the rotation; that they get the ball. And so in some sense, I’m trying to become the voice of the communities that I care about and to find an audience that cares about me, not about me, sorry — about the same things that I do.

And I think that [is] one of the lessons here for anybody involved in Twitter, and particularly anybody who’s thinking that Twitter is going to lead them to the next media empire. You see these people saying, “I could have millions of followers and have such an impact.” That’s really not the point. The point is to figure out how you can add value to the community that you’re a part of. That’s really the secret of social media. It’s about amplifying a community.

There’s a great example of this in some social network analysis that was done of congressional Twitterers. I forget who did it, but it was somebody in the UK. And they found that a relatively obscure Texas congressman named John Culberson is the central node in the congressional Twitter network. Now why is that? Turns out he’s the guy who engages in the most conversations. He responds to his fellow congress people versus the ones who just broadcast themselves. And it was kind of interesting, I went to see Culberson. Politically, we’re incredibly far apart. I’m quite liberal, Democrat in many ways. And he’s an amazing Jeffersonian Republican. But I really warmed to the guy. We started talking, and we just had this immediate mind meld. I saw the connection between what he does and how he does it and Jefferson’s vision of America. He waved under my nose this letter of Jefferson in which he talked about the delegation of authority between levels of government all the way down as it ends up to each man on his own farm. Okay. Well, we’re not each on our own farm anymore. But the idea is that each of us matters and there’s this nervous system effectively that extends from the center of our government out to each of us. And that our role is to be active synapses in that nervous system I think is central to a vision of how we can remake America and remake the world today.

We have to connect with each other. We have to build on each other. And we have to take the time and the effort to weave a community of people with common interests. We have to take the time to build up the people who we care about. I use a phrase at O’Reilly as a motto, which is, “Create more value than you capture.” That is, if you’re trying to think of what you do as a media practice, think about it as creating value for your community and eventually that community will create value for you. Thank you very much.

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  • http://friendfeed.com/christianburns Christian Burns

    Wish there was an audio only version

  • http://www.tweetmystery.com Jan Kozlowski

    Great article! Figuring out how to use Twitter as well as your motto “Create more value than you capture” were the motivations behind our Twitter based, live, semi-improvisational story telling experiment, Tweet Mystey of Death. We were curious to see if a group of 9 authors could tweet together for six weeks and manage to tell a fun, entertaining and cohesive story that other people could follow. We’re in the middle of week 2 right now and so far, we are gaining followers and having a blast. Check us out at @Tweet_Mystery and http://www.tweetmystery.com for more information.

  • http://afewwords.posterous.com Mark Pruett

    “now long defunct program called UUCP”

    Yikes! We still use uucp for some tasks.

    It’s not quite dead yet, Tim!

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Wow, cool, Mark. Would love to know what you still use it for.

  • http://www.beyond-html.com Michael Floyd

    The role of any great editor is to both filter in and filter out, then organize and package in ways that are interesting. In magazine publishing we start with a theme, then look for content to match it. Authors are the editor’s tools—they tell a story, convey expertise, and point us in new directions. Ultimately we are all enriched by this highly collaborative process.

    Thank you for making the point so clear.
    (and say “hello” to Dale for me.)

  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Michael Nielsen

    Mark Tovey, editor-in-chief of Worldchanging Canada, explained Worldchanging to me with a beautifully evocative phrase: “We’re in the business of attentional philanthropy”. The way I interpret what you’re saying is that the quality of our community – the human race as a whole – is determined in part by the network of connections in that community. Sometimes there are connections missing that would make the world a better place, and you’re trying to figure out what those missing connections are, and then doing things that nurture them. It’s attentional philanthropy, broadly construed. It’s also a form of wealth creation: you’re increasing the bridging capital in the world. Seems like a wonderful win-win situation – it’s not like there’s a scarcity of retweets – so you can can create as much of this wealth for your readers (and for you) as you wish.