In my previous post, “Does social media redefine neighborly interaction?” I put to bed the myth that the downfall of western civilization is being caused by a bunch of Gen Y-ers banging out status updates on Facebook and Twitter.  But I recently found myself in the same situation that anyone with a Twitter account has undoubtedly found themselves in:  Having a non-user ask: “What the hell is Twitter?  Explain it to me.”

I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you’ve had a conversation that has gone something like this.

Baby Boomer:  “So what’s this ‘Twitter’ I’ve been hearing so much about?”
You:  “Um…well, it’s a website.  Actually more like an application.  You can post status updates there for anyone you’re friends with to read.”
BB:  “Status update?”
You:  “Yeah, like on Facebook.”
BB:  “I don’t get the fascination with Facebook either.”
You:  “Well, um…okay.  I guess it’s only necessary for certain people.  I work in marketing, so I have to be up on this stuff.”
BB:  “Okay.  But I still don’t get what it is.”
You:  “You just write a little blurb answering the question, ‘What’s up?’”
BB:  “But nobody asked me.  If they wanted to know, wouldn’t they call?”
You:  (incoherent mumbling)

(Now, before anyone gets all huffy, I have previously pointed out that there is not much of a generation gap when it comes to technology and social media.  Early adopters have been and will be early adopters at any age, and the Boomer generation is the fastest growing set of online users.  But in my personal experience and my twenty-something friends’ personal experiences, this is a common occurrence.)

Twitter’s headline of “What are you doing”? is pretty accurate.  I usually use the line above, that it’s simply answering the question “What’s up?” for people to read.  As to why Twitter may be a more beneficial and time-saving way to keep in touch than traditional email, I’ll again refer to Clive Thompson’s New York Times Magazine piece.  In an earlier post, I relayed the term “ambient awareness” to describe a person’s Twitter feed.  Thompson relates Twitter updates to current media forms that everyone will understand.  “…Awareness tools aren’t as cognitively demanding as an e-mail message. E-mail is something you have to stop to open and assess. It’s personal; someone is asking for 100 percent of your attention. In contrast, ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines.”

So this is where you, the reader, use the comments field.  Because unlike the newspapers of yesteryear, this is an interactive forum.  How do you explain Twitter?  As you can see, I have a tricky time doing it, and the message isn’t always consistent.  But that doesn’t for an instant make me think that at this day in age, at least some form of social media contact is a necessity to function in the modern technological world.

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