Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Twitter and the imperfect conversation

It's no secret that I am a huge fan of Twitter. I have TweetDeck up for better than half the day on average, either while I am on Twitter, or running in the background while I am working on something else. And one of the biggest uses I have for Twitter is to engage in conversations. I am closing in on my 18,000th tweet, and over 75% of those have been replies to someone else. So I spend most of my time on Twitter talking to others.

Which I love! But in the past few months, I have been seeing some less than perfect communication happening between myself and others on Twitter. More than once, I have been involved in an exchange with someone on Twitter, then after wards they would blog about the discussion, and usually incorrectly identify my stance and the points I was trying to make.

Or recently, I got in what I thought was a very mild disagreement with someone on Twitter. At one point someone replied to me to say we were arguing, and I clarified that we were having a civil disagreement. But a day or so later, I discovered that this person had unfollowed me. My first thought was that it must be an error by Twitter, so I replied to them asking if they meant to unfollow me, and never got a reply. So that answered that question.

And what's worse, I have heard from others on Twitter that they have had similar issues. That they would suddenly find themselves in arguments when they thought they were actually agreeing with the other person. That someone would repeatedly mis-state their position (even after they clarified it to them) or they would later discover that someone had unfollowed them after what they thought was a civil disagreement.

What does all this mean? Well I am going to assume that it means that *I* am not doing a good job of accurately expressing myself, or accurately reading what others are saying and feeling. It means I am going to state my stance, re-state once if there's confusion, then drop it. If I see an argument developing, I am going to wave the 'we should agree to disagree' flag MUCH earlier, or invite the person to continue via email so we can better explain our positions.

What about you? Are you seeing the same thing with your conversations on Twitter? Until I can decide differently, I am going to assume that most of these imperfect conversations are my fault. What have you seen?


Jay Baer said...

Good post Mack.

Twitter suffers from the same malady as email, but in a more acute way. It's incredibly difficult to fully interpret nuance and context in 140 characters.

I've experienced the same Twitter miscommunication as you, and the number of times I've been misinterpreted (or done the misinterpreting) by email is in the dozens.

It sure would be nice to append a short audio file to Tweets to provide a sense of irony, anger or other emotions that letter and numbers just can't convey.

Does it make Twitter less useful? In some cases. But I fear the larger issue of generations of Americans that can only communicate in emoticons and less than complete sentences. Doesn't bode well for future novel writers!

Heather said...

I think it really means Quantum Physics is right. Realities are individual. While you think you're saying one thing on Twitter, the other person reads something completely different because it's all our own reality.

In fact, for all I know, you may read my comment and it may say something about how much I love Bucks pizza instead of quantum physics.

Bucks pizza does rock.

Anonymous said...

I haven't ran into this specific issue, at least that I am aware of, but I can see how problematic this could be.

140 characters is not enough to get your point across. Even less so if your counterpart in the discussion has already made up there mind on what "your" position is, on your behalf.

I think you are right to move that conversation to email, phonecall, or even blog about your point of view if your concerned about public perception.

People need to accept that sometimes there are 2 sides to a story and it is ok for that to occur. You issue generally only happens when a persons ego won't allow them to leave it alone. Thats not you're fault.

Anonymous said...

I think that part of the problem is when we tweet, we condense out thought into 140 characters and sometimes this leads to losing the words/phrasing that set the 'tone'. The idea is there, but sometimes sounds more abrasive than if it were spoken or typed in a few longer sentences. I try to take a 2nd and 3rd look at what I tweet before sending it out there to ry to avoid this, but it's all down to personal interpretation, so sometimes offense is unavoidable. Also, humour translates differently when written - some people will read a tweet and laugh, others will be mortally offended and un-follow - we can't all agree, all the time - that's the fun of it.

Anonymous said...

I had very similar thoughts last night! I agree -- not everything is always perfectly translated via blogs, tweets or even emails. All we can do is try to express our opinions. And, at some point, just realize that not everyone is going to agree and walk away.

One sort-of related thought: I find it interesting that the Internet gives people this sense of security -- like they can say whatever they want whenever they want. Instead of simply asking someone to clarify their viewpoint or asking for more details, statements are made on comment boards that would never be expressed if that person was in your office having a cup of coffee. (I live in Orlando and the Sentinel's comment boards are filled with hateful remarks. It's shocking to read sometimes!) Even when we do disagree, we should all remember to be respectful of those with differing viewpoints. Otherwise, it makes people want to disengage -- and doesn't that eliminate the "social" from social media?

Mack, thanks for such a thoughtful post and for articulating my thoughts. Saves me a blog post. :)

Heather (@prtini)

Anonymous said...

Any electronic communication lacks the context non-verbal language provides. In fact, non-verbal communication is far more important in human interactions than what we say. Shrink it all into 140 or less characters, and you're bound to be misunderstood.

I've heard people say (blog, tweet) that Twitter helps them express themselves better, more succinctly. A basic Strunk & White rule was, Omit needless words. Twitter takes it to the extreme.

It's not you, Mack. It's all of us. Or blame the medium, if you will.

Mack Collier said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I think this also ties into my recent thought that every conversation has three sides, your's, mine, and everyone else's.

Anonymous said...

This so reminds me of the earlier days of blogging. However, when the discussions occurred within a post through comments or went from post-to-post at least you could follow the chain of thought. What makes Twitter so difficult is it's hard for followers is to backtrack tweets. Sure you can look at your own @ or add # but not everyone all the time includes those.

imp ... you always add value and try more than many to be fair, caring and giving. i would follow you to the ends of twitterville ;-)

Chuck said...

I couldn't agree more with Jason. I had a similar, if not much smaller experience through #journchat the other night. The conversations move so quickly in that forum, and on Twitter in general, that it's often difficult to decipher intent without taking a step back and then missing a chunk of the conversation. I like your tactic of asking the person to continue the exchange offline through e-mail.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I have been watching the same thing, and posted about a similar issue last week. Seems we do need to be extra careful when not in person as the absence of the context upon which we can frame our communication creates a clarity challenge.

Unknown said...

I'm always amazed at the people that see twitter as a communication tool. What about the twittersphere even remotely resembles a real life conversation? It's mix of random, disjointed sound bites and lack of real depth make it the perfect storm for miscommunication and misunderstanding. I find twitter to be a fascinating tool, and it's opened the door to many wonderful (real) conversations, but in no way should people think what happens on twitter represents true communication.

Anonymous said...

Yep, text-based communication is always going to suffer "lack of nuance" issues -- no facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc. (Isn't it supposed to be something like 90% of communication is non-verbal?)

Reduce online comms even further to 140 characters and the risk of misunderstandings becomes even greater. And the difficulty/frustration of trying to clarify your point without going on and on for many tweets...

Add on top of that the licence some people grant themselves to act less than civilly because they're invisible? Oy vey.

I think your plan is the right one -- know when to just stop. Know what conversations are NEVER going to get resolved via Twitter (but suggest another venue if they're nevertheless interesting or valuable). Plus, I think you develop a sense for which people/conversations to just not engage with in general.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you should blame yourself if someone misinterprets something you've written. There is no inflection here, no facial expressions, no tonal qualities. Misunderstandings will happen more easily in this environment, where text is the only voice that speaks to the common ear.

I check my "tribe" daily for those who unfollow. Mostly I am looking for the scammers and spammers who only follow me to gain a number, and quickly unfollow once I have followed back. They are playing a presentation game and could care less about their tribe. They only care about the power in their total numbers. I do not want to be just another number they can exploit for their own profit or ego. Would you?

I have my small group of expected non-followers like @feliciaday, @wilw, @ev, @bradpitt, etc. I dont expect the superstars to follow me. Will Wheaton is right on about that when he states, it would be a full time job if he tried to follow everyone who follows him. He could never keep up with the stream. Im cool with that. I enjoy their posts for a diff reason, mostly vouyeristic in nature.

As for your post, I am glad you wrote it and brought this subject forward. Good luck and try not to worry so much about your followers. Go ahead and trim your unfollowers, it is clear they are not from your tribe! If they want to be in your tribe, they will re-follow you and hang around longer than one or two conversations- even when they don't think they agree with you.

Unknown said...

I agree with just about all the comments -- it's really hard to explain yourself completely in 140 characters.

For me, it's also rattling to feel like everyone out there can see your disagreement with someone. I've been especially sensitive to this since I'm newer to Twitter. It takes a little bit of courage to put yourself out there.

Thanks for the post.

Michael Lindsay said...

I've not so much seen it in Twitter itself, but since I am posting my Tweets as my Facebook status, I have definitely had some comments back on Facebook that I REALLY could not understand. Even going back and rereading my tweets. I thing the "quantum physics" response is definitely correct. Thanks for the reminder for us to be as accurate as possible in 140 characters!

Anonymous said...

There is another angle to consider. Some people like confrontation. They thrive on it and look for every chance to provoke another. Those people are not easily appeased by reason because they are not looking for harmony. Perhaps you have encountered a few people like this on Twitter? When I encountered one, I unfollowed and blocked her.

Anonymous said...

On second thought, after checking your bio and seeing that you have over 6ooo followers yet only follow 2700, less than 50%- I am not sure why you care about one person dropping you. You are worried about how you are being misinterpreted? You think it is your fault they dropped you?

I think you should care more about the 3300 people following you than the one person who chose to unfollow you.

In my opinion, based upon the number of people you choose to NOT follow, your rant appears hypocritical. btw-my opinion, along with 1.29, will buy you a cup of medium coffee at 7-11.

Mack Collier said...

Christine it's interesting that you say that, because I have heard from others that they feel that some people are intentionally arguing with other Twitter users, in order to get more followers. I didnt buy into this, until a few months ago I got into a VERY minor disagreement with someone on Twitter, barely lasted 5 mins. But later he showed me a screenshot he took of his inbox during our conversation, and he had gained like 15 followers in those few mins. WELL above his daily average.

I'm not sure. I do know that I am painfully aware now that whatever I say on Twitter is going out to over 6,000 people. So the cynic would say that's 6,000 opportunities for disagreement ;)

Mack Collier said...

Rick as I told you on Twitter, it's not that I am upset about losing a follower, I lose followers every day on Twitter. What concerns me is that I had what I thought was a very civil disagreement with a follower, which led to them unfollowing me. If that person unfollowed me, does that mean others could as well? Should I change how I use Twitter, or was this an isolated incident?

BTW I wish I could follow everyone that follows me, but it would mean I couldn't interact as much as I want to know, which is why I am using Twitter. Your bio says you are following 400 people. I remember when I was following 400, and can tell you that it was a completely different experience than what I am doing now, which is following almost 7 times that number.

Unfortunately, my attention doesn't scale infinitely. I wish you better luck on managing your Twitterstream when there are another 2,300 people in it.

Anonymous said...

Mack, great post. I've found this to be common in many social networks that I've belong to, even when there are emoticons involved. :D The fact is people are people and some will just never see eye-to-eye (or tweet-to-tweet in this case)...and that's okay, right?

As for being misunderstood with my tweets...that happens to me all the time. I think the more people we follow/follow us back we'll find that people will question/challenge our thoughts. actions, positions, ethics, etc. Personally, I love a good debate, so it doesn't bother me. But I can see how it can all be, unfortunately, misconstrued.

Recently, I've observed the same thing on Twitter and my blog. Yesterday's post on Ghostwriting (a controversial topic to being with!) is a great example. Heather Whaling (@prtini) and I were having a little debate until one little less than fair comment was made about myself & my readers. Was it intentional, perhaps not; was it clarified, yes. But the damage was already done, the conversation went downhill and so did our Twitter relationship...and that's a shame. I enjoyed debating with Heather, but sometimes we need to agree to not agree and to not move forward with the relationship. And, again, that's okay.

What people forget sometimes is that social media and its authenticity, transparency, and honesty is a double-edge sword. People feel like they can say what they want (whether it's a compliment, debate, backhanded compliment or an outright insult) when they want...and when they get called to the carpet, they think it's okay to obfuscate and act like they said nothing wrong. But for better or worse social media leaves a footprint and it is public.

From a business perspective, companies need to learn/understand these types of interactions. It's an important lesson that you've pointed out Mack.

BTW, Mack, I saw some of the conversations that you are referring to here in this post and I can say that I thought you were very clear. Or, perhaps we just think alike. That said, I don't think anyone should put miscommunication on themselves after *clearly* stating their position. Sometimes it *is* the other person...

Binx said...

When it comes to Twitter, to paraphrase Chuck Berry, Less is more--unfortunately, less is sometimes more confusion.

Anonymous said...

Beth reminded me of a post I wrote about transparency being a double-edged sword. It stemmed from a convo I had with Marc Meyer about context being lost on Twitter and this is a great example of it, Mack.

Things get misunderstood but there's also an ego problem here with people who get confronted with a different point of view to their discussion. Two-sides to a story help grow and evolve an idea but I've seen people, as you mentioned, become offended, take things out of context and ultimately, unfollow because of disagreeing sides.

To each their own, as its their right to use Twitter how they please but have a bit of respect if there are more sides to the story than just yours.

Anonymous said...

I have had this happen to me as well. I think it's the nature of conversing online. I remember when everybody started emailing, and there was a lot of miscommunication with that as well. While social media is a great way to meet and network with other people,it does come with the risk of misunderstanding. I find this happens on twitter because some people forget exactly what they tweeted and don't understand your reply to them. That being said, it's still the best way to reach the widest audience, and I think when somebody gets offended by a response, they should take a step back and analyze what is actually being said.

Anonymous said...

I have the same feeling as many of the commenters - getting tone across in a tweet does not always happen. This is the reason we use emoticons, even though we might not want to. It's a tony way to ensure that your point gets across. However, in the instance of a civil disagreement, it is a grey area, since the other person will put whatever emotional stamp on your tweets that they see fit. I'm not sure this sort of issue will ever really be able to be resolved.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. As I read it, I couldn't help but wonder - are we expecting too much from 140 characters?

Anonymous said...

Hi Mack,

I had some experiences with some massive unfollow after I posted an article or after I tweeted something. First I was confused but later on I discovered that something good happened to me.

People that want to stop following me because one of my articles or because something I said or some SEO statement I've made, they should do it - they should stop following me. I really don't want to have near me people that don't want to be there.

Let's say you have a civilized disagreement with someone but the discussion goes on and on and the person just won't shut up. Finally it all ends and after a couple of days the same guy starts another discussion about something else I said. I really don't want that to happen.

So if someone has just a small thought of stop following me they should do it.


Jen S McCabe said...

There are three components to any forth of communication, whether it's a tweet, or a verbal chat, or a letter...

1. Intention
2. Expression (the actual words)
3. Interpretation

Guess how many of those we have control over? :)

The best you can do is exactly what it sounds like you've done - try to clear up any miscommunication with a forthright attempt to bridge the divide.

Best -

Anonymous said...

I just had this very thing happen to me. And tried, very gracefully, to say "let's just agree to disagree and be friends." He wouldn't let it alone. Unfortunately, it was about politics and I KNOW BETTER! And I even told him that. But after calling me "ignorant" (on the issues, not in general) - based on no information from me so as to make such a statement, and then continuing to harass me via DM, I finally decided to unfollow. Who needs the aggravation?

And, anyone following our 'conversation' would clearly know that I was making every effort to just stop the discussion and move on.

This former Twifriend was absolutely relentless. It was actually a little unsettling, especially since he then (realizing he could no longer DM me) attacked me in the "public" forum. Once again, I sent a very, very nice reply and asked him to just stop the discussion and move on.

And that's the long version. Ha. Bottom line, sometimes its you, and sometimes its them. But I venture a guess that it's not you as often as you might think. A forum like Twitter brings many, many different people together and you sometimes have to learn by trial and error what to say in "public" and what its just better off keeping to yourself and moving on.

I know that I will!!

David D. "Griff" Griffith said...

"I survived the alt.2600.warez flame wars and have the t-shirt to prove it!" -- http://bit.ly/1Kwbi

Miscommunication and Dysfunction

Studies say that communication is 7% words, 38% tone and 55% body language.

Naturally then, miscommunication is an inherant weakness of print. It is only further aggrevated when reduced to just 140 spaces, allowed little or no context and being without any real relationship.

My hat's off to you for doing so well with the tools available.

Heck, I fight with my wife all the time and I've slept with her! Not to mention the fact that been married for 17 years and have spent 12 of the happiest years of our lives together.

I also recall a sociologist acquaintance describing that nearly all of the woes to society are proportional.

My wife was afraid to move to the US because of the media's coverage of violence; fatal shootings on high school and college campus' and the like. It does seem extreme. (For point of fact, even one incident would be extreme.)

Yet when you look at the fact that there are more than 300,000,000 million Americans and just 15,000,000 Dutch then the odds of such incidents occurring are proportionally larger in the US.

Therefore I would put forward an argument that if/when 5% of the population worldwide are @$$holes then there are a great deal more @$$holes in America than in Holland, etc...


Welcome to Twitterland's proportional economy of scale. Twitter is growing and it won't be all good. As the numbers of users increase, and your own following increases, expect even more of this to occur.

On the other hand it won't all be bad. Not to worry, I'd say. There are people who get it, or at least try.

And with growth, the numbers among the remaining 95% are growing too!


Fortunately, I do not foresee a repeat of Usenet experiences.

There's hardly anyone left standing that can even write in 133t!

|/\/\ (_+()|\||\|/-\ /\/\|_|§|-| -/()|_||~ /\/\||\||) \/\/|+|-| |_|=-|=-+ |}! -- http://bit.ly/1AWlM

Unknown said...

Mack, it's not you. I truly believe it is the times in which we are living. People are a little more on edge because of the economy. The fears, worries, and survival tactics are occupying most of the brain cells and coloring the way they read things. With the additional distractions it's very easy to misunderstand and be misunderstood. I have had more than a few misfires lately which made me want to shut up and sit in a corner.

Karen Swim

Nigel Dean said...

Although I haven't had a similar problem yet (though with only 50 tweets it is early days yet). I think that one problem is that with only 140 characters it's easy to sound more short and unfriendly than you would normally do. If everyone realises that constraint we will all get along a lot better!

It's not you - it's them. Get your act together, there are bigger problems in the world!


Jason said...

I think this is very true, and you're handling it the best way possible. I have trouble just getting people in a conversation, which probably stems from the same reason, miscommunication. Its refreshing to see someone take responsibility for their own communication though. If everyone acted as you have the internet would be a better place.