Ras: Are Great Writers Great Tweeters?

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coehlo

Being a celebrity in Twitter is hard. Or at least so I imagine – since I’m far from famous myself. These thoughts occur to me in the wake of the Great Facebook Debate, in which Alexis Madrigal attributed Zadie Smith’s rejection of Facebook, another form of social media, to her identity as both a celebrity and a great writer.

Curious about the effects of celebrity on one’s social media interactions, I decided to run a little experiment and take a close look at the tweeting of three famous writers over a recent 24-hour period to see what I could learn

First, some disclosure is in order. I’ve been an avid player in Twitter for over two years now, with more than 4,000 tweets under my belt and a string of 800-plus followers in tow. If I were allowed only one form of social media, I think I’d probably choose Twitter because it provides me with the greatest amount of useful information in the least of amount of time. I also teach social media to novices in the State Department, most of whom want to learn how to use it for institutional purposes more than personal reasons.

In advising people how to turn an institution into a credible person in Twitter, I like to ask a series of questions. Here are some it’s good to answer yes to:

• Do you interact with others? That is, engage in conversation? Do you ask questions? Do you retweet good posts from others?

• Do you tweet regularly at a reasonable level ? (It’s not good to disappear from your tweet stream for a month at a time, but neither is it a good idea to tweet 10 times in two minutes.)

• Do you provide useful or entertaining information?

• Do you present at least the illusion of a real, engaging person behind the machine?

Here are questions for which no is the better answer:

• Do you put out a stream of self-promoting material – what the late Norman Mailer might have called “advertisements for myself”?

• In your effort to humanize yourself, do you have too many frivolous tweets – for example, “Had a great frappuccino just now in a little back-street Dubrovnik café after talks with local officials”?

• Do you work too hard to be hip in terms of your lingo? (Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but anybody who uses the term “kick-ass” or its ilk in Twitter is trying too hard in my book.)

Margaret Atwood

For the experiment, then, I decided to apply these criteria to three critically acclaimed writers I’ve been following in Twitter for a while: Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho; Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood; and American fiction writer Colson Whitehead, a representative of Gen X.

My question: if I didn’t know these folks are la crème, based on their successful careers in traditional publishing, would I spot them as extraordinary tweeters?

Paulo Coelho
Self-description: “writer”; 15 tweets/24 hours; 999,315 followers; following 93; follower/following ration = 10,745 to 1.
About half his tweets are in Portuguese and half in English. He’s clearly shooting for a worldwide, multilingual crowd. Much to like here: Coelho takes Twitter seriously. He does a lot of conversation, replying directly to followers. Gets in discussions about current events, the Korean crisis for example. Self-promotes but infrequently and apologetically a la this:

“If you have time, my interview yesterday to blogtalkradio http://bit.ly/DED4X (Dec 14 I will be answering questions live).”

Down side: not much here to show we’re in presence of a world-class talent.

Most interesting tweet: “A good tweet: 20% inspiration + 80% editing to fit 140 characters.” As Coelho acknowledges, this simply applies the Pareto Principle to Twitter.

Margaret Atwood
Self-description: “author”; 23 tweets/24 hours; 117,670 followers; following 117, F/FR = 1,006 to/1.

Her strength: much conversation with individuals. During the experimental period the Canadian legislature was considering a new bill on copyright, which Atwood cares about. Many tweets went back and forth on this issue. Atwood began the string with this crowdsourcing question:

“Grapevine sez Can. Copyright Bill debate has just been prorogued, no new opinions (such as mine) will be heard by the Ctte. Anyone know?”

Followed by:

“ Yo! @DavidAkin! Who hears all rumours! True or not that Copyright Ctte has cut off new input from the likes of primary creators such as Moi?”

There’s also a nice exchange about what she likes to be called, ending in this:

“Blaiwell: @JohnVerne I much prefer Margot as in Dame Margot Atwood, or simply Margo.What’s the “E” stand for? M: Eleanor, as in Aquitaine.”

My evaluation of Atwood: laudable efforts to engage with others and be a real person; trying a little too hard to be with-it for my taste.

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead
cription: “just another down on his luck carny with a pocketful of broken dreams”; 5 tweets/24 hours23,491followers; following 307, F/FR = 77 to1.

Whitehead does a lot of retweeting – sending out somebody else’s tweet that he finds interesting, a good thing. But there are also a lot of bafflers in his stream – stuff that I just don’t get. He’s clearly trying to push the limits of Twitter. Hard to tell when he’s being ironic in his own tweets or his retweeting. (This is a problem with any written medium that replicates human speech but doesn’t allow us facial expression, gesture, or tone of voice to clue us in.)

His most intriguing tweets:

“Just posted photos on Facebook taken w/a haunted camera that makes you fuzzy if you’re gonna die soon. There’s one of you!”

And the follow-up:

“Actually, I’m not on Facebook; Twitter is just a protracted vision you’re having right before the moment of death.”

So what’s the verdict on Coelho, Atwood, and Whitehead? They’re interesting tweeters: each is trying hard, each interacts with ordinary mortals, and each delivers signs of imaginative life in 140 characters. I’m guessing all three see Twitter as a way to sell more books, but all three also appear to be intellectually engaged and trying to adapt the short-message Twitter form to their sensibilities.

Are they Hall of Fame tweeters at this point? I think not. If this were a blind tweet test, I’m pretty sure I would not have picked these three out of the crowd of 311 from my personal World of Writers list in Twitter. Of course, the Twitter stream passes so quickly it would take a genius to attract attention consistently.

No candidates for the Twitter Pantheon as yet

One Response to Ras: Are Great Writers Great Tweeters?

  1. Interesting.

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