How the Chicago Writer’s Conference taught me to stop hating Twitter

Those of you who know me know that I have spent the past year trying to figure out what Twitter is good for.

Before this weekend, my general impression of Twitter was that it’s a place where everyone tweets and no one listens. In other words, a crowded, smoky, noisy bar without the music and the drinks. Why the heck would I want to go there? I mean, other than on Sunday afternoons, when I’ve got oodles of time to waste.

Over the weekend, I attended the Chicago Writer’s Conference. And there I had an epiphany.

There is a viable business use for Twitter after all.

(Hint: It doesn’t involve selling things.)

Several times during the conference I wanted to sit in on two talks at once. The conference organizers did tape everything, so theoretically I will be able to go back and listen to the talks I missed on their website at some point after the conference is over.

But I’m an impatient person, and I didn’t want to wait. So I created a stream for the conference hashtag (#cwc2013) on my Twitter page, and checked it in the evenings and between sessions. That’s how I know this comment from Doug Siebold really resonated with people even though I wasn’t able to attend his session:

DougSieboldWeddingThen again, using Twitter to eavesdrop on conference sessions has its limitations. Take this comment:

DougSieboldEditing

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Twitter’s 140 character limitation forced Samantha Hoffman to strip Siebold’s opinion of some necessary context.

Everybody’s novel would benefit from a good third-party editing, whether you are self-publishing or not. Just saying. Skipping that step gives self-publishing a bad name. Don’t do it.

Also, it was abundantly clear from Samantha’s own panel discussion later in the day that she herself views editing as a vital part of the self-publishing process. So some context was lost.

Still, lots of great writing tips turned up in that #cwc2013 stream.

If you follow the right people and the right hashtags at the right time, Twitter can be a great source of news on targeted topics.*

But tweets are ephemeral. What happens when the event is over?

At her session on social media for writers, Social Media Strategist and Apprentice Ukelele Player Shannon Downey informed me that the lifespan of the average tweet is 18 minutes.

18 minutes.

I don’t know about you, but I’m back to thinking about Twitter as a smoky bar full of shouting deaf people.

Then Shannon said that the wonderful thing about the 18-minute lifespan of a tweet is that you can send the same tweet out at different times every day for a week without bothering anybody.

Great. So Twitter is a smoky bar full of shouting deaf people who constantly repeat themselves.

As Shannon pointed out, the upside of that short lifespan for the 5% of you who generate original content on Twitter is that you can reuse your original content several times over the course of a week and save some time to do your actual job.

The downside of that 18-minute lifespan is that people who don’t want to miss any of that original content have to be very faithful about checking Twitter several times a day, which sort of impinges on their ability to do their jobs. (Yes, hashtags and lists help, but stuff still flies by fast.)

Those of you who have been following me on Twitter over the past year have probably figured out that being faithful to Twitter is not my strong suit. (I know, I know. I am so very sorry. I have been appropriately shamed and will be a much more engaged bar hopper in the future.)

In the odd moments when I did remember to check Twitter during the conference I noticed several excellent writing tips popping up in the #cwc2013 stream. I wanted an easy way to save those tweets as a PDF for future reference before they disappeared forever.

How do you preserve a hashtag’s stream?

Naturally, Twitter doesn’t provide an easy way to print a Twitter stream. You can print directly from the screen, but the right side of the tweets gets cut off, making the resulting PDF unusable. (Note to Twitter: It would be nice if you fixed that.)

So what do you do? I searched for a while and found lots of solutions for turning my own Twitter feed (or someone else’s) into a scrapbook for future use. But I wanted to archive a hashtag stream, not a user’s Twitter feed, and frustratingly, the only solution I found for doing that, Searchtastic, isn’t around anymore.

Thankfully, my husband is much better at consulting Dr. Google than I am. He found Tagboard in about three minutes. Thirty seconds later, he had set up a tagboard for me that captured the live Twitter stream of the Chicago Writer’s Conference.

My Tagboard for the Chicago Writer's Conference

My Tagboard for the Chicago Writer’s Conference

The great thing about Tagboard is not only that it updates the live feed constantly, but more importantly, it doesn’t mess up the formatting when you save that feed as a PDF. The downside is that Tagboard doesn’t work consistently with all browsers. At least, not on the Mac. I was able to craft a perfect PDF using Safari, but when I tried it with Chrome, the right-most column of tweets was partially cut off.**

Now that I have finally clued in to the fact that the best way for me personally to use Twitter is as a source of news on targeted topics and events, I’m excited to join the conversation.

Thanks, Shannon and #cwc2013.

One last thing

In case my miraculous change in attitude toward Twitter isn’t proof enough, Shannon’s talk on making social media work for writers was one of the most helpful sessions I attended this weekend. I’ll have more to say about it in the coming days, but for now, shout on people. I’m listening.

*For the record, my friends have been telling me for months to try this same approach with news events, sports, and tv shows, but as I try to be a live-in-the-moment-not-on-my-phone kind of person, I’ve never actually tried it until now.

**Update: The people who work at Tagboard are amazing. Within minutes of my commenting on Twitter that I couldn’t get my tagboard to print properly in Chrome, Joshua Decker (@jdbt) contacted me to start diagnosing the problem.

DiagnosisAwesomeI’ll let you know how it turns out.

See my entire series of articles on the Chicago Writer’s Conference.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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7 Responses to How the Chicago Writer’s Conference taught me to stop hating Twitter

  1. Tamara says:

    I’m still not convinced, but I’m listening….thanks for letting us know about your adventures in twitter…hugs, T

    • Shala Howell says:

      Key for me is to use twitter only for targeted applications (like eavesdropping on conference sessions or following reports on news events via hash tags) and gathering a broader base of news on my specific interests through careful list management (in my case I have a writing/publishing list set up to educate me on the publishing industry, as well as a list of fun folks when I am unabashedly on Twitter just to waste time). Also, only checking twitter in five minute increments every four hours or so. Otherwise time is just lost and you will never ever get it back.

      • Tamara says:

        if I decide to give it a try, I have Miranda (now 21!) to show me the ins and outs 🙂 Between the two of you, I may start using it yet.

  2. Cassandra says:

    Great post! I’ve been loving Twitter for a good stretch, but the conference last weekend really made it clear to me how much I can use it to make connections. I loved all the conversations and tips. It wasn’t possible to talk to every single attendee or presenter in person, but we sure had some good chats on Twitter (and will continue). I’m definitely a fan! And, it was great to electronically meet you! 🙂

    • Shala Howell says:

      Cassandra! Thanks for stopping by BostonWriters (now that I live in Chicago, I’m really going to have do something about my blog’s name, aren’t I?) Hmm… Well problem for another day.

      Great to meet you at cwc2013. I look forward to many happy Twitter conversations in the future. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Wordless Wednesday: Lost in a good book | CATERPICKLES

  4. Pingback: “How do I find a publisher?” Notes from the Chicago Writer’s Conference, Part 4 | BostonWriters

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