Who Needs a Twitter-lude?

By Jody DeVoll, Director of Strategic Communications, APHL

My idea of a glorious Sunday morning is a mug of freshly ground, freshly brewed espresso and the New York Times.

No doubt my love of newsprint dates me.  It’s true: I am old(er), old enough to have a nostalgic attachment to paper and other equally dated modes of communication. Does anyone else remember those tough black phones of the fifties and sixties? They never broke, not even if you threw them on the floor. Of course, you could do serious damage to your foot if it came within range of a phone projectile. And social media? That was eavesdropping on the neighborhood party line.

Northern Electric Model Telephone-500 1954

Back in the 21st century, I’m not clueless about online, interactive communication, and I’m on board with the idea that social media gives us all the chance to be correspondents. But 140 characters of reporting from daily life? Please! Who needs a Twitter-lude?

Apparently I do. Gradually Twitter — that ubiquitous platform for down-sized communication — has won my grudging respect and even affection. In hopes that my conversion experience will encourage other would-be tweeters, I offer up my preconceptions about that cute little birdie and his brethren along with the reasons that I was proven wrong, very wrong.

Preconception 1: “I don’t care about the caramel macchiato you bought at Starbucks!”

“Twitter,” I intoned, “is the communications platform for those who feel compelled to announce their latest coffee purchase.” Sure, good coffee is the elixir of life, but tell me about something that matters like TB or HIV or MRSA!

Well, it turns out that Twitter is more than an endless 140-character monologue. Though it is true that Lady Gaga with over 16 million followers reigns supreme in Twitterdom, you can find substantive information about no less than #TB, #HIV and #MRSA as shown in the following tweets:

In fact, searching for a hashtag (i.e., word preceded by a  # sign) on Twitter may be the fastest way to keep up with a field — any field.  If it weren’t for Twitter, I would never have discovered @museumnerd — not that you have to be entranced with the idea of sleeping overnight in a New York City museum in order to benefit from Twitter.  Pick your interest: horses, kayaking, hiking, cooking or even trivia. Did you know that a crocodile can’t stick its tongue out? That’s got to be a good thing.

Preconception 2: Twitter is for those who think pre-eighties music is “retro.”

If you’re young enough to consider pre-eighties music to be “retro,” you’re the right age for tweeting — or so I thought.

When I began my explorations of Twitter, I expected to find Ari Shapiro, NPR’s hip White House correspondent, but not Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour who is some years his senior. Yet Judy is posting analyses of the not-so-super #supercommittee on her Twitter feed, and she is not unique. Arianna Huffington and Bill O’Reilly — who appear to have little else in common — both have a strong presence on Twitter. Neither would qualify as “young and hip.” (Sorry, Arianna.) And this phenomenon is not limited to the broadcast industry. A growing number of Twitter users are old enough to have blasted “American Pie” from their dorm room windows.

Preconception 3: Please, save me! Not more information!

At last count, I had two email accounts, three phone lines, two radio stations and four television channels which I follow regularly, plus more magazine subscriptions than I can count plus the Web, Facebook and texting (that is, when I remember to text). Why do I need another source of information?

It turns out that Twitter allows me to filter incoming information so that I see only the content that interests me. My new best friend, TweetDeck, lines up tweets containing my key words in rows, so I can go to one column to learn the latest in newborn screening and another to check out food safety news. Yes, I have added a communications channel, but I’ve reduced my information overload.

Preconception 4: Shouldn’t we be introduced first?

As a reserved, “tea at 4:00 — sherry at 5:00 — roast beef at 7:00” WASP, I was surprised to learn that people actually make friends and build professional contacts via Twitter. Why would anyone respond to a query from a stranger? I mean, shouldn’t we be introduced first?

But my social media tutors assure me that Twitter users routinely reach out to new contacts. Not to be left behind, I’ve begun to tweet out of my shell. Now I’m following a graduate of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Cairo University, whom I “met” through a CDC webinar. While pursuing her software engineering diploma, @mrrizkallah maintains interests in tropical infectious diseases, bioinformatics, phage genomics and politics. Please don’t ask me to explain phage genomics, but I can tell you that in a recent tweet, she contrasted the size of pro- and anti-SCNF demonstrations in Cairo using a Google Earth map. It was evident at a glance that the anti-forces — those advocating removal of the military from political power and transition to democracy — far outnumbered those demonstrating in favor of the status quo.  This was information that I could not derive from television, and it was meaningful to me because it was coming direct from my contact in Cairo.

So there you have it, my tale of conversion. To date, I have resisted tweeting about the artful cappuccino I imbibed at Jules Coffee House in my hometown of LaCrosse, WI, but all bets are off once I add Twitter to my Kindle Fire. And Jules, you folks need to be on Twitter.


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