Photographing Whales

In March, I signed up for the awesome-but-difficult-to-define internet service Twitter. Ryan, my friend and a talented photographer, expressed some mild concern: “Twitter is stupid. I just don’t understand the point, or even the fun in it. It’s retarded. Completely and utterly pointless.”

Last week—of course—he signed up for his own account.

Rather than waste time trying to figure out who told whom so, I want to help Ryan fully utilize Twitter for his photography business (and you can come along while I do). It’s true, Twitter can be enigmatic. The natural question we ask as part of a pragmatic society is, “What is it for?” But that’s the wrong question. The right one is, “What, at its most basic level, does it do?”

Twitter users can write and publish anything they want, in 140-character snippets, and send it to the world from the web or their cellphone. Users “follow” others, in the same way that MySpace or Facebook users add “friends”. The effect is, users see an aggregation of all updates (or “tweets”) from everyone they follow. From there, you make your own purpose. The power of Twitter is in your own creativity. (Listen: just forget about the whales, OK?)

Some use the service to communicate with nearby friends, help track social events on-the-go, and generally aid in the whole “hanging out” phenomenon that’s so popular these days among the young folks. Others use it to distribute and comment on niche news—mostly tech stuff. It can also be used to vent frustration or just tell jokes. For most, it’s a combination of these.

Then there are others who use Twitter as a personal way to help build a brand. Geek celebrities like John Hodgman, Leo Laporte, and Jeff Macpherson (Dr. Tiki) use it in the ways described above, but—and here is the key— they also use it to promote their projects and connect with fans. (An increasing number of companies, like Zappos.com and Amazon.com, are maintaining a presence on Twitter as well.) Simply by reading short comments and updates, their followers feel connected, like they’ve gained some insider knowledge—even if twenty thousand others are reading it too. It is direct. It’s personal. It’s mobile. It’s easier than a blog. Plus, it’s fun.

This is what makes it a great tool for a word-of-mouth-based small business like Ryan’s, which targets a younger, creative, tech-saavy clientele. A Twitter link on a blog or MySpace will attract other Twitter users, and may entice curious visitors to sign up for an account of their own. As more people begin following, it opens a new front in the battle for mindshare and word-of-mouth. And that’s never a bad thing.

“OK, Conlan,” you say, “but what does a person possibly have to twitter about, really?” Good question; I couldn’t have phrased it better if I tried. The answer is, you twitter about yourself. If you run a business, you can highlight things that have to do with your business. In the case of my friend Ryan, he’s a photographer, so he can talk about photography things. To help him—and you—get started, I have some examples of possible updates he might use:

  • “On my way Downtown to shoot some senior portraits.”
  • “Editing the Spangler/Deschanel wedding. Look how sexy they are: [tinyurl link to a photo]”
  • “First person to @ reply ‘I love baby-eating commies’ gets a free 8×10 of their choice.”
  • “Bought a new wide-angle lens for the session tonight with your mom.”
  • “Just shot engagements for Hank and Jemima. She makes some killer syrup: http://www.auntjemima.com
  • “I like burning things.”
  • “Shooting [some band] tonight at [some cool place]. Come by and say hi.”
  • “Hey, everyone. @thisisconlan is so freakin’ cool. I mean, seriously.”
  • “What’s the deal with knocking on doors?”
  • “Heading to LA for the weekend to shoot a wedding and get my eyelids tattooed.”
  • “Check out my work in this month’s issue of ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not A Weekly Magazine’: [tinyurl link to website]”

As you can see, the possibilities are literarily limitless. Twitter is like the future. And in the immortal words of Doc Brown in Back to the Future, “Run for it, Marty!”