Is Twitter Work?

In 168 Hours, I talk about trying to distinguish between “work” and “not-really-work.” Work means activities that are advancing you toward your career goals. I like this definition, because it forces us to examine how we spend our hours closely. We do plenty of things at work that are not-really-work, even if they look like it. A meeting that you didn’t need to attend, or that went on long past the point of diminishing returns is, by this definition, disguised and ineffective leisure time. On the other hand, coffee with a friend, during which you discuss your career plans, is work.

Of course, few things are ever black and white, and social media inhabits that great gray area. I have had an active Twitter presence (@lvanderkam) for about 6 months. It is insanely addictive; I’d estimate that I check it several times a day. As someone who is trying to market a product (a book), I like the idea of being able to casually reach many people, without all the infrastructure involved in maintaining an email newsletter or (so retro!) an actual postal mailing list.

But is Twitter work? If I’m tracking my 168 hours, should it be work or leisure?

In the “work” category, I have a few data points. Twitter does drive some people to this blog, where they can learn more about me and my work. Twitter also enables me to scan lots of people in real time — for instance, when I needed to buy a ticket to BlogHer, which was sold out. I searched for people offering to sell a ticket, and (with some help from other folks too), scored one. BlogHer has already produced several media opportunities (of course, whether media leads to selling books is another matter… but…) It enables me to see pithy feedback from readers who might not contact me directly, because I can search for “168 Hours” or my name.

Reading Twitter may also sometimes count as work in a non self-promotional way. I’ve followed more than a few links myself to things that look interesting. Since I am constantly looking for story ideas, this gives me exposure to articles I might not have otherwise read. I am reminded, casually, when acquaintances have articles or books coming out, if I happen to see it.

And, of course, when I got an email saying Martha Stewart was following me on Twitter, that was pretty exciting.

But there are also several data points in the non-work category. For starters, despite the time and attention I have devoted (willingly! it’s addictive!) to Twitter over the past 6 months, this has had a fairly low payoff. Of the past 7000 visitors to this blog, 90 have come directly from Twitter. Granted, I only have about 650 followers. But several folks with far more impressive numbers (in the 5 figures) have tweeted or re-tweeted links to this blog. So we are talking hundreds of thousands of potential impressions leading to 90 click-throughs. Yikes. Not only that, many of these people have included my Twitter handle in their tweets. Sometimes, I get a few new followers out of that. But not many. My sense is that Twitter is a bit like workmen playing a radio as they’re doing renovations on the house next door to yours. Yeah, you can hear it, sort of. But you’re not paying attention.

Twitter veterans know this, so people pile on the tweets (like every 30 seconds) or try to be as shocking or grandiose as possible in order to grab you. On Twitter, every link is the Best Post Ever. Then people come up with strategies and products that organize tweets so you don’t have to see all this. All very fun. But I’m not sure most of it is work, if you generally think you should be earning more than minimum wage for the time invested.

Now, obviously, some people have gotten a great return on investment with Twitter. People do pay attention to celebrity tweets, and people can become celebrities via Twitter. S*it My Dad Says, the book based on the Twitter phenomenon, made the best-seller list. For me, though, I think I’m going to consider Twitter mostly in the leisure category for now.

I’m curious what other people have found.

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