Strategy or Tool? On the Metaphysics of Twitter

Well, look what happens when e.politics goes off the grid for a couple of days: the kids get all crazy over their Twitter. Jon Pincus started the conversation yesterday with a reply to the Twitter-is-not-a-strategy e.politics piece from last week: he contends that Twitter IS a strategy, and he goes to some lengths to imply that I’m not giving the micro-blogging tool its true due. From there, the discussion took off in the comments section of Jon’s site and on at least one online-activist listserv.

Of course the question comes down to semantics like so many others, and I don’t think we’re going to work out the full metaphysics of Twitter just this week — plus, armchair historians have been fighting over how to divide strategy and tactics since the terms were invented. But I haven’t seen anything in the discussion so far that changes my basic approach to Twitter: that it’s a tool, and that how you use it should to be guided by a thought-out plan. In my original article, I listed a slew of Twitter’s potential applications:

For you or your organization, is Twitter a journalistic live-coverage tool? A platform for (very short) punditry? A reputation-builder? A way to connect with others in your field? A personal journal, broadcast to the world? An RSS supplement, a way to send out links to your own articles? A collaborative community-builder? A reporting system for distributed events (“someone just stole the ballot box at my polling place!”)? All of these and more are perfectly valid ways to use it, but each requires a different approach if it’s to succeed.

I’ll stand by that last line all day long: how you use the tool should depend on what you’re trying to get out of it — the strategy should connect the means and the goals. In my eyes, tactics is a third thing entirely: more about a tool’s micro-application, how you use it day-to-day to advance the overall strategy. To go back to the military metaphor, the right strategy gets the right tanks into the right part of the enemy’s country at the right time, while the tanks are the tools and the tactics tell you what to do once you’re there.

What comes through in Jon’s piece is his enthusiasm for Twitter, which is a completely valid personal preference. But enthusiasm is no substitute for cold logic, particuarly when you’re advising a client, a friend or a beloved cause on how they should spend their limited time and money. One of the commenters on Jon’s site made the emotional case most clearly when she said, “When I hear someone say ‘Twitter is not a strategy,’ I hear them denying twitter as an effective anything: strategy, tactic, tool, what-have-you.” That’s perceived persecution speaking, and it reflects a serious misreading of what I wrote.

Let’s also take a look at the very first and last lines of Jon’s article, the first coming after an extended quote from part of my article pointing out what I see as a limitation of Twitter — that you can only stuff so much complex thought into 140 characters:

“Somebody’s missing what’s going on here and I don’t think it’s Adriel.” (hint: it’s e.politics)

“Wake up and smell the coffee.”

Ah, those classic companions of online debate: “Wake up and smell the coffee” and XYZ “just doesn’t get it.” What these phrases really say is that “my point is so self-evident that anyone who disagrees with me is a fool.” Which is another way of actually NOT making a logical argument, but instead just re-stating your point when you think you’re proving it — in other words, a classic cop-out.

Besides saying that people who disagree with him are “missing what’s going on here,” Jon’s argument comes down to this: he lists a lot of different politically related groups who are on Twitter. Which you’ll notice is something that I don’t dispute, though I’d contend that the fact that people use Twitter doesn’t make its use a strategy — it makes it a choice. That choice may have strategic implications and may actually advance (or retard) a strategy, but simply using a tool without asking “why” is missing the first and central question: what are we trying to get done here?

For instance, Jon talks about a candidate who got some press attention for using Twitter, but how is that a strategy? The candidate’s quoted as seeing Twitter as a “way to regularly communicate with the thousands of people we are supposed to represent,” but the evidence of his successful use of the tool is a brief media hit — was that his goal and does it advance his candidacy in a meaningful way? Without understanding his strategy, it’s impossible to tell.

Jon also talks about having recently suggested “three explicitly Twitter-based strategies including using Twitter as a base for ‘flash actions’ and a place to engage with communities currently marginalized by the progressive blogosphere.” All excellent and laudable activities to try — and I’d say, all done best when driven by a thought-out plan. As commenter Matt Lockshin summed it up after parsing Jon’s argument in detail, “I have no doubt that Twitter has its role in political advocacy and organizing, but I just don’t see how what you write is supposed to demonstrate that it’s actually a strategy.”

I have separate article coming up about seeing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Twitter; but it’s still in the oven right now. So let’s let social media veteran Ivan Boothe take us out, again from the comments on Jon’s site:

“Undoubtedly Twitter *was* the right tool in those cases (especially versus the less-used microblogging services) but without considering the strategy apart from the tool, you risk overlooking ways to run more effective campaigns on other platforms — or augmenting a campaign using multiple platforms.

And, worse, you risk giving people feel-good activism that quenches their desire for social change without actually moving you closer to a concrete goal or putting any pressure on powerholders.

I don’t mean to be overly critical, and I agree with you at the effectiveness of the campaigns you talk about, and I love using Twitter for my own campaigns. But in my opinion the strategy *always* comes first, before figuring out how the tool fits in. And I think you actually are considering the strategy, you’re just collapsing it into the decision about the tool.

Political pamphlets, phone trees and jam-the-faxes must have seemed like strategies in and of themselves when each technology first came out. But without a campaign strategy deploying those tools in an effective way, I don’t think they would end up being effective.”

E.pol sez, Amen.


Written by
Colin Delany
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