Giving up Twitter for Lent

I’m giving up twitter for Lent. Now don’t go thinking this is part of some complex social experiment to remind myself of how life used to be before twitter – it’s nothing of the sort. It’s Lent, I’m just crazy about Lent and would love to have you help me out with my twitter-fast.

Like a lot of Catholics, I’m lapsed, lapsed since circa 1984 in fact, having given up the altar boy stuff a few years before that. I’ve not given up anything for Lent since then but I always enjoyed the banter amongst family and friends about who was going to give up what. It was usually something like swearing (impossible), chocolate (near impossible) or cabbage (erm, easy). So after a 24 year break Lent is back in my life and this year I’m giving up twitter.

For every day I manage to stay away from twitter I’ll give a pound to the Digbeth-based youth homelessness charity, St. Basils. Given that Lent refers to the 40 days and nights Jesus spent messing about in the desert that’s £40 for a start. For those that would like to show their support for what I’m doing you too can donate to the #keepdaveofftwitter campaign. Obviously multiples of 40 work and I don’t care if you give 40 x 1p, 40 x 10p or whatever you choose. All welcome. I run a marathon later this year but I’ll probably forego raising funds for that and see how I get on with this instead. There’s a second part to this Lent-based fundraising – info to follow. Am outsourcing Lent – see here.

So here’s the rules for the twitter-fast:

  • Lent varies in length according to different beliefs but in my book it’s from the start of 25th February (Ash Wednesday) to the end of 11th April (Holy Saturday).
  • I can’t look at twitter.com or use twhirl or any other app. My phone can’t access the net anyway so I won’t get updates there.
  • I can’t use an RSS feed of any sort to look at tweets.
  • I will be honest with you. If I lapse I’ll put £2 in for that day but I really don’t anticipate lapsing.
  • I reckon #keepdaveofftwitter is a useful hashtag for this. Not that I’ll be reading your tweets anyway.
  • Although not on twitter I do still exist (on email, dave[at]daveharte.com and on the phone and in person)
  • I may glance at Facebook as I have a couple of friends on there who never use any other medium but I’ve long since stopped posting updates directly on there, pushing them through twitter instead.
I’m not alone with this idea but the least I can do is turn my time in the social media wilderness into a positive for a local charity. Love to have your support.

Writing about worms & business

I’ll avoid cross-posting in future but my first posting at the Digital Birmingham blog is about a useful example of how social media can be used by small businesses:

I’m always looking for examples of how social media can support small businesses. I’ve raised the question before using the local builder as an example. Why on earth would the bloke who knocked a hole in my wall have a reason to use any kind of social media tool?

Well I found a partial answer to that in a video from Herefordshire firm, Wiggly Wigglers (amongst other things they sell worms for composting). Founder Heather Gorringe explains how a shift to social media over tradititional media helped cut her advertising costs without cutting her customer base.

What’s clear is that Heather knows her customer extremely well: “we sell stuff that gardeners may not know they want”. Of course Heather’s firm have had an e-commerce presence for quite a while but they’ve embraced social media in a big way.

She has a blog, a facebook group, uses podcasts and is all over Youtube. I can’t help wonder why Wiggly Wigglers aren’t on twitter (there’s certainly plently of chat about them). Social Media is ideal for building a community around your products, for ensuring customers value the advice you give them and the knowledge-sharing that comes from connecting to each other. Increasing value-added rather than cutting prices sounds like a good strategy in an economic downturn. Previously Wiggly Wigglers had bought in customer lists, now in effect they create their own customer lists for free through word-of-mouth on social media.

For her efforts Heather has won a global award for Small Business Excellence – that’s right, a worm seller from Hereford beat off international competition. Well done to her. We need more local and regional social media champions from the wider business community. Here in Birmingham I think we’re certainly adept at knowing how to make a buck by playing the local card – but maybe we could take tip or two from a rural worm-grower about how to build a global community who care enough to come back again and again.

Social Media’s hidden legacy

This is a cross-post from my blog at the Birmingham Post

Two things trouble me about social media. The first is that everyone I read or connect to via Twitter or Facebook or whatever, seems to be having a much more exciting life than me. It’s a world of gallery openings, launches, great nights out or simply wonderful sunny, lazy days untroubled by personal dramas or upheavals.

Not that I’m jealous of course. Well actually of course it’s because I’m jealous. I even get invited to some of the same events that my friends and colleagues go to I just never seem to get round to going to them – either through a lack of willing babysitters or, more likely, a general acceptance that I’m a long way from being renaissance man. A beer and night in front of the telly are usually all the cultural activity I can muster after a day at work.

The key thing that troubles me though is what historians will make of the social media footprints we’re leaving behind us. Specifically, I wonder what social historians will make of Birmingham and its people when they come to look back on our early 21st century twittering. I suspect they’ll immediately smell a rat – what, they’ll ask, are these people hiding? Was life really a joyous social whirlwind? What kind of lives did Birmingham people live and why didn’t they use the new media tools available to tell us about it?

If you lay out this city’s social media network in front of you it would be a bit like those formal, rigid family portraits that adorn our walls as they did our grandparents’ walls. That is, they conceal more than they reveal. The great academic Stuart Hall, himself linked to Birmingham through his time at Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1960s and 70s, pointed out how immigrant communities of the 1950s were represented by stiff family portraits, dressed in their Sunday best. What they concealed were lives plagued by prejudice, persecution and social injustice.

Of course Hall was talking about a medium that was already mature. Its rhetorical devices, particularly in portraiture, were already well established. If you popped into your local high street photographer back then the only input you had into the image-making process was what background you would be sat in front of. Social media on the other hand allows for endless choices of expression. Okay so with Twitter you’ve got a maximum of 140 characters but there’s nothing to stop you twittering all day if you want to.

Although social media platforms are in their earliest phases the historian’s gaze will inevitably turn to them as a source of evidence to tell stories about us, probably sooner than it did with photography. It took until the 1970s for academics to see value in personal photography as an area of study and immediately they realised the interesting stuff was behind the image rather that in it.

Plenty of people tell me Birmingham seems to have been quick on the uptake with Social Media. Both in terms of using and testing new services and in terms of having a small group of entrepreneurs who are trying to develop new social media applications from which there is business to be made.

But if we are at the forefront then we need to listen to ourselves now and again. At best we demonstrate the vibrancy of living in an exciting city with lots to offer but at worst it descends into a curious uncritical mush and represents our city as one with its head in the sand – too excitable to see the wheat from the chaf or tell the good times from the bad.

It’s time to think about what’s not being said. Not so much ‘Digital – More Power or Powerless’ but ‘Useful or Useless’.