Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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How I shamelessly exploited Twitter (and don't anymore)

November 8, 2013News

Five years ago, I was the Twitter guy at BusinessWeek. As Roben Farzad recalled Thursday on Brian Lehrer's show, I wandered around the the offices telling colleagues to tweet. Now, as the new Twitter stock debuts, I barely tweet anymore. The reason: Much as I'd like to, I don't participate anymore in the "nugget economy."

I'll explain. When you tweet, you send out a nugget of information wrapped in self-branding. If people like that nugget, they retweet, and the information spreads, along with the branding. Maybe they respond with interesting information, or a relevant link. Those nuggets can be valuable. When I was at BusinessWeek, nuggets I harvested turned into blog posts and stories. And the branding was vital for me. BusinessWeek was in late stages of collapse, and I needed the branding to promote my post-BW career, and (hopefully) to sell books. My brand, as I saw it, had been locked up in the magazine for 20 comfortable years. But now I needed to fashion it into a lifeboat.

An example of how shamelessly I used Twitter for my own ends. I started on Twitter on Jan. 5, 2008. I was in Steve Rubel's office at Edelman, above Times Square, asking him how Heather Green and I could update our three-year-old story on blogs. (I remember the day because Barack Obama had just won the Iowa caucases, and his face was on every television in the lobby.) Steve urged me to jump onto Twitter. At that point, I remember, he had 2,400 followers. And he asked them with a tweet why @stevebaker should get onto Twitter. Responses poured in. He was clearly at the controls of a powerful tool. I had a book, The Numerati, coming out later that year and wanted some of that network magic. But how was I going to get thousands of followers?

After a month on Twitter, I had barely 100. But then I came up with a plan to leverage my mainstream journalism asset. I would write a BusinessWeek article explaining Why Twitter Matters. But instead of calling up the usual sources, like @jayrosen_nyu, @jeffjarvis, and @biz (Twitter co-founder Biz Stone), I would research the piece on Twitter. I would tweet topic sentences for each paragraph, and the Twittersphere would respond with examples, links, and insights. Hopefully, they'd discuss and argue. Through this process, Twitter would write the story. Word would quickly spread about this story, and people who wanted to participate would follow me. I would catch up to Steve Rubel, or even pass him! I'd be hoisted up in the nugget economy.

It turned out that turning 250 tweets into a coherent article took a lot of work. But it worked. The article went mildly viral and my Twitter following quintupled, finally reaching 1,000. My evil strategy worked. And I even won a minor magazine award for the story. (I'll note, in passing, that traditional journalism awards carry zero weight in the nugget economy, not unless they're branding giants, like Pulitzers. If I were still focussed on nuggets, I'd trade my dusty old Overseas Press Award for 10,000 Twitter followers in a minute.)

Months after that triumph, the economy cratered and BusinessWeek spiraled toward death. I left after Bloomberg snapped it up for barely the price of a Superbowl commercial, and I got a book contract to write about IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson. Since then, I've been doing books. That has removed me from the nugget economy. Much of what I'm doing is vaguely secret. For instance, I'm co-writing a healthcare book that Penguin will publish next spring. But they're not publicizing it. So I don't either. As a result, I don't generate good targeted nuggets. And my Twitter presence has degenerated into the occasional note about my life, a wine I drank in France, a slideshow from Africa. I'm a scattered Tweeter, virtually lapsed.

Now that I think about it, though, I should jump back on. I have a novel coming out next spring, The Boost. Maybe if I break down the first chapter into 150 nuggets.... No, really, I should get serious about this.

But this social media marketing is so exhausting, don't you think?







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