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One baseball writer’s first month with Twitter

Initial impressions of strengths and weaknesses of using Twitter for baseball-related news.

    The New York Times celebrated the new decade with a thought-provoking article by David Carr entitled, “Why Twitter will endure”. I suggest readers branch off and read it before returning, as from here, I will assume you have a base level of knowledge about the phenomenon. As a relatively-recent entrant into this instant-messaging craze, I have been mentally collecting my Twitter-related experiences as they relate to following baseball. Carr’s article offers me the context to share them.

    This past spring, I recall a veteran baseball writer poking fun at early adopters with the catchy retort, “Only twits Twitter.” The next time I saw him, he had surprisingly not only become a twit, or more accurately a “tweeter”, but was a frequent user. His explanation: “My boss told me I had to use it.” Apparently, it grew on him.

    My delayed decision to finally join the Twitterverse was a personal call based solely on audience reach. More and more readers are looking for better ways to mine information faster and in a less cumbersome manner than via RSS feeds, emails or web browsing, as Carr notes.

    Yet there is the real risk of being drowned in Twitter-driven minutiae. While Carr pokes fun at the concern, it is real. Something I first learned with Facebook and was reinforced with Twitter is the need to be selective in whom you follow.

    Some nationally-known experts have multiple Twitter accounts, enabling them to separate business from pleasure. This is the ideal approach, in my opinion. For example, Joe Blow might specialize in reporting baseball transactions. Done right, Joe would post his baseball news via his transactions account and restrict the news of what new tattoo he is considering, what recipes he is testing and his music CD choices of the year to his personal account.

    Sadly, that clean and clear division between personal and work life isn’t always drawn, nor do I think many of the tweeters want that. I find the worst to be when an individual tweets the same information from multiple accounts.

    For some, Twitter offers an opportunity to show off multiple dimensions of their personality and build a cult of followers. Frankly, I’d just rather read about transactions, not how much Joe Blow spent at the liquor store prior to New Year’s Eve (like the others, an actual example).

    My favorite first-month tweets include a national baseball media figure, tweeting via his iPhone from an interstate highway, complaining about other drivers not paying attention to the road. Another horsehide-focused writer tweeted, “My cabdriver just cut off a horse.” I didn’t know for sure if he was living out “The Godfather” or simply visiting Central Park. Either way, I didn’t give a damn.

    One key measure of Twitter credibility is the number of followers you have – those who are willing and ready to read your every thought. In a way, it is a pyramid, in that those who got in early generally have more followers.

    Some of the later arrivals have resorted to cheesy gimmicks to try to attract readers. One example of a “follow me” plea is to offer registration in a prize drawing for those who re-tweet, or recopy, their fishing attempt for new followers. The downside is that the followers who had already subscribed receive multiple copies of the same content-free tweets over and over and over.

    My solution for the above was to unfollow the offender despite being interested in his work. Maybe I will re-follow once his ego is adequately stroked. Maybe not. For others, it is not so easy. Some use their Twitter account for a mixture of purposes, some useful and some not.

    MLB is one of the worst offenders, with numerous daily tweets leading up to the Holidays touting sales at the Official Shop interspersed with actual news of potential interest. Of course, that is likely their intent. If they had an MLB Shop Twitter feed exclusively focused on their wares, no one in their right mind would follow. After all, how many Derek Jeter bobbleheads does one person need?

    Another common abuse of Twitter is the multi-tweet message. Architecturally limited to 140 characters per tweet, some bypass the restriction by posting a string of inter-related tweets one after another to tell a short story instead of just making a single blog post and calling attention to it once via a link. I am pretty sure I am not alone in considering it bad form to be labeled as a serial tweeter.

    Twitter allows private messaging between two individuals, yet many purposely publicly tweet to others who are a part of their “fraternity” no matter how obscure the discussion appears to the vast majority of their followers watching. If you have to ask, you obviously have no need to know…

    Who replies to your tweets indicates to all who knows and likely respects you, a major cred point. I watch amusedly while some aspiring figures assume the “yes man” position in response to seemingly whatever the big boys post.

    Another edge to that sword is that literally anyone can respond publicly to anyone else, meaning normally inaccessible figures can be engaged by the masses. Its ugly side surfaced when several national writers cast controversial ballots that may have affected the outcome of a high-profile baseball award. The unwashed tweeters descended upon the writers, driving at least one to turn around and publicly ridicule his disagreeing followers for their grammatical and spelling errors.

    As the New Year arrived, tweets from celebrities and wannabees alike thanking their “tweeps” for following them were commonplace. Perhaps I am just a curmudgeon, but I am not anyone’s “tweep”.

    Don’t get me wrong. Despite the number of negative keystrokes invested so far, I agree with Carr’s basic premise that Twitter is here to stay.

    Fortunately, many have figured it out, including Carr. “…after a while, I realized that I was not Moses and neither Twitter nor its users were wondering what I thought. Nearly a year in, I’ve come to understand that the real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice,” Carr wrote.

    While some baseball news provided is old and rehashed, Baseball’s Winter Meetings offered a great illustration of the power of the medium. It was a tremendous opportunity to reap many of the benefits of being there without having to travel to snowy Indianapolis in the midst of the winter. Sportswriters and even agents and club personnel at times were sharing news on an instant basis to anyone and everyone connected.

    New rumors are quickly dispersed via Twitter and in some cases, almost as quickly debunked by others with better information and more in the know about the subject at hand. Normally, mainstream writers are careful not to openly disagree with peers, but Twitter has helped to expose multiple perspectives not always visible before.

    Twitter also seems to be changing the misinformation game so successfully played in past years by high-profile player agents. They carefully plant rumors with media friends about supposed “mystery bidders” to spook nervous general managers into bidding against themselves for free agents. One example concerning Matt Holliday last week had a shelf life measured in minutes thanks in part to informed Twitter responses that quickly took apart the very questionable rumor.

    After the Winter Meetings, I read an article written by a principal from a traditional baseball news site lamenting the instant nature of Twitter. As I thought about it, the expression of that concern seemed only logical. After all, this may yet be another example where the middleman fears losing relevance if unwilling or unable to adapt to change.

    Like clockwork, within a few minutes of national writers tweeting a news item, at least a couple of baseball rumor-related sites will echo the content. Still, because it isn’t very practical for the reader to track every writer from every news source, following these national sites can quickly deliver tidbits that may be fresh to one’s eyes.

    One helpful vehicle that can be used to try to make order from the potential chaos is to group those you follow into categories, called lists. For example, I have separate lists for national writers, NL Central Division, Cardinals, minor league and fantasy baseball. Each person and site I follow is placed into one of the lists.

    I use a freeware offering called TweetDeck to display the lists side-by-side on a single screen when using my laptop. New tweets pop up in one corner of my screen automatically while I am doing other work, keeping me from having to return to my Twitter home page repeatedly. This is a major improvement over the sequential presentation of basic Twitter.

    As you might expect, there are literally dozens of Twitter apps for whatever your platform and need. The possibilities seem almost endless with new ones popping up every week.

    Like Carr says, “Twitter will endure.” You may as well engage. Just do it with your wits about you.

    Oh yeah, follow me on Twitter.

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    Brian Walton

    Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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