The Content of Your Communication is Important—Not What Carries It

The following is the introduction to my latest book #tweetsmart: 25 Twitter Projects to Help You Build Your Community (O’Reilly Media, 2012). This intro sums up my attitude toward Twitter and the perilous practice of “marketing” on Twitter. Enjoy!

At nearly every conference I attend I meet people who tell me, “I have no use for Twitter. You can’t say anything in 140 characters. I’d rather have a real conversation.” Obviously—as I’m the one writing this book—I feel differently. So, to all the doubters and skeptics, I offer the following story:

My grandfather, “Mac” McDougall—like so many grandparents—moved to Florida when it came time for him to retire. His neighborhood was a flat rectangle, carved out of fields of orange groves, and tucked in beside a maze of golf courses. His street was a flat street in a grid of flat streets. His house was a single-level brown adobe home in a row of single-level brown adobe homes. At the end of his driveway was a green mailbox. At the end of every driveway was…a green mailbox.

We would visit him nearly every winter. We’d often drive the long journey down I-95 from New Hampshire to Florida, and 24 hours after climbing into the van—as my dad drove the van through the flat streets—I would see my grandfather’s house. Even as a small child I had an easy time picking out his house from all the rest. His was the only one with a 50-foot radio tower standing in the backyard.

My grandfather was a HAM radio operator. He had received his operator’s license in 1930 when he was just 15 years old. As a teenager, he taught himself how to build his own radios out of spare parts. He then served during WWII in a communications unit, and after the war he continued to communicate with other “HAMmers” all over the world. Upon retirement, he moved to this adobe home and set up his own radio room—complete with a radio tower outside his window.

In the late evenings during our visits he would excuse himself and shuffle to his radio room for his weekly appointments with his radio buddies. Sometimes I’d sit beside him—marveling at the knobs and lights all around the cluttered room—while he tapped out his messages in Morse code, laughed, and waited in anticipation for the beeps and boops that would reply.

“Oh marvelous!” he’d say. “Janice had her baby!”

I—being six—didn’t know Janice and didn’t care much that she’d had her baby. But I could watch for hours as these sporadic beeps and boops somehow triggered outbursts of joy and happy tears from my grandfather.

I would learn many years later that my grandfather was speaking to a man in New Zealand named John. They met over the airwaves and quickly became friends—tapping back and forth to each other about their love of radios, golf, and the additions to their families.

Every week my grandfather would shuffle down the hall in the late evenings for his scheduled chat with John who—at that same time—was shuffling out of bed to start his day in New Zealand.

When my grandfather passed away in 2007 it had been over twenty years since I last sat with him in his radio room. At the time of his death he held the longest continuously-active HAM radio operators license in the United States—77 years.

In a long procession on a sad day, we drove down the flat streets—past the orange groves and golf courses—to the funeral home. Family and friends filled the room. Many of whom I hadn’t seen in years and many of whom I’d never met. And, in introducing myself to some of the folks, I met a small white-haired man who stood alone at the back of the room. “Hello,” he said in a funny accent. “I’m John.”

Real relationships have been built on forms of communication offering far fewer than 140 characters. The human animal is capable of extracting real and meaningful information from countless forms of communication—whether it’s Morse code, or a wink, a nervous foot, a billboard, or even a “tweet.”

The content of your communication is important—not what carries it.

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