I put off writing this review of “140 Characters” for far too long. The problem is, I love Twitter but I hate this book.
I think part of my problem with “140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form” is due to its subtitle. The truth is, it’s not much of a style guide.
‘140 Characters’ isn’t about how-to help
In the 12 years I worked in newspapers, I turned to the Associated Press Stylebook for advice on everything from the difference between Baptists and Lutherans to the correct way to note the caliber of pistol ammunition. I still keep the stylebook close at hand. But the AP Stylebook is a practical, no-nonsense guide to how to construct discrete elements of whatever it is you happen to be writing, regardless of whether it’s a serious analysis of international monetary systems or a column about a new cartoon show on TV. It spends little space trying to inspire writers to write, encouraging them to be creative or gushing about the joy of being a journalist. Even the AP’s Guide to News Writing is more “how to” than “how marvelous.” “140 Characters,” on the other hand, seems mostly concerned with convincing the reader of the unbearable wonderfulness of using Twitter.
I love Twitter. It’s interesting and informative — dare I say wonderful? — and I use it every day. I really wanted to like this book, but I don’t have any time for 179 pages of syrupy evangelism for Twitter. If “140 Characters” had been subtitled something such as “Find your voice on Twitter” and presented as an inspirational tome, the book might have been easier to swallow and might have been more clearly targeted toward the kind of people who go to writers’ groups to talk about how great it is to be a writer.
If I clearly disliked the book, then, why did it take me so long to say so? I did happen to get my review copy of “140 Characters” when I was facing a particularly busy couple of weeks filled with deadlines, events and family obligations, and I didn’t have much time to read. I felt I should read as much of the book as possible before I wrote down a judgment, regardless of my gut reaction. But even when I had a little more time, I found that I had to force myself to open the book.
That’s because “140 Characters” is a chore to read. It’s clumsily written, and the “signal-to-noise ratio” is way off. For every bit that’s useful — chapters 11, 12 and 13 in particular are heavy with practical advice on how to get the most out of Twitter without it taking over your life — there is much more fluff.
Are we looking at the same Twitter?
Perhaps the weirdest impression I got from “140 Characters” is that in spite of his close connection to the creation of the medium, the author has a peculiar idea of what Twitter is for. It’s not unlike Twitter’s hated modification of replies, which stifled the discovery of interesting new voices, or the introduction of the “New Retweet,” which was strongly panned by many dedicated Twitter users because it showed the company doesn’t understand why people follow the people they do on Twitter. Like the New Retweet, “140 Characters” has some beneficial features, but the way it is presented represents a clash with the way many users think of Twitter.
The great inaccurate stereotype about Twitter is that it’s full of irrelevant nonsense, such as people telling the world that they had soup for lunch. That’s certainly not what I use Twitter for and it’s not how it’s used by the people I’ve connected with there, but it seems to be what author Dom Segolla, one of the people who helped create the microblogging platform, wants Twitter to be. Many of the tweets he quotes in the book are mere quips, or notes on the sender’s emotional state that are unlikely to have been useful or interesting to anyone outside of the sender’s circle of real-life friends. Some of them may have been funny in the context of the time they were written, but they’ve since gone stale.
Further, an examination of Segolla’s list of the 140 people he would follow if he had to start using Twitter from scratch reveals that it’s heavy with celebrities of both the Hollywood and Silicon Valley types, many of whom have Twitter streams that are irrelevant and insufferably dull. I followed some of the people on that list myself, when I was a new user trying to figure out if Twitter was useful, but I later unfollowed them because they were boring.
The Twitter depicted in “140 Characters” isn’t the Twitter I know. The Twitter I know is filled with smart people who have something important to say and who help me decide what’s worth reading or watching in the vast flood of information available on the Internet. They may in fact tweet about their soup once in a while, but that’s an aberration.
I can’t blame Wiley or Segolla for wanting to produce a book about Twitter. Twitter is hot, hot, hot, and I’m sure they sold a lot of books. “140 Characters” represents a business opportunity it would’ve been stupid not to take. I just wish I had learned more by reading it.
Wiley books are available at your local bookstore or by calling 1-800-225-5945. In Canada, call 1-800-567-4797. John Wiley & Sons is online at www.wiley.com and www.wileyptnews.com. More on “140 Characters” is available at 140characters.com or www.twitter.com/thebook.
Disclosure: Wiley gave me a free review copy of “140 Characters.”