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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)


What Twitter is, and isn’t Add to ...

You learn a lot about people by their Twitter personalities, and usually it’s more than you’d ever care to know. The social media service is overrun with attention-starved show-offs who rush to judgment without an ounce of reflection. And we don’t just mean most politicians.

Then there’s Bill Clinton. The quintessential social animal only joined Twitter two weeks ago, essentially after being shamed into it by comedian Stephen Colbert. Mr. Clinton’s excuse for not joining sooner was that he is “sort of insecure” and worried about being a “friendless tweeter.”

With more than half a million followers within days, that was never going to be a problem for the Big Dog. But after barely a dozen flavourless tweets, and signing up to follow only eight people or organizations since joining, it’s clear the ex-president is just not that into it.

Maybe it’s his need for real, rather than virtual, human contact. Or maybe he’s just more secure than he let on. Refreshingly, Mr. Clinton’s minimalist Twitter persona reveals his inner introvert.

Canada’s poster tweeter – besides Justin Bieber, who rules the medium with 38.5 million followers – may be Tony Clement. The federal Treasury Board president has 30,000 followers and follows 27,000 people. (I feel overloaded following three dozen.) Almost no detail of Mr. Clement’s day goes unannounced in 140 characters or less, from his “great squash workout” to his live tweeting of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. With all that Twitter activity, is it any surprise that Mr. Clement’s department has lost track of $3.1-billion in anti-terrorism spending?

Twitter is a mere hobby for Mr. Clement, however, compared with Cory Booker, the Democratic star and mayor of Newark, N.J. Though he runs a city of fewer than 300,000 people, he has 1.38 million Twitter followers. His naked ambition is revealed in as many as 50 daily tweets. As Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard writes, Mr. Booker is “a politician who is so baldly self-aggrandizing, so intent on ‘telling my truth to the world,’ so emblematic of our social media age, that he will almost surely become president of the United States some day.”

Across the Hudson River, former congressman and serial sexter Anthony Weiner recently rejoined Twitter, in time to launch his likely candidacy for mayor of New York City. It’s proof that, in the Twitter age, not even utter humiliation can keep an ambitious politician down.

Of course, Twitter is not just where big egos go to satisfy their need to spout. Lots of smart people, organizations and journalists use it quite thoughtfully and effectively, imparting valuable information, rendering a public service or just promoting themselves or a cause.

For many people under 30, Twitter is increasingly their leading, perhaps only, source of news. U.S. securities regulators just gave public companies clearance to post material information on Twitter first. And Twitter is where most of us learn of breaking news – whether it’s true or not. Last month’s “hash crash” – the stock market drop after The Associated Press’s hacked Twitter feed announced an explosion at the White House – may be a sign of things to come.

Of all the things that Twitter is, here’s what it’s not: our modern-day Athenian Agora. Only 13 per cent of Americans read Twitter messages, and only 3 per cent tweet or retweet news, according to a Pew Research Center study released in March. It concluded that “only a narrow sliver of the public is represented” on Twitter.

That makes it a lousy place to crowdsource, unless the crowd you’re interested in is a tiny, self-selected sampling of urban liberals and political propagandists. Pew, for instance, compared the reaction on Twitter to 2012’s first presidential debate – the one where an oddly passive Barack Obama showed up – with post-debate polls. While only 20 per cent of all voters thought Mr. Obama won the debate, fully 59 per cent of the tweets praised his performance.

Now, Twitter’s bosses (including newly recruited Twitter Canada head Kirstine Stewart, who quit her top CBC job last week) are reportedly seeking new ways to generate the revenue needed to justify the firm’s estimated $10-billion (U.S.) valuation. Get ready for more ads and exclusive Twitter content, including videos. A six-second sitcom? Why not?

There may be wisdom on Twitter. But how do you ever find it amid the noise?

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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