Why We Tweet

You know you're doing something strange and new—or at least new—when every time you're at a social gathering, the activity comes up and the barbs come out. "Why do you waste your time with such nonsense?" people ask. And so it is with Twitter, the social-networking thingamajig that we both recently adopted with a degree of enthusiasm that surprises our friends and family and, well, even us.

But the fact is, over the past few months, we've come to love Twitter. We're not saying it's going to transform humanity—as some of its proponents will tell you—but we certainly get its incipient power. Indeed, if Twitter continues to expand at its current rate, it may well become a high-value way for companies to help brand themselves and microtarget consumer groups, as well as another tool for managers to interact with their people, and vice versa.

But Twitter's business potential doesn't explain why we tap away in 140-character bursts every so often. O.K., like three or four times a day.

We tweet because we can't stop ourselves.

Why? Well, not for the reason we first expected. In fact, one of us (that would be @suzywelch in the lingo) started tweeting for good old-fashioned marketing purposes. She had a book coming out, and everyone-in-the-know kept insisting: "Social media is where it's happening."

Generating Crowds

It proved to be excellent advice. The accessibility, informality, and reach of Twitter ended up landing several great interviews (mainly with bloggers), generating crowds at book signings, disseminating dozens of reviews, driving traffic to the book's Web site, and best of all, developing a warm and encouraging community of the book's readers. (@suzywelch took to calling this group her "twiffers"—Twitter friends—after many of them replied sympathetically to her Easter tweet: "Just been informed by family I will not make the mashed potatoes this year. What do they mean? 'Too much butter?'")

Eventually, @suzywelch became such a Twitter booster (read: fanatic) that @jack_welch decided to jump into Twitter, too, albeit with the words, "I just don't get this thing."

Within 24 hours, he did. Every time he opined about the Red Sox or Celtics, dozens of sports enthusiasts opined back. Same for politics and business, launching fascinating minidebates about everything from Obama's economic policies to Detroit's woes.

Twitter, in essence, allows you to attend a great big cocktail party filled with diverse and (typically) civilized chatter. Some of what you hear and say will be frivolous. But the chatter will also provoke, inform, and engage you in a way, and at a volume, you can't replicate offline.

Best of all, for us, Twitter helps you test—and improve—your ideas. A few weeks ago, for instance, @jack_welch tweeted that two events might be the "green shoots" of a new bipartisan movement. The thoughtful pushback improved the column we went on to write about the topic. Similarly, when @suzywelch was preparing to interview financial guru Suze Orman (@suzeorman­show, by the way) she reached out to the Twitter world for input. One comment—"I love Suze Orman, but I'm not sure she's walked in my shoes"—ended up sparking Suze's much discussed "Are you kidding me?" response.

Time Frittered Away

Not to get carried away with Twitter's worth as a work tool. Any boss alive would have the right to be annoyed by how much time we fritter away with our new toy. To wit: Writing this column took about twice as long as it might have because we had to keep checking for reaction to the "What's so great about Twitter?" query we lobbed out there.

The answers, in true Twitter manner, came fast and furious. We tweet, people told us, "because it's fun," "to feel more connected in a disconnected world," and to "communicate with staff."

All good reasons, for sure. But for our part, another message resonated more. "I have tried to explain to people why I tweet," it read, "but the best I can come up with is: Start tweeting urself & you'll figure it out." That's what happened to us. We stumbled into a conversation that seems to just be getting started. We think we'll stick around.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.