Explaining Twitter to Grandma Rose

My mom (known around here as Grandma Rose) is going to be 85 this spring. Grandma Rose uses the Internet like crazy – checking email, using Wikipedia, and especially using IMDB to recall the names of movie stars (which is a great help to me, as I no longer get calls that start with, “You know the guy who was in that movie with – oh what’s her name – you know, the one with the hair?”).

Because computers came into Rose’s life long after her learning patterns were established, each step of the journey from Luddite to email junkie has required that I teach her those steps in a language she understands.

Last week, after all the hubbub about congressional representatives Twittering during President Obama’s NSOTU address, my mom asked me, “What is Twitter?” After about 10 minutes, Grandma Rose had a pretty good understanding of what Twitter is and does.

When I tweeted what had just occurred, so many people asked me to please share how I did it, that – well, here we are. (Apologies right now that this is a long post – as my friend Casey DeLorme (aka @getspine) tweeted the other day, “Isn’t it ironic that it takes volumes of words to describe Twitter to anyone not using it?” For something whose messages are only 140 characters long, it is indeed ironic.) Here goes:

Me: You know about text messaging, right? You’ve seen how Lizzie (my daughter) and I send each other messages, and that if I send a text to Lizzie, that message is just between us two, right?

Rose: Yes.

Me: What Twitter lets me do is send a text message to the whole world. If I send a text message to Twitter, anyone who wants to see my message can do so.

Rose: Do you use the computer or your phone for this?

Me: You can use either. Twitter is just a system that lets me text message the whole world, whether from my phone or my computer. Got that so far?

Rose: Yes.

Me: Ok. There are two ways people can see the text messages I send. First, they could go to Twitter and search for my name. That would give them a list of all the text messages I’ve sent.

The other way is to sign up to get a copy of all the text messages I send, every time I send one. They call that “following someone.” So, for example, I follow Lizzie and Dimitri and Nick and Erin and Mike (all people Grandma knows) because I want to know what they’re up to.

Rose: That seems great! How long has it been around?

Me: Since 2006. I have only been using it since the holidays, but it’s been around for a while.

Rose: So then why am I only hearing about it now?

Me: The reasons you’re hearing about it actually have nothing to do with Twitter. Remember when you asked me about Facebook? Facebook has been around FOREVER, but you just heard about it after the election, because the news was talking about how Obama used it to win the election. So the reason you were hearing about Facebook really had nothing to do with Facebook, and everything to do with Obama winning – right?

Rose: Yes – I got that.

Me: Well, it’s the same here. The reason you’re all of a sudden hearing about Twitter is because during the President’s first address to Congress, instead of listening respectfully, members of Congress were sending their thoughts to the world via Twitter.

So it wasn’t really Twitter you were hearing about. What you were really hearing about is that Nina (my dog) has better manners than some people in Congress! If instead of Twittering, those people where throwing pizzas at each other, you would have heard about pies. But they weren’t – they were Tweeting, so you heard about Twitter.

Rose: How did they know anyone cared about what they were saying? I understand that Lizzie and you want to know what each other is doing, but who is listening to senators?

Me: Good question! And that question has to do with why I am on Twitter. Because I don’t just have Lizzie and Dimitri following me – I have 600 people following me!

Rose: You’re kidding! How did they find you?

Me: (Deep breath. Quick, Hil, think of how to explain this… Ok, I’ve got it.)  You know how when you get an interesting email, you forward it to whoever you think would find it interesting also? The same happens on Twitter. Let’s say Lizzie says something interesting on Twitter. I can then re-post whatever Lizzie sent, giving her credit for sending it in the first place. So now whatever Lizzie sent me is going to everyone following me as well. Got that so far?

Rose: I’m with you. It’s just like the jokes that get passed around email.

Me: Yup. So I’ve re-sent out whatever Lizzie sent me. But there are people who follow me, who I may know from work, who don’t know Lizzie. Right?

Rose: So these are people you know, like clients or other consultants, and they are following what you send out on Twitter – the text messages you send.

Me: Yes. All those people will now see that I sent this cool thing Lizzie sent me. And they’ll think, “Wow, that Lizzie sounds neat – I want to check her out!” So then they will also start to follow the messages Lizzie sends out, just because they found her interesting, through me. A person Lizzie doesn’t know at all could find her because I re-sent what she wrote. Does that make sense?

Rose: So then someone who lives in Siberia, who you’ve never heard of, could be reading what you have to say?

Me: Precisely. That’s why the senators and congressmen were using it – they are hoping lots of people are curious about what they have to say. Twitter lets them get the word out DIRECTLY to the people, without the news media as a filter. Skips the middleman.

Rose: That’s amazing! So anyone can watch what anyone else is saying. There really is no privacy anymore.

Me: There is privacy in that you choose what you want to say. If something is nobody’s business, I don’t send a message about it. In my experience, mostly people are tweeting about what interests them, and mostly about their work. And it is VERY powerful for work.

Rose: Why is it so powerful?

Me: Well, you know the work we’re doing as we build the Community-Driven Institute (2011 update – after name change in 2010, we are Creating the Future!). You know that we want to spread the word about doing community work in ways that will create more change in the world? Twitter will be a huge help for both spreading that message and for actually teaching how folks can do that new work – all in those short text messages. That’s because Twitter is viral.

Rose: What’s viral?

Me: Remember when the kids would get a virus at school and then bring it home? Then we would all get sick, and then we would bring that virus to work with us, and then the people we work with would all get sick, and etc? That one kid in school got all those people sick who he didn’t even know, just because it was going from one person to the next.

It’s the same thing with Twitter. If I say something interesting, someone who is following me will forward that out to the people they know, saying, “I follow Hildy, and she just said this cool thing.” Then those other people will think, “Hildy sends out cool stuff!” and they will start to follow me also. The next time I say something interesting, I will have that many more people forwarding my stuff out to the world. And it grows and grows.

I started on Twitter at the holidays, and in that first week, I had maybe 30 people following me, mostly people I know. After just 2 months, I have over 600 people following me from all over the world.

But here’s the even cooler part: Those people are ALL interested in the same things I’m interested in! And so you can imagine how fun that is.  I have met so many cool people in the past two months, all because we are interested in the same things and started following each other’s text messages on Twitter!

Rose: Wow – this all makes sense. The world is sure getting smaller isn’t it?

Me: Yes, Mom, it sure is. Isn’t that incredible?

So that’s it. I hope this helps you explain Twitter to your own “Grandma Rose.” And please, if you enjoy this post, follow me @HildyGottlieb on Twitter. See you there!

4/3/09 Update: Now Grandma is teaching Twitter!

Easy Tweet URL: http://is.gd/mEmQ Thanks for sharing this post!

6 Responses to Explaining Twitter to Grandma Rose

  1. Greetings from Somerset UK Hildy

    Thank you for your very simple explanation of what twitter is all about. I have this lovely image of a whole bunch of Swallows sitting on the wire chatting to each other.

    I am now going to flit over to twitter and join up.

    Prosperity to us all!


  2. […] Explaining Twitter to Grandma Rose – This explanation is pretty good, although I know my grandmother (who is no longer with us) wouldn’t have understood. By Hildy Gottlieb. […]