3+ Lessons on Twitter Interaction from Stephen Fry

We should always remember that feelings come first with human beings.[Stephen Fry]

The quote is not from Twitter, it's from an interview Fry did at the George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight#. Much of the interview touches upon recurring themes on the changing nature of interaction (or lack thereof) in social networks, especially Twitter.

1. Opportunity in serendipity

At the 3-minute mark, Fry talks about the moment that changed his life, the hinge that created a change: his decision to enroll into Cambridge, the commitment to making it happen by paying for the admission exam, and the individuals who decided to help.

What happened next is he won the scholarship, and that turned his life around. As the book description says:

Stephen Fry arrived at Cambridge University as a convicted fraudster and thief, an addict, liar, fantasist, and failed suicide, convinced that any moment he would be sent away. Instead, he befriended bright young things like Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie, and he emerged as one of the most promising comic talents in the world.

It was at Cambridge that Fry forged life-long friendships, including the serendipitous moment that was the starting point of a productive collaboration with Laurie.

Just last week, I reconnected with Jennifer Zeszut because she was monitoring for mentions of the name of her new company, Beckon.

2. Sharing as a way to learn publicly

At around minute 7, the conversation shifts to being open about personal experiences, especially as a public figure. The act of sharing helps others come to terms with the fact that they are not alone, especially when young and vulnerable:

[…] you think you are the only person who feels that. What you yearn is for a writer, or a songwriter […] somebody who touches you, says:

"I'm with you, you're not alone, we're all scared inside. We may all walk big, and those guys who walk along and look all cocky, they are the most scared. They are deeply scared."

We all think everybody's got a big club, but we got a tiny q-tip behind us.

It helps reframe reality, put things into perspective, so we don't feel we just missed out on what everyone else knows. Fear of missing out is real, and it holds us back. Uncertainty leaves room for trying new things.

We do learn a lot by example, this means the opportunity to out-teach your competition is still enormous, starting with the connections you already have — the people who follow your updates.

3. Your audience is the Hero

Growing up, we are exposed to movies and heroes, and that is what we think life is supposed to be like. The desire to put one's best foot forward, enacting success, is also a well-documented issue in social networks, and it fuels all too human fears.

It wasn't until Magnum PI and the Rockford Files that we started seeing that when a hero would punch someone he would hurt his hand. It is at this point in the conversation, at about the 9-minute mark, that Fry talks about culture.

How British — and Canadian — comedy is so different from American humor. The latter is fantastic for wise-cracking guys: for example, John Belushi in Animal House, when he grabs the guitar and smashes it on the head of the singer:

[…] to me the real hero would want to play the folksinger.

Because most of us are the little guy in life. Comedians who expose the bully are better than the braggart comedians.

The example about British comedy just before minute 10 in NFW. It does drive the point home beautifully that there are stark differences between American culture and European culture. These differences are apparent in the make up of heroes.

The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a Philadelphia-based think tank that decodes how consumers determine value in products, concepts and ideas. They study how apparently unique decisions follow certain shared subconscious patterns (see their age development chart).

The cultural assumptions that drive American choice, according to Jaime O'Boyle, Senior Analyst, are:

    1. Individuals should determine their own destiny
    2. Individuals should control their social and physical environment
    3. Authority or “bigness” should be viewed with suspicion
    4. Actions should be judged in a moral light (philanthropy, for example)
    5. We should have as many choices as possible
    6. Anything can and should be improved
    7. The future should be better than the present

A useful questions when operating within a US-centric worldview, where every inch of a Football game is measured and tallied: How are these assumptions being shaped by our current environment and circumstances?

Do we still buy into the hero values? The spate of super-heroes movies since the recession should provide an indication that we do. Are new archetypes emerging? 

How is our identity being shaped by derivative values (I'm cool because I'm wearing this jacket) vs. reflective values (this jacket is cool because I'm wearing it)?

How much do relationships and context influence how we validate who we are to ourselves?

+ oh, the humanity of it all

At about minute 16 the conversation centers more directly on Twitter. Fry has 6.66 million followers. You won't be surprised to learn he as sometimes tweeted in haste, like many of us. He says:

you suddenly realize, if you have a large number of followers, and you retweet something that you find amusing, people who don't find it amusing think you are endorsing the point of view of someone you are retweeting.

When I asked the question does sharing mean endorsing? the discussion was quite animated. Because Twitter is organized to be a public asynchronous messaging tool, context is hard to predict within the stream. So each tweet needs to be thought of as self-explanatory/contained.

It is hard to do. In real time and as pre-planned, the difficulty is the same — reading what else is going on that might affect context. With this caveat, however, comes useful advice at minute 17:50 (paraphrasing a little):

you have to make Twitter personal. Businesses have conventions: "how to maximise your Twitter potential."

… and you think, you just don't get it. Social media is social media because it means people. The only way for politicians, or businessmen, or people trying to make a buck to use Twitter is to use it as themselves.

Just be honest. […] whatever you are, be you. But don't try to second-guess, because even though it is only in 140 characters, even though it is not in your handwriting, it is in computer text, Twitter audiences can easily detect a bullshitter, can easily detect someone who is selling something, and can easily detect a liar.

So just be yourself.

I remember we used to tweet a message out that we were demonstrating the ability to connect with others in real time and get @ replies from friends. Someone you actually knew or had met online would take a moment to wave digitally to appear in your stream and help you out.

We are still doing that, even in a larger public stream. We can still drive how we want our experience to be by following and creating lists.

We can follow individuals and streams that tweet about news items, topics discussed at events, tips (and news) on how to use an app or a tool, information and stories on food and favorite beverages, career tips and links, and plenty of active and useful twitter chats#.

That is half the equation, though. As Fry concludes, the opportunity is that you get to talk to people who choose to follow you. And that is extraordinary.


[hat tip]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.

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