A Canadian motivational speaker listed the "September Top 100 Twitter Users in Chicago, Illinois" and tweeted congratulations to me for making the list,. I'm No. 78.
Which surprises me. I don't feel like I tweet all that much: the column on the days it runs, the blog on the other days, a few times in the morning, plus posts from exactly one and two years ago, to pump the numbers up, not to forget the occasional bon mot.
In the roughly 1575 days since I joined Twitter in April, 2011, I have issued some 9,300 tweets, or about six a day. That doesn't seem like it should get me on the Top 100 list. It makes me wonder if their count is flawed—this wasn't produced by the Bureau of Standards, but some guy in Toronto. Or perhaps it is correct, suggesting that Chicago might really be the small time backwater we all passionately hope it is not.
Anyway, it reminded me of this 2011 column I wrote welcoming myself to Twitter, and given that it will be new to many, I thought it worthy of revisiting. And to the rest of you, get tweeting. I should not be on that list.
Friday after work, instead of bolting for the train, as is my custom, I strolled to Tribune Tower, pausing to pop my head in the Billy Goat Tavern, where I was rewarded with a hearty hello from Bouch Khribech, a wiry busboy when I met him 20 years ago and now a burly bartender, and from his brother Marco, who called over Rick Kogan.
If you don't know Kogan - and if you don't, you might be the only Chicagoan who doesn't - he's a veteran, shoe-leather reporter, with a gruff, nicotine-and-bourbon voice, the only man I've ever met who not only calls other men "honey," but makes it seem a macho trait, like carrying a Buck knife clipped to your belt.
It was the last day of Social Media Week, a global conclave welcoming our shiny communications future. Normally I avoid these somber wakes for journalism, since after the mourners depart the profession always gets out of the coffin and goes back to work.
But this one had an intriguing title — "Reinventing a Media Career on Alternative Platforms" — plus an all-pro lineup: the Sun-Times' own Richard Roeper, a columnist and radio star; Robert Feder, fearsome online media critic; Steve Dahl, the radio legend, and a TV news reporter named Nancy Loo.
Kogan was going, too, so we headed off together into the Tower, through its Gothic horror show of an entrance, with the enormous map of North America, mute testimony to the terrified isolationism that once gripped the place. In the seventh floor meeting room I found friends I hadn't seen in years, so more hugs and handshakes, smiles and updates.
The 90 minutes of discussion can be boiled down to this: Twitter is important. The service, which allows you to shoot 140-character messages to others and in turn read the haikus they write, is the barge that will carry our society wherever it is drifting to, and if you are laboring away at some outdated mode of communication - say, slowly writing stuff that will be printed on paper and flung at people's front steps - you are a brontosaurus in a tar bit, bellowing your indignation, unheard, as you slowly sink into the bubbling mire.
Still, the session was a lot of fun - primarily because Kogan and I, like two seventh-grade boys in the back of health class, kept up a running banter of highly uncharitable thoughts regarding the proceedings.
Leaving, I felt reassured that I could safely skip Twitter, just as I never owned a CB radio or watched "The Sopranos."
But the next day uncertainty set in. I should see what Twitter's about. So I dropped onto Roger Ebert's website - somehow I knew this is a topic the tech-savvy Ebert would comment on, and sure enough, there it was, upper right corner, an essay on "some observations about successful tweeting."
Ebert has 532,782 Twitter followers, and while he mercifully offered me an out - "You may well have better ways to spend your time" - he also clearly explains Twitter's appeal: "The stream, the flow, the chatter, the sudden bursts of news, the snark, the gossip, time itself tweet-tweet-tweeting away."
That last part makes it sound like opium. But I signed on, figuring, "Why not? I can always quit," went to create @NeilSteinberg, but found I had already done it, apparently, long ago. A whopping 16 people were following me, even though I hadn't tweeted a thing. Well, mustn't keep my public waiting . . .
Hmmm, for my first tweet . . . something pithy, Oscar Wilde-like - that's what Twitter seems to be: millions of would-be Wildes, Shaws and Whistlers, furiously flinging bon mots into the ether, hoping for a good ripple.
The first thing that came to mind was "What hath God wrought," the message Samuel F. B. Morse sent to inaugurate the Washington-Baltimore telegraph line on May 24, 1844. Not Wildean, but certainly very me. So I sent it and signed up for various feeds - the Sun-Times, of course, the Associated Press, Rich Roeper, Sarah Silverman, who shares thoughts like "Don't forget to play catch with your kid" and "Quiet moment with my dog." She's supposed to be funny, right?
The ironic thing is, while social media might indeed be the future, someone still felt obligated to gather people in a room on a Friday to tell them the good news. Which means, in my mind, the future ain't quite here yet. To be honest, after Kogan, I liked the gathering-in-a-room part best. It didn't matter what for - we could have been swapping meatloaf recipes. I would have preferred that, frankly, because I like meatloaf, and while a new recipe might come in handy someday, I wouldn't also feel obligated to bake a meatloaf every three hours for the rest of my life, which is what Twitter seems like right now.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 26, 2011