Why I Won’t Be ‘Live-Tweeting’ My Next Expedition

This post was borne of a heated debate I recently had with a couple of friends. It arose from a remark along the lines of “I don’t have time to read your blog, but I do have time to read Twitter updates, so you should be ‘live-Tweeting’ your trips because more people like me will know what you’re up to”.

(In case you don’t know, Twitter is an online community based entirely on real-time public status updates. You can publish what you like, as long as it fit into 140 characters or the length of an SMS. My own feed, for example, is here.)

Hobo stove on the Black Sea coast

Well, I won’t be ‘live-Tweeting’ my future trips; not for my friend, nor anyone else. And here’s why.

Tweets, by their nature, are free-floating snippets of information. Each one inhabits a single drop in an ocean of content. In any given Twitter user’s feed, this could span mainstream media headlines, celebrity gossip, a viral video or two, links to random interesting articles, or photos of your mate’s swollen foot.

Then along might come the following:

“Spent a night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China.”

I assume that this is the kind of update my friend would like to see. It would save him having to read a tiresome thousand-word diatribe on the same experience, which he doesn’t have time to do. My adventure travelling experience could be happily digested alongside the remainder of his Twitter timeline. In my friend’s eyes, there’s no difference.

Now I have no doubt that the Twitter user who posted the update above (which I took from today’s feed) is perfectly happy with his or her Tweet, and feels that it accurately represents what they were doing at the time. And there is little doubt that somebody who has done their fair share of self-supported adventure travel might be able to roughly guess at the context in which one might find oneself camping between two distant Central Asian border posts.

But to my high-flying friend sitting in a coffee shop or office in central London, exactly what would this message mean? What context would he have for it? What first-hand experience of the Tien Shan mountains does he have? When was the last time he spent a month sleeping under canvas? What was the longest man-powered journey he took in his adult life? What is it actually like in ‘no-man’s land’? What are the Tweeter’s motives for being there, and why is it important that he or she let the world know?

The Tweet invites imagination, and sheer invention is what inevitably follows. 140 characters leave every aspect of the words’ true meaning to guesswork. And, assuming that the majority of us have yet to spend the night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China, our guesswork and assumptions will be all over the shop, and the chance that any of the guesses might resemble reality is practically zero.

And in any case, my friend will look at the Tweet, consider it for maybe half a second, and then be distracted by the next in the never-ending stream of informative nuggets. Then something even worse will happen: the guesswork and the assumptions will be done in the background, subconsciously, where all the misconceived impressions unwittingly held by those who haven’t experienced the world for themselves will be built into a vague and ever-more warped idea of the Tweeter’s journey, as told through his or her Tweets.

Here’s another example from today’s expeditions on Twitter:

“Had a road rage incident…. Dave got tackled off the bike and kicked in the nuts… eventful day.”

Can I feel Dave’s pain? Do I know how he feels; what his sensibilities tell him to make of it? Do I know how blissful his previous month of cycling was before this cruel blow to the family jewels took place? Do I know what events caused the incident? What does his riding buddy make of it? Why am I assuming that a car driver was involved, even though it was never mentioned?

My top priority when writing about my journeys is to take my reader with me, as much as such a thing is possible. Why? Because it’s enjoyable. It might be educational. On rare occasions, it might even be a little bit inspiring. But I know that my reader probably doesn’t have the luxury of first-hand context for the experiences of which I write, so I have to paint pictures, evoke atmospheres, invest emotions, provide some insight into the whys and wherefores.

Without these things, my stories would encourage readers to build works of imaginative fiction in their minds. Some self-titled adventurers actually rely on this; cherry-picking the pieces of information that they know can be used to construct superhuman-sounding tales of high adventure by people who have no defence against their own lack of context and overactive imaginations. This appeals to people who sell media, and of course to the oft-massive egos of the protagonists.

Adventure – being a state of mind rather than a set of criteria – should be without limits; without restrictions on who can partake of it, without it making the slightest difference how impressive it can be made to sound. So it’s not worth pretending my projects are elite or daring or impossibly difficult, or inviting others to do so on my behalf. There are the inconsequential details, and there is the irrelevant information, little of which survives the editing process, but the bottom line is that I have no reason to write at all if I can’t take my friend away from his office, just for a few minutes, and show him a different world; a set of events outside his own experience, something to provoke new thoughts – but in a way which avoids the kind of misinterpretation that is so easy to make.

Other than providing a link through to a fully-formed piece back here, these are things that a Tweet in a timeline – for the vast majority of followers – will never do. If you don’t believe me, try making all the points in this article using 140 characters or less. My friend honestly believes that there is no difference in consuming a handful of vapid Tweets and investing 15 minutes in reading a considered, crafted and complete piece of creative non-fiction (or, for that matter, investing a few days in reading a book). He is wrong. The difference is as great as between a single note and an entire symphonic movement. As someone who creates, I’d rather reach one person on a meaningful level than a thousand people on a level that is ultimately meaningless.

So I won’t be ‘live-Tweeting’ my next journey, and I hope that these thoughts might provoke others in the field to reconsider their own use of the technology (not to mention reminding myself of these reasons when I’m tempted to start doing it!). As for my friend’s “I don’t have time” argument, well, if he has better things to do, then good for him – I need not worry that he’s missing out.

31 Responses to “Why I Won’t Be ‘Live-Tweeting’ My Next Expedition”

  1. James dean

    Brilliant insight as usual Tom, what can you learn from an ever decreasing sphere of information???? If people can’t be arsed/ can’t find time/don’t have a reasonable attention span… Don’t bother! I look forward to your next, relatively in depth post;))

    Reply
  2. Tegan

    I feel this is very well written and I enjoy all the highlighted points mentioned. I enjoy reading all of your stories, which is the single most reason why I stop by your page. Thank you for you every detail and description. I loved how to make a stove from a can and after reading, I promptly took out my 8 year old to show her how it was made. I feel very educated by small tidbits like this and enjoy the time it took to read every word of inspirational journey that can be shared! Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Ewa

    A voice of sanity in what they ironically call “information age” while information seems to be shrinking to one-click ‘likes’ on facebook.

    Reply
  4. lilalia

    Very well argued and insightful. It is a choice between sharing (bits of) information and sharing your thoughts and experiences. I very much appreciate the way you do the later. Yours is a travel log and not an itinerary.

    Isn’t one of the points of your journeys to do it the long way? To speak about the people and landscapes… why would you choose to capture these as snapshots?

    I don’t want to be snarky, but if you take the time to do the distances and write so eloquently, surely your friend can find the time to read your posts. He sounds dangerously like a git.

    Reply
    • Tom

      My friend blames ‘this day and age’ for not having time to read my blog. He sees the fact that his work and social calendar have eaten all of his time as due to factors beyond his control, rather than being self-imposed (as they actually are)…

      Reply
  5. Liz Wilton

    Tom would you consider that there is a place for Live tweeting in some situations? I’m thinking of those doing adventurous stuff where blogging is either not possible – Atlantic rowing teams such as @theAtlantic4 or where problems with power and resources make it difficult say for people like Felicity Aston @felicity_aston skiing across Antarctica. Getting brief, but insightful updates does allow those of us supporting them to share a tiny bit of their adventure, albeit without all the glorious detail, but it gives us a glimmer of what it might be like and how they are feeling.

    I imagine for those undertaking such big challenges, it isn’t just about sharing the experience with the whole wide world, but also about the support that you receive via tweets that people send you.

    As for your friend who doesn’t have time to read your blog, I agree that it is his loss and he should make time, and that by just reading tweets alone he may have the wrong idea about what you are doing (or just no idea). However, I’d also say that we are following lots of people who have been or are doing something similar to us – other cycle tourers and adventurers. So a percentage of your ‘audience’ are like minded people who may well have been in a similar situation and camped beneath the stars in Mongolia and been woken up by 5am by a man on horseback asking for a smoke! There is every chance that for some they will get the joke or the reference and understand the hardship or emotion you are trying to convey in 140 characters. Of course there are others who will have no idea, but they may still be happy to read your distant tweets and in time will be happy to buy the book, although they may never have had the time to read the blog. Let’s hope so eh!

    Great post Tom, it’s good to think about this stuff. Good luck with the book!

    Liz

    Reply
    • Tom

      Yes, it’s true that in some cases Tweeting or otherwise posting brief updates might be the only practical means of communication from the field. But this brings up another question. If your travails have taken you to a place where you have neither the time or facilities to write up your experiences on the go, how important really is it that we (the public) hear about events in real-time? How much difference would it make if we heard the full story a month later? Wouldn’t your circumstances, which are probably fairly extreme, be better digested and later communicated through the lens of retrospection?

      You’re right that an audience of ‘adventurers’ (let’s say) with a context for your nuggets of information would probably be able to make more sense of it. But who really has such an audience, to the exclusion of all those who would like to but have not yet got there? I’d say that the prospective/armchair adventurer is probably even more suggestible than the friend or family member, since his or her tendencies might make him or her more likely to take action based on what you put out there…

      Reply
  6. normm

    Awesome….you should receive an award for this post!!!!! Tweet, Facebook, and the like.are such a life shortening experience.

    Reply
  7. Rob Thomson

    If I was following the account of the person who tweeted “Had a road rage incident.… Dave got tackled off the bike and kicked in the nuts… eventful day”, I would be checking their blog every day for the long-form version. Surely there must be some value in live tweeting to keep readers interested, and even coax some of them to read your more in depth accounts when they come available. If I saw “Had a road rage incident.… Dave got tackled off the bike and kicked in the nuts… eventful day” on Monday, I would be fully primed for the “The Road Rage Incident Full Story” blog post link tweet which followed a week later.

    In that respect, live tweeting could be of some value.

    Reply
  8. Mick

    Twitter is the gateway drug to the Class A addiction of the full blog. Without it, I wouldn’t have been aware of Tom’s trip or this blog at all. Think of twitter as your advertising tool, drawing people in to the deeper experience.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Mick and Rob,

      Good points made here.

      The fact remains that my friend up there still won’t have time to read the long-form version, so he’ll have invented his own version of events based on his experiences of road rage and being kicked in the nuts, alongside everything else in his ever-so-valuable feed of information nuggets.

      For those that do have time to read the full blog, wouldn’t a Tweet along the lines of ‘How Dave ended up getting kicked in the nuts [insert link to blog here]’ do the trick? No real space for misinterpretation, and plenty of incentive to read the long-form version!

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting Twitter outright; just the way it’s used for ‘live-tweeting’ happenings that need far more thought and time than they’re often awarded to be communicated effectively. I use Twitter for linking to blog posts all the time. You might well have ended up here by following a Tweeted link. But my friend will never get this far.

      Reply
  9. Nigel Francis

    Look forward to your Tweets then! 🙂

    Reply
  10. Annie

    I agree with your well thought-out decision regarding tweeting 100%. More and more people are filling their lives with short lived bursts of information that only skim the surface, then find themselves bombarded and only absorbing as minimal amount of info as possible for the brain to process this and leave themselves lacking in indepth information and time to process this. Missing out on a very rewarding part of life…stop to smell the flowers AND absorb the info 🙂

    Reply
  11. Blanche

    Wondering about being online when traveling in general. :>

    Reply
    • Tom

      Completely agree. Connect with real life people for a change!

      Reply
      • Blanche

        Yeah we nearly met in Yerevan :>
        I like to use the social media to stay in touch with people who are far away and to find other interesting people I want to meet in real life. But on my bicycle trips it’s real life contacts only :>
        And you know this is the best part of being on a bicycle tour!

        Reply
  12. Bryan Hansel

    Part of your argument is based on one way to use Twitter. If you have actual Twitter relationships with people that know what you’re doing, generally where you are, an update such as

    “Had a road rage incident.… Dave got tackled off the bike and kicked in the nuts… eventful day”

    can fit in perfectly well and be hilarious (which it is). If you have 3,000 followers only a few dozen or so might be following you closely, but to those few dozen that’s going to make complete sense. The rest probably aren’t going to read your blog anyway, so why not reach them on Twitter.

    Tweeting and blogging aren’t mutually exclusive nor do they need to portray the same meaning. It’s like the difference between a haiku and Shakespeare. A well-written haiku, such as this one of mine

    misunderstanding again
    deep now into the
    peeled onion

    can convey significant emotion and meaning and can tell a story — maybe it is open to the readers interpretation, but that’s part of the form. Can a haiku tell the story of the Tempest? No, but it doesn’t aim to. And Twitter doesn’t aim to tell the story you can tell on a blog. There’s no reason that you can’t embrace a tweet on its own terms and use it in a way that its pliability conveys your meaning. Of course, it’s not going to convey every point that you made in this blog post, but it doesn’t aim to either.

    I’ve live tweeted one 45-day, 800-mile kayaking expedition and I found it rewarding. I know some people really enjoyed the tweets because they were written about later in multiple blogs. I also connected those tweets to Facebook and my friends and followers there enjoyed and responded to them as well. Each evening, I responded to any @replies that I received throughout the day. Using Twitter also allowed me to meet two people on the route who were following my tweets.

    Will Twitter replace what you can write in a blog? No. Can it portray an expedition accurately in context? Maybe. Can it be useful in telling a story of an expedition and connecting to people? No doubt.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Your advice is to embrace the limits of the format. This works for a haiku, because breadth of interpretation is the entire point. It’s not the point when Tweeting the events of an expedition. My point stands that I’m not in the business of inviting misinterpretation – I’m actively against it. Neither am I a marketer or PR person; audience size is not the goal.

      I repeat that I think Twitter has it’s uses, but ‘live-Tweeting’ currently isn’t one of the uses that I believe to be helpful, regardless of how many people mention, respond to or say they enjoy said Tweets. It may well be that there is a way to make the format work more meaningfully. I have yet to see it, though, and would love an example!

      Great blog, by the way. Very handy for me, planning as I am a packrafting trip this year.

      Reply
      • Bryan Hansel

        Your welcome. I like your site as well and am going to have to appropriate your “Advice” style page. That’s a really good idea to make content easily accessible. Enjoy the packrafting trip.

        I just don’t buy it that a tweet always invites misinterpretation. If you don’t want it to, you can use concrete language. In your example

        “Spent a night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China.”

        there’s not much to misinterpret and there are plenty of characters left to describe “no-man’s-land” to make it less vague if that’s what you want. The writer of this tweet didn’t leave much up to imagination. Does it answer all the questions that you raised? Nope, but it’s not trying to. It’s just describing a moment in time.

        I have a few friends that tweet on expeditions and it’s nice to know where they are or what they are doing between blog posts. They often combine it with a lat/lon reading. Look back at @elexpore for what he did on the Save the Poles Expedition as an example. When he made the summit of Everest and sent the first tweet from there, we all knew that he had completed his year-long quest. Capturing the moment at the moment is a powerful tool.

        Reply
        • Tom

          I concede that ‘capturing the moment at the moment’ could be powerful, if the moment in question really is a significant one, as it’s more about the sense of individual achievement than anything else, which we can all understand.

          But my point about “Spent a night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China” is that it’s a singular cold fact, just that, and to evoke anything from that fact requires prior experience. You and I probably have enough to draw from, and can contextualise the fact to a certain extent. But most people I write for simply don’t know what it actually means to be in that situation, and 140 characters isn’t enough (neither words nor time to digest them) to convey it. Hence, unless your audience is composed entirely of seasoned adventurers and travellers (unlikely), the value and the effect of the Tweet is most definitely up for debate. An audience may ‘feel’ that they have a sense of your trip, in the same way that they may ‘feel’ that they have a sense of – for example – what’s going on in Iran right now. But how closely does that sense resemble the truth?

          As an adventurer, it’s very easy to forget that the majority of people have absolutely no conception of the reality of the things you’ve done. It’s unfortunate, and usually no fault of their own – blame Hollywood, the media, the extreme sports industry – whatever. But adventurers who want to communicate their exploits meaningfully are, I think, obliged to face up to that fact. Are we doing so by wedging expedition facts via Twitter into their social network streams?

          Reply
          • Bryan Hansel

            I think people that use Twitter understand that a tweet isn’t going to give them the exact feel of what exactly happened at the moment nor the “truth,” but I also think you need to give the users more credit. If they’re following you because they want to hear what you think, they probably have some background from prior reading or whatever to understand an inkling about what you’re doing. Maybe not the whole nor the “truth,” but, really, who can know the “truth” of what is going on in Iran even after reading a book?

            Solo adventurer Robert Perkins wrote, “Life is what happens between the facts.” And anything we write or say is just a communication of the “facts.” Even after reading a book or listening to a slideshow consisting of the “facts,” I doubt many know exactly what “life” was like on an expedition. They may have a better understanding than someone who follows your tweets, but then, again, I’d argue that that’s not the point of tweeting. Tweeting is about what’s happening now. It’s about one specific fact in the now that’s happening now.

            Regardless, “spending a night in no-man’s-land” will seem interesting to many even though they might not completely understand that feeling or “truth,” i.e. it’s capturing the moment at the moment.

            I’ll concede that some adventurers might not use the medium effectively, but I won’t concede that it can’t be done.

  13. Ron in Vancouver

    Hi Tom.

    Excellent post. I follow an average of 47 active adventure blogs DAILY, and find the time to read them in full. Generally, I ignore Tweets: too many + too brief = confusing! (Who said what when? doh!)

    No message is a meaningful message without details surrounding the event at the time of occurance. Bias via editing usually degrades the initial impact which prompted the message in the first place. And memories of past events – even 1 day ago – become somewhat distorted. I do not mean to condemn a tweet through enhancement in a later blog, or a still later book through a series of blogs. However, I would become bored silly from from a string of prattle and quips with no true content of what is going down, then would unsubscribe from that source.

    You, and many others, serve meat with the veggies and provide a full meal which I thoroughly enjoy! Keep up the good work, son.

    Reply
  14. Tejvan Pettinger

    Interesting post. Full time blogger – non-user of twitter (even though everyone says I should use twitter)

    Reply
  15. Patrick

    Tom completely disagree with your stance on Twitter, these bite sized real time updates bring the reader up close to the moment of the now, unlike a more drawn out and thoughtful blog.

    For example if you tweeted on your ride last winter up around arctic circle ‘long day, still snowing, lights out, -20c outside’ that short nugget tells me exactly what you doing and experiencing at that time.

    Nothing against your blog, but I want Twitter too!

    Reply
  16. Jonny

    I think the John Bishop Sport Relief challenge tweets have been a great example of how Twitter can be used to tell a story. Along with photos, regular updates and GPS location info – it has created a story that has been very interesting to follow (and quite addictive, waiting for the next update).

    https://twitter.com/#!/sportrelief

    The John Bishop ‘Week of Hell’ challenge has seen him cycle 185 miles, row across the Channel and run 3 marathons over 5 days.

    Reply
  17. Richard Worth

    Tom, it’s your journey, your adventure, you do it the way you see best and the same goes for communicating the information you wish to. If people want to follow and read they will find the way and time to do it, just as your friend finds the time to do other things rather than read a blog.

    Merry Christmas to you & Tenny

    Regards.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I suppose in the end there’s more than one way to skin a cat (as my mum would say), and this is my preferred method of skinning…

      Reply
  18. Nick @ Langebaansunset

    Hi Tom

    Found your post quite thought provoking and you have kicked off an interesting debate here. My wife and I completed a year on the road through West / Central Africa last year and naturally the question of Blog, Website, Twitter, FB, U Tube, Red Bubble, SPOT etc…etc…. was something we looked at before we started and we posed a very similar question to ourselves during the planning phase. At the time we were not even sure what value of something like Twitter or Blogger would have until we started to use it and only after the trip did we (i) really start to use Twitter to good (better) effect.

    I guess my take on Twitter wrt adventure travel is simple, Twitter is “interest” centric and so if people follow you and you follow them they (you) are interested in what you (they) have to say and probably (hopefully) being inspired, educated, afforded new insight and happy to receive bit sized observations from you (us) while we are on the road.

    You mention that “My top priority when writing about my journeys is to take my reader with me, as much as such a thing is possible. Why? Because it’s enjoyable. It might be educational. On rare occasions, it might even be a little bit inspiring”….. I agree and this (hopefully) is the reason why people would follow your Blog and / or Twitter feed. I don’t think Twitter detracts from this at all – it simply adds another way for people to interact with your Blog / keep up to date with your posts and be part of your trip / experience.

    I use Tweet Deck and lists and this allows me to follow a wide range of people aligned to my interest in overland travel (4×4 & cycle touring) e.g. this Blog post for example came to my attention from a Tweet from a fellow overlander. I found your trip site via search on Twitter. This thread is featured today in my Daily News digest via Paper.li Observation – There are multiple ways that people can be pulled into your adventure.

    Over the last few years I have observed that the Blogosphere and Twittersphere and related social platforms are being filled with meaningless posts that are simply there to drive traffic to a sites advertising uninteresting, mainstream, exaggerated travel content that are the complete opposite the kind of posts on your Blog. I think your site and your travel stories are not in this category and I for one would like you to “Tweet” from the road. It does not have to be “live” as in multiple times per day (a big negative) …… we for one were not motivated to find wifi / internet cafes / buy SIMS in every country we went to…..thats not the point of the journey. But a well considered Tweet with a link to a longer blog article is worth it IMHO. If people don’t have time to read the full blog, I wouldn’t worry…..thats their choice. Perhaps “choice” (too much of it) is the biggest problem presented by social media today. Does it add to detract from your goals? Does it add or detract from your audience experience? Maybe your best placed to answer the first question and maybe the audience is best placed to answer the second question. Quality over quantity is also a key factor with Twitter. Send out less / quality post and people will generally follow. Send too much / bland Tweets and people get turned off.

    For most people, doing what you (we) do is simply a dream or aspiration and so following your adventure (through whatever means they find most convenient) is the next best thing and may even tip them into acting on their dreams and doing “it”. If they don’t read the great content you produce, so be it, but at least you are providing them with the option to become more engaged & inspired.

    Keep on Blogging, Tweeting and creating the great content you have curated on this site Tom…… Its inspiring and motivating on many levels to many different people. You have at least 2x interested followers in Southern Africa 😉

    Have a great 2013!!

    Nick @langebaansunset

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Hey Nick, thanks for the detailed comment here. I am definitely a fan of Twitter and I use it every day to post links to content I think will be useful and interesting to followers. I spend a lot of time reading it, so why not share it? And I also use it to spread the word about my own writing and projects.

      I’m just not a fan of a very specific thing: ‘live-tweeting’ from the ends of the Earth (or at least somewhere entirely unfamiliar to most). I’d rather be taken there later with a well-crafted piece of storytelling than consume a mass of snippets that don’t add up to an accurate picture of reality.

      It’s very difficult in the Information Age to know what kind of a knock-on effect your publishing has. Traditional media, through selectivity and lack of context, is responsible for cultivating a culture of fear in the Western world. By cherry-picking on social media we run the risk of creating a similar (albeit much smaller) version of the same paradox. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

      I think you’re spot on about quality over quantity.

      Thanks for continuing the discussion, it’s an interesting one for sure…

      Reply
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