Why are so many engineers really, we mean really, down on Twitter?
Twitter is one of the most popular social networking tools around today. But of the 50 million+ “Tweets” broadcast daily (according to Twitter), not all that many are being sent or received by engineers, many of whom say they just aren’t buying into the micro-blogging service based on “140-characters or less” text messages.
In a recent EE Times survey of 285 engineers, 85% reported that they don’t use Twitter. More than half indicated that the statement “I don’t really care what you had for breakfast,” best sums up their feelings about it; others characterized it as “a ridiculous waste of time and electrons” or expressed the strong desire for it to simply “go away.”
In the same survey, the frequency distribution of responses was heavily skewed toward “not-at-all-loving-it,” with 20% firmly in the “hate it” camp.
“The amount of information in a tweet is not worth the time spent looking at it,” asserts Jeffrey Tuttle, a hardware design engineer with 20 years of experience. “To be productive when doing design you need long periods of uninterrupted thought. Twitter by its nature is intrusive and interruptive. Consequently it seems to be for those people who don’t have enough to do.”
When the topic of Twitter came up at a recent EE Times-sponsored focus group, Tuttle feigned horror, forming a cross with his index fingers and holding them up as if attempting to ward off an evil vampire. Which, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad analogy given how often engineers describe Twitter as a time suck.
Tuttle was more forgiving about Facebook, noting, “It’s fun to occasionally see how people spent their day.” Although he was quick to point out that the idea of camping out on it seemed insane.
“It’s a time issue,” agrees BSEE Tim Schneider, a senior staff applications engineer. “Engineers generally don’t have a lot of it. Our work is very focused and requires a lot of brainpower to get the job done.”
Nonetheless, he does tweet (@T_Schneider), seriously now for two years. Admitting that it can be a distraction (he’ll stop following people who tweet too much), he says that he started to spend more time on it when he realized how useful it could be. “There are a few of us in EDA and in my area of expertise [hardware verification] who follow each other. I also use it to keep up with technical trends and product announcements.”
A former participant of Usenet, a precursor to modern-day Internet forums, and RSS feeds, a killer app for Schneider is the ability to stream all his feeds to a separate Twitter account, thereby allowing him to more effectively manage and filter the information that he wants to keep up with. For example, as an avid cyclist he follows Lance Armstrong’s coach (the cyclist’s tweets were deemed excessive) and other local Arizona riders and adds many of the pro cyclists to his feed around Tour de France time.
Schneider’s biggest Twitter coup? After he entered a remix contest on a music collaboration site and posted his entry, the rap star Snoop Dog starting following him.
Another Annoying Digital Distraction
On the other hand, Electronics Engineer Gary Kuntz tried Twitter and views it as just another “annoying digital distraction.” He thinks many of his peers feel the same way about it because they share the common experience of being bombarded from all directions with a constant stream of useless information, interruptions, and marketing hype.
“I’ve dabbled some with social networking tools,” he says. “But they were interfering with my personal productivity and leisure time. I don’t need tweets popping up with trivial interruptions like ‘Walking the dog’ or ‘Baking cookies, and I’m out of vanilla extract!’ I have actual, real work to do.”
“I think what turns engineers off is how pretentious Twitter seems,” says Todd Sierer, LabVIEW Product Manager at National Instruments. “Engineers don’t like buzz unless it has something do with high tech and so there’s this initial turnoff like, ‘I’m not buying it.’”
Sierer doesn’t know why engineers wouldn’t like a communication tool that limits conversation. “Frankly, my life would be a whole lot better if my manager only talked to me in 140-character sound bites.”
More than 1,000 people follow Sierer on Twitter @engineeringmind. He also uses Twitter for customer support, noting that it’s important to listen and respond to customers, wherever they are. “I probably answer five to ten LabVIEW support questions via Twitter every day,” he says. Since Tweets are limited to a scant 140 characters, he says that it’s an effective tool for initially connecting with people and directing them into the company’s discussion forums, where deeper interactions can take place.
Though at 39.1 the average age of a Twitter user is among the highest of all social networking sites, some engineers speculate that Twitter is a tool only for their younger colleagues. “I’m an old guy working with a few young engineers,” commented one engineer with 41 years of experience. “Old guys, in general, don’t understand Twitter’s social power.”
The generational theory seemed to be supported by two recent Twitter Scavenger Hunts sponsored by EE Times at the Embedded Systems Conference. Participation was heavily skewed toward students and younger engineers. However, the case might also be made that younger people like to win free prizes. To wit, several student participants required assistance in setting up their phones. They received help from a veteran Twitter user who confessed to being “A wee bit over 40 or so. Maybe more so.”
Anecdotally at least, younger engineers don’t appear to be flocking to Twitter any more furiously than their older counterparts. Matt Zeglen, a hardware engineer just three years out of school, says that he had a hard time fathoming why anyone would want a limited message that was only available online. “I stubbornly refused to sign up for an account. Out of my engineering classmates at the time, not one of them mentioned using Twitter. A good portion of them probably didn’t even know what it is.”
A Light Bulb Goes Off
After years of saying no to Twitter, Zeglen finally said yes. He and seven co-workers signed up for the service in order to stay in contact during the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in April. “Instead of calling each other and distracting people during class or having to text seven different people, my co-worker proposed staying in contact over Twitter. It was at that point the light bulb went off for me!”
He says the concept started off great, but wore off quickly. People didn’t check for messages regularly, he says, and he quickly fell back to texting or calling people. Since then, he hasn’t really used it. “Perhaps I am just reluctant to be caught up in the overwhelming swarm of messages. Then again, I might not fully understand the potential of what it has to offer.”
Peter Joseph, a graduate student at San Jose State University studying digital VLSI design, participated in the EE Times Twitter Scavenger Hunt. A veteran of social networking sites like Facebook, it was his first experience with Twitter, and he says he now views it as the next step in the evolution of social networking.
“We’re getting bored with social networking tools through the website. Most of us now prefer using mobile phones for alerts from the university, banking, and so on,” he says. “So although few friends of mine are on Twitter, I hope we can begin using it as we have difficulty finding the time to catch up on the website.”
But he hastened to say, “I can’t think of following tweets during the week as I am very busy working in the lab and attending classes.”
Spoken just like, well, a true engineer.