New ways to be social together




On stage, gurus held forth on Twitter and news, Twitter during emergencies, Twitter as a business tool.

It was the 140 Character Conference Northwest. A chance to talk, tweet and learn about Twitter, right here in Vancouver.

More than 800 characters signed up to attend on Thursday. Some came from Seattle and California, but most were fairly local.

I stopped in to say hi.

It was hard to make contact with anyone there. At a row of tables, people tweeted from laptops. In nearby chairs, they pecked at phones.

In an hour, they posted 353 Twitter updates about the unfolding conference. Ten minutes later, another 67 tweets.

Twitter, of course, is a hot digital tool. Built to send a blast to friends, it now lets us connect with strangers, share ideas, sell goods.

It’s been used by revolutionaries in the Middle East. A way to communicate beyond dictators’ control. Each tweet maxed at 140 characters.

But revolutions were not on the agenda at the 140 Character Conference. Government uses of Twitter were center stage.

Politicians can use the tool to connect to voters, said Portland Mayor Sam Adams.

Emergency crews can follow and share updates, fire chiefs reported.

Agencies can learn and adapt based on their online fans, said Gahlord Dewald, Internet strategist.

Twitter’s often a tool for businesses, too. Two experts on corporate use shared tips for the for-profit crowd.

When businesses use social media, they must remember to be social, said Bruce Elgort, chairman of OpenNTF Alliance.

Don’t just put out blasts about your product. Listen to customers. Interact.

Make sure Twitter helps you get stuff done, said Chris Martin, documentary filmmaker and social media maven. Otherwise you’re wasting time.

“If you’re not productive and meeting your goals and objectives, you’re probably not going to stay in business,” Martin said.

Businesses that use Twitter well boost customer engagement. Do it wrong and you’re better off avoiding the social Web.

That said, be bold, give it a go, Martin exhorted.

“Get social. Do business,” he said. “Don’t fear what is new.”

There’s evidence he’s right.

Companies use Twitter to track complaints and fix them, reward customers with coupons, answer questions, spur a sale.

JetBlue, Comcast, Dell and Starbucks all boasted of tweet success — details online here:

Still, I thought, the screen’s an odd way to connect, especially in a room full of other people.

I looked around to see if anyone might agree. Nobody looked back. All eyes were on their screens.

On my phone: 62 new tweets about the conference. People quoting speakers, arguing, checking in.

To the tech savviest among us, perhaps I was the odd one out. Looking for eye contact when the real conversation was online.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or