Twitter and the Anxiety of Influence

Part of our ongoing series related to The Influence Project.


Part of our ongoing series related to The Influence Project.


For the past few months, while my colleague Mark Borden was busy with the planning stages of the Influence Project, I’ve been working on my own personal influence project—releasing a new book on the transformation of higher education called DIY U.

I did all the usual promotional things: visited 12 cities on tour; blogged on, Fast Company and the Huffington Post; published excerpts and related pieces; gave interviews via television, radio, print, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, Webcasts, company newsletters, and even one in Second Life. I also turned to my existing social networks, and that’s where I really learned about meaning of influence today.

Having grown up shy and bookish, I love being social online. I blog, use Facebook, Twitter, share on Google Reader, and I even look at Buzz from time to time (ok, every day).

Yet when I published my first book in 2006, the Internet was not my friend. Reviews of Generation Debt were wildly mixed and the commentary often nasty and personal. I would stay up late, eyes burning, as I scrolled through the comments of random strangers and obsessed about replying point by point. It was defensive, negative, and fruitless.  And frankly, it didn’t sell books. Despite lots of major media coverage my Amazon rankings remained anemic.

DIY U has been a really different story, and I credit that at least partly to Twitter. I started tweeting in March 2009, a month before I signed a contract with the publisher, and it’s been a major, unexpected resource throughout the process. My followers list is relatively modest, but it has built steadily so it feels like a real community of people I respect and admire in the education and technology space. Within that space, people talk about building a “personal learning network,” and that concept has really helped me think about how to use Twitter.

Here’s a partial list of how Twitter’s worked for me during both writing and promotion:


-I shared links of interest that I came upon in my research.
-I posted writing goals by word count. (“Starting point: 7684. Writing until 6pm”).
-Sent out queries to find interviewees and information of interest.
-Posed questions to help clarify my own thinking & engage people in debate.
-Asked for & received invites to conferences & speaking engagements.
-Got relevant news items fed to me every day.
-Met up with people at conferences (including lunch with a random Twitter follower at South by Southwest, who turned out to be really cool).
-Followed the proceedings of meetings or sessions I couldn’t make.
-Gotten instant feedback on speeches.
-Kept in touch in a low-impact way with several of the folks who became major and minor figures in the book.
-Amazingly, some readers created a hashtag, #DIYU, which has remained an ongoing book club-like discussion.
-Let people know about media coverage, upcoming events, blog posts, or imminent live broadcasts (“Catch me now on WNYC”).

Of course, it’s that last item, the promotional stuff, that most risks annoying people. One of my Twitter followers actually wrote a rant titled “Twitter Made me Hate You” where she calls out “Authors whose books have just come out…their feeds become overwhelmed by links to reviews, at-replies to people who have reviewed them, tiresome reminders to buy their book, etc.”

Doree, I sincerely apologize, and thanks for the reminder to rein in the jabber.
But overall, the tenor of buzz has been a thousand times more positive, supportive, and fulfilling than anything that went on with my first book. In fact, sometimes I feel like the online conversation is as valuable as anything in the book.
What works about Twitter? It’s not anonymous. I’ve found it to be a marvelous medium to engage critics in a low-key, non-defensive way, to say, hey, I’m listening, I’m a real person here, can you let me know a little more about what you’re thinking? I’ve turned critics into supporters and I think softened the tone of some debates over the book.  (I recently had a critic who had trashed a speech of mine on Twitter DM me “You have far too many fans for me to criticize you in public!”  After a little back and forth about his concerns, he went on to write a glowing review of the book.)

The positive flow is also happening because I’ve tried to keep in mind that Twitter, while it allows people to build and address an audience of thousands or millions, always has the potential to be a two-way conversation. That’s helped turn the book into an ongoing conversation as well. DIY U is about the power of spreading ideas openly, and I’ve found I can be most influential when I listen as much as, if not more than, I talk.

What do you think about Twitter and its uses for promotion?

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation