Interview with @gussilber

GSpicIt is hard to believe that wordsmith Gus Silber had to be persuaded to use Twitter by a fellow journalist. After 4 years it is safe to say that he has mastered the art of tweeting.

Silber is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and speechwriter. According to his LinkedIn profile he, has written speeches and presentations for CEOs, company directors, entrepreneurs, politicians, and at least one State President. He co-authored Mobinomics: Mxit and Africa’s Mobile Revolution with Mxit CEO Alan Knott-Craig Jr and wrote various screenplays with Leon Schuster, but with over 23,000 followers, most South Africans know him for his prolific tweeting.

According to Silber, Twitter requires you to work like a writer, because it requires you to filter and condense information and make it understandable. “In my career as a journalist, that is what I do instinctively, I take a lot of data and condense it. It’s the same principle that applies when you’re writing a headline or a caption or a blurb.” One can pack quite a punch in 140 characters. “Somehow it is just right for the eye. In that space you can say so much. You can be philosophical, you can be provocative, you can get people all riled up. It can be very light in tone, but it can also be incredibly heavy. Any great idea can be condensed into the space of a tweet. If it can’t, then it’s probably not a great idea.”

How does he do it?

Silber believes that Twitter is a strongly reciprocal medium, so he follows a lot of people back, particularly South Africans. “If they are South African and they choose to use Twitter, there is a good chance that at some point they are going to be an interesting part of the dialogue and the debate, for better or worse. I’m curious to hear what my fellow South Africans have to say.” Keeping up with more than 23,000 people can’t be easy, but Silber says only a small percentage of the people he follows actively tweet. “I don’t mind the noise. I kind of welcome it. As a journalist you learn to read fast. Twitter is a scrolling medium. I pick up keywords very quickly. That is part of the skill of using Twitter, finding the signal in the noise.” He admits he would have to think more carefully about following people if you had to pay to follow people.

Talk the talk

“I like the random nature of Twitter,” says Silber. “It’s like a real-time conversation, overlapping, free-flowing, and constantly shifting in tone and topic. There is no rule that says you can’t butt into a conversation, or steer the conversation in a whole new direction.” This mirrors the way that people speak in real life. Silber says it is important to engage with people on Twitter, because that is part of the social nature of the medium. “It’s natural and instinctive to respond, and it’s a big part of what makes Twitter special and enjoyable.”

Silber has a knack for tweeting links to interesting stories along with some commentary. His observations and sense of humour have seen him and his tweets trend in South Africa. He says the things that tend to get retweeted the most are little epigrams or bits of philosophy. “People like humour and quirkiness. They also like pertinent observations that sum up what’s happening in the world.” And according to him, it is exactly this instinct that journalists are supposed to have.

A great medium for conflict

Twitter is a public platform with a variety of people and opinions. Conflict is bound to arise. “The vast majority of interaction on Twitter is cordial and fun and friendly, but when people engage in conflict with one another, they have to do so in a very terse, rapid-fire manner, and this brings a whole new dimension to rhetoric and debate on the medium. You can’t waste words or pull your punches. You have to get straight to the point.” According to Silber, when people tweet that it will take more than 140 characters to explain their point, they basically admit defeat. “They are saying the medium isn’t enough for the message, so they’re backing out.” He jokingly adds that a good Twitter-fight can be a voyeuristic form of entertainment for the non-combatants. “It’s almost like parking your car in a game reserve, and watching two animals have a fight. It has the same sort of compulsion to it.”

Don’t tweet that!

Although Silber doesn’t really tweet about his personal life, there is a running joke in his family when someone says something interesting, funny or provocative. “They will immediately say: ‘Don’t tweet that!’,” laughs Silber. “There is no divide for me between writing a tweet and any other form of writing,” he says. “It’s all writing, and it’s all for publication.”

According to him, there is a huge element of catharsis to Twitter, particularly in South Africa. “There is a sense of liberation, a sense that you  can say anything and be completely open. A lot of people use Twitter as a therapist’s couch and a kind of journal. I’m often amazed by what people tweet about.” But he has no problem with people who openly tweet their feelings and experiences. ”It’s part of the joy of Twitter. Some people are very candid. If everyone tweeted in the same way it would be a dull medium. There are only vaguely agreed-on rules and conventions on Twitter and it is when people break those that it gets really interesting.”

What makes South Africa unique?

Twitter in South Africa first became popular with journalists, media mavens, and people interested in technology. It has since grown, and we are  now the biggest tweeting country in Africa. “When I started using Twitter it was a small group of people who you could easily put into a demographic. Now Twitter is widespread and diverse. This multiculturalism makes it interesting.” According to Silber, the fact that South Africa is only a 20 year old democracy means that people are still getting used to each other and to the idea that opinions can be voiced loudly without fear of sanctions. “There’s a feeling of liberation. We can openly engage with each other and say what is on our minds.”

Silber says the wide range of concerns and moods on Twitter also makes the South African Twitter landscape unique. “If you had to track the national mood over time according to tweets, you would get a good idea of our psyche and how we, despite our differences, seem to synchronise our moods about certain things, such as Mandela’s health.” He admits that South Africa has good days when everything seems wonderful and other days when you wonder why anyone would choose to live here. “There is a kind of schizophrenia attached to living here, and that’s part of what makes South African Twitter a very accurate microcosm of our society.”

Local flavour

Silber says the issues that South Africans talk about in society are very much mirrored on Twitter. “There are enough South Africans on Twitter for it to be a really good mirror of the country as a whole.” Of course there are also things on Twitter in South Africa that make very little sense for people who do not live here. “It is the language, the colloquialisms, the sense of humour, the things we talk about and the issues of the day – whether it is sports or politics. There is definitely a different flavour to the more generic tweeting style and vocabulary used in other countries.”

Twitter in South Africa is extremely vibrant when compared to Twitter in other countries, says Silber. “We have a lot of personality. We are a very self-aware tweeting nation. We know what the triggers are and we know what gets people jumping. We know what brings us together and what divides us. There is a clear and constant awareness of the bigger picture of who we are as South Africans. What people tweet about really reflects that, and it adds to our understanding of what makes us tick, as individuals and as a nation.”

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Posted in Interviews