By Connor Lynch
The bell rings and the door to the coffee shop opens. Now, imagine, there are the usual crowds scattered at the tables and booths. Brazilian farmers chat by the window. Agronomists are huddled at the back and custom operators are neatly lined up on stools at the bar, sipping coffees and taking calls.
Of course, this isn’t the local coffee house. This is the Twitter coffee house: The short-message-based social media platform that reaches around the world and is as useful as you make it.
Western Ontario crop farmer and agronomist Phil Shaw has a lot of experience with Twitter. He signed up 11 years ago, at the urging of a 20-something-year old editor for whom he wrote a commodity commentary. “Phil, I want you on Twitter,” she said. He deflected. She insisted. “Phil, if you wanna be a pro, you gotta be on Twitter.”
He signed up that night. Within five minutes he knew he’d found something incredibly valuable. He still thinks so. “Twitter is an indispensable tool.”
But not as it’s presented. The key to making Twitter work is tweaking it, he said. The platform works something like this: You sign in and the first thing you see is your timeline. Tweets (280 characters at most) show up in, roughly, chronological order: That’s your timeline. Your timeline is basically useless. What you want are lists, Shaw said.
Go into Twitter, pick out some people you follow (whose tweets appear in your timeline) and put them together in a themed list. Maybe they’re your Brazilian farmers, agronomists, or custom operators. Shaw follows over 4,000 people; more than enough to overwhelm even the most multi-capable millennial, let alone a 61-year-old who doesn’t own a smartphone. But he never sees 4,000 people’s tweets at a time. In fact, he never sees more than 300 at a time, since he doesn’t look at his timeline (which has everyone), and his biggest list only has 300 people on it. They’re his best people: Farmers, agricultural commodity specialists and ag analysts, among others, whose information is vital to him.
In some ways, Shaw said, Twitter is like Google. He can ask questions and get answers. In other ways, it’s better, since he can talk to an actual person about his question and more. “If I have a question about the crop in Brazil, I can ask my friends in Brazil. They’ll not only tell me, but send pics.” Try getting a real-time harvest photo of the Brazilian soybean crop from Google with a real, live person at the other end answering questions in real time.
You’ll find others in the digital coffee shop: Farmers like Andrew Campbell, who advocate for agriculture (with over 21,000 followers) on a digital soapbox; comedian farmers like Andy Pasztor drawing big crowds; and, for some, solidarity with other farmers.
Eastern Ontario crop farmer Warren Schneckenburger (2,641 followers) said that Twitter has not only been a good source of information but a place to commiserate with fellow farmers. Through the painful slog of last spring, it was a place to find camaraderie among his fellow farmers without having to even leave the cab. “Auto-steer is good for that.”
Of course, not everyone is convinced (and you won’t find everyone at the coffee shop either). Eastern Ontario farmer Dean Patterson is already inundated on social media just from Facebook (another platform prone to noise) and isn’t looking for anything more. Fellow farmers have told him Twitter is a good way to get in touch with agronomists (you can send photos to identify weeds). But Patterson prefers to call his.
Elgin County farmer Andy Pasztor (17,700 followers) is a regular on Twitter, mostly for kicks. Among good-hearted complaints and family banter, Pasztor (and the Pasztor Cartel as they call themselves) is notorious for his hashtag #AndyClean. Hashtags (when you write something with the # symbol in front) let you see everyone tweeting that hashtag when you click on it, so clicking on #AndyClean reveals a bevy of beautiful machinery clean enough to eat on. But life in the Pasztor Cartel can be rough. Andy tweeted at his dad, along with a photo of a pile of spilled pickles: “Hey dad . . . clean out your desk immediately . . . you’re fired!”
Just like at the coffee shop, even if you don’t feel like talking, eavesdropping is an option. Durham Region farmer Dale Mountjoy likes to watch conversations between agronomists. Generally he’s not looking for anything in particular. “I still use (Twitter), so I guess I find it helpful.”
Probably not unlike the coffee shop, the biggest personalities get the most attention. Celebrities are the kings and queens of Twitter. The top-three most popular accounts worldwide are for former U.S. president Barack Obama and singers Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, all of whom have over 100 million followers. A prolific user of Twitter, current U.S. President Donald Trump is 18th on the list with over 53 million followers.
THE DIGITAL COFFEE SHOP: Twitter is a great tool for farmers. It’s also where gossip can be curated but there’s no coffee
By Connor Lynch