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December 8, 2013 2:45 pm
Boris Johnson says nothing at all. Warren Buffett gives his job title. Sir Richard Branson declares himself to be a “Tie-loathing adventurer and thrill seeker, who believes in turning ideas into reality. Otherwise known as Dr Yes at @virgin!”
What is the best way of describing yourself on Twitter? I ask following a crisis concerning my own bio on the microblogging site. Until last Thursday it read: “Columnist on the FT, among other things”, but then someone pointed out that “among other things” was unhelpful and slightly passive-aggressive, while “on” was the wrong preposition.
To see how to do it better, I’ve been studying some of the 230m examples of this challenging literary genre, in which you have to identify yourself and tempt others to follow you in 160 characters. The bio I like best is from the comedian David Baddiel, which simply says “Jew”. This is clever, accurate, funny and painless to read; I would copy it, only “Gentile” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
I also admire Bill Gates’s: “Sharing things I am learning from my foundation work and other interests . . .” This is simple and serious and tells you what to expect from his tweets. Only here again, it wouldn’t work for me because I don’t have a foundation, and I can’t use the word “sharing” since I’m not American.
Otherwise, my research has unearthed five Twitter bio clichés, all to be avoided.
First is syntax. Short sentences. Whimsical. Thoroughly annoying. Anne-Marie Slaughter ends hers with: “Mother. Mentor. Foodie. Foreign policy curator.” At least she uses capital letters. Arianna Huffington dispenses with these and finishes her bio with “mother. sister. flat shoe advocate. sleep evangelist.”
These two efforts demonstrate three further things to avoid. One is to mention your family. An extraordinary number of people say they are dad/husband/sister/third-cousin-once-removed etc, which is utterly baffling. A bio is meant to help differentiate you, whereas practically everyone in the world has a blood relation. In writing “dad”, perhaps they are trying to say “I love my family”. But we are all genetically predisposed to do that, and in any case a Twitter bio isn’t the right place for such declarations.
The clichéd bio must contain a list of hobbies, jostling up against family members: “Skier cook triathlete stepfather”. Alas, there is a rule with interests: when listed they invariably look boring, even when leavened by the ubiquitous “unusual” interest. The head of technology at Cisco writes: “Love art, photography, Haiku and food :)”. The haikus are a valiant try, but don’t help.
This sort of laboured quirkiness is the biggest Twitter cliché of all. I’m inclined to blame Stephen Fry for setting a bad example to his 6m-plus followers with “Prince of Swimwear”. He is allowed to be prince of whatever he likes because he is Stephen Fry. Arianna Huffington just about gets away with her flat shoe fetish, but most of us aren’t terribly wacky and must not force it in 160 characters.
Yet the most pointless cliché in a bio is a variant on “Views my own”. Companies encourage staff to write this even though most lawyers say it won’t make the tiniest bit of difference in court. Because everyone knows it is silly, the result is a string of predictable jokes: “Views my own (though someone else said it better first)”. “All views borrowed.”
There are two things that you might think bad, but which can work well in a bio. The first is blatant selling. To put a link in your bio to the Amazon web page where your book can be bought or to have the book cover as a profile picture is not exactly classy, but has a savage honesty to it that I rather admire.
The second is to make the whole thing a joke. The actor Hugh Bonneville’s bio made me laugh: “Tweet as you would be tweeted”, as did Rory Bremner’s: “Stand-up chameleon. 140 characters or fewer.” The trouble with a joke is that it has to be funny. If I were Rosa Monckton, former confidante of Princess Diana, I’d have another go. Hers reads: “Champagne is the answer. The question is more difficult.”
So where does this leave me? If I’m not allowed hobbies, disclaimers, family, quirkiness or snappy sentences, and don’t have a new book to sell and can’t think of a joke, my options are few.
After much thought, and bearing in mind that the point of my tweets is to direct people towards FT.com, I have written a new bio. It says “Financial Times columnist”. Even though it doesn’t quite reflect the hours of work that went into the composition, I am satisfied. It does the job.
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