What I learned from six months of wearing a Twitter-handle nametag

For the past six months, I’ve consistently worn a nametag with my Twitter handle @ericmbudd proudly displayed next to the cerulean blue Larry Twitter bird, running a live experiment on social circles and network effects.

Screenshot 2016-01-12 00.45.58

I sent artwork to Nametag Ninja, who for $13.38 shipped me a permanent magnetic nametag that I planned to wear everywhere.

My experiment seems like a proper follow-up to my previous view that “Facebook is the suburbs while Twitter is the city,” and now gives me an opportunity to build on some of Twitter’s advantages in a dense, urban, and creative-filled environment like Boulder, ColoradoInitially I had skepticism and nervousness about changing a social norm but realized I must embrace the decision for a proper test.

Places I have worn the nametag: public events like meetups and Ignite Boulder, larger private events, public meetings (Boulder city council), job interviews, coffee shops, and even my fifteen-year high school reunion (@MattSebek was impressed, which is cool because he’s way more Twitter famous than I am). I chose not to wear the nametag at work, for political and company-policy reasons, and at smaller gatherings meant to be private or semi-private, which are more focused on intimate relationships than public dialogue, or where I might call undue attention to myself. [edit 2017-01-27: I’ve been wearing my Twitter nametag at my new jobs since February 1st 2016. Definitely a mixing of public and private life that I’ve come to embrace]

Breakdown of responses:

  • “Do you work for twitter?” (“no”) – most common question
  • “What is that?” (usually followed by me asking the person “are you on Twitter?” with a common response of “no”)
  • “Why the nametag?” (“it’s a bit of a social experiment”)
  • “Do you wear that thing everywhere?” (“yes”)
  • “Nice to meet you @ericmbudd
  • “Oh you totally follow me on Twitter”
  • “Oh we met at…”
  • “Oh I think you favorited my tweet”
  • “I think I know you from Twitter. You’re always blowing up my feed.”

After wearing the nametag a few weeks, I realized I wouldn’t see a large shift in my Twitter or in-person experiences. Since the most common response to the nametag was “do you work for Twitter?”, unfortunately people did not intuitively understand my intent. And while about 560 people followed me on Twitter during the trial period, only a single person followed me directly due to the nametag (which she did on her phone mid-conversation upon first meeting). However, five to twenty people followed me indirectly due to the nametag: either by starting or furthering a conversation, or clearly identifying that I used Twitter and could be followed.

What did I hope the nametag would accomplish?

Having people I met follow me was not itself a goal. I see Twitter as a network of people more related by interests rather than an explicit physical or geographical connection. My goal was to enhance Twitter as a tool to build networks. By wearing a nametag, I wanted to invite conversation. By wearing a Twitter nametag, I also wanted to invite online conversation, and signify that our discourse could be public, inclusive, and continuing. I wanted to connect in-person people with an online network of others talking about topics we found interesting. And on several occasions I met people in person after only having known them on Twitter. I benefited from having the nametag both online and in person.

But I also got the benefits of wearing a nametag in general (via @BrianLehman): people knowing my name, and not ever getting embarrassed if they had forgotten or couldn’t instantly recall it. During the time period I also saw people running for elected office wearing nametags to great effect, and thought how powerful it might be to instantly follow up with someone online after meeting.

Screenshot 2016-01-12 00.13.40.png
Online network effects magnify in-person networks.

So what else did I learn?

Can a Twitter nametag help replace a business card? Absolutely, if interests are aligned. A business card might be useful for connecting with a person for a specific intent, but following someone on Twitter can lead to future ideas, conversations, or projects.

It helps to be up front: “Cool, I’ll check out your profile and might give you a follow.” Some people guard their feeds closely and may resist following new people who don’t align with what they want to read regularly. But putting people on a Twitter list can be a great alternative; I suggest building lists either based around geographic location or centered on a subject matter, like my list of “urbanists.” I try to put as many people as possible on relevant lists that I read, even if I don’t have an immediate connection in mind.

Does the idea of Twitter nametags scale? Probably; I benefitted from the fame of being the only person using a Twitter nametag, in a similar way that REI did with its #OptOutside campaign rejecting Black Friday. But what would happen if every Twitter user had one? Would the effect of increased interactions scale for the typical person? I’m curious. Could Twitter make advantage of the fear of missing out‘, and drive more users to its service?

Is there a business case for Twitter mailing nametags to all of its users? (from @isaach). I’ll leave rigorous analysis of the question to another article, but I think possibly, given some caveats: the people who would benefit most would live in a dense city that has lots of engaged users, with lots of people interested in connecting and learning with others.

Downsides or concerns

A few caveats to think about if you decide to make your own Twitter nametag:

  1. The nametag may drive too much meta conversation about Twitter.
  2. Some people pick Twitter handles that are not ideal due to scarcity of name options, prompting a user to add their name or pseudonym to their nametag as well.
  3. The perception that you are trying to brand yourself. (Some people might be and others might not be)
  4. The potential to intimidate others, particularly if they know you have a large, engaged following that might bring unwanted attention.
  5. The idea that people can’t talk to you about private topics because you might be very focused on public conversations.

And perhaps most importantly, wearing a nametag requires complete comfort with a public presence anywhere and anyplace. To make public posts on the internet largely without recourse is a privilege that many (or most?) people do not have, or may not think they have. A Twitter nametag can magnify the fear of putting one’s self fully into the public eye. But hopefully more people will be willing to try an expanded digital public presence.

Continue this conversation by chatting with @ericmbudd on Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “What I learned from six months of wearing a Twitter-handle nametag

    1. Thanks! I don’t disagree with you, but Boulder is more dense and urban than most of suburban America. and its confined boundaries seem to drive more interaction than more sprawling places

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