Smoking a Tweet

Philip Berne - Jul 6, 2010
Smoking a Tweet

The first time I worked for a Dot-Com (back when websites were called such things), there were certain freebies always available. Not on Google levels of freebies, but there were always bottles of water and Mountain Dew in the fridge. There was pizza every other Wednesday, Krispy Kreme donuts every Friday. But we didn’t have a water cooler. The office space was mostly wide open, with a pit for the editors and writers, and offices for the higher-ups. I was segregated with a few graphic designers, but my friends all sat in the pit. In that year, I probably smoked more cigarettes than at any other point since I picked up the habit in college. That was also the year I quit smoking.

[Image via carrotcreative]

I smoked for a bad reason. I’m not completely against smoking, though I think smoking should be banned in public places. But if you smoke in your own house, or your own car, as long as you’re not slowly killing your kids or your neighbors with your deadly coffin nails, go ahead. I know there aren’t any good reasons to smoke, but there are some reasons that at least make the habit seem honorable. If you really like the taste of cigarettes, an acquired taste, I’m sure, or if you really like the feel of a nicotine buzz, then at least you’re using cigarettes for the intended reason. I’m guessing that of all the smokers in this country, maybe 1% fall into those two categories. The rest are probably like me.

Actually, I liked the taste of my cigarettes, but that’s not why I smoked. I smoked clove cigarettes, which might be worse for you than normal tobacco. They certainly feel more harmful. But they smell delicious. Like spiced cookies, or baked ham. It’s not my fault that I smoked cloves. I was an English major at a private university in New England. Cloves were a prerequisite for my major.

When I worked for the website, we got a 30 minute break for lunch, but cigarette breaks were in a sort of limbo. If you were excessive with your breaks, it would be noticed. But if you wanted to sneak out for 15 minutes a few times a day to have a smoke, nobody bothered you. The website offices were in downtown New York City, on a street just off of Wall Street. I’d hang out in front of our building with my friends and smoke while we watched investment bankers pass by, or security guards loading trucks into the Federal Reserve building.

I made some of my best friends on those smoke breaks. It wasn’t about the smoking, of course. We’d complain about the management, or make prescient remarks about the lack of future prospects for the site. We’d chat, hang out and get to know each other. The cigarettes weren’t necessary, but if we wanted to hang out on the street and kibbitz, it helped to have a cigarette in one hand. Nobody bothered us.

I was laid off from the website before many of my smoking buddies, who would eventually be fired en masse. In the tense couple months that followed, I would still occasionally commute into Manhattan from Brooklyn just to join my friends on a smoke break. We’d hang out, like old times, and then they’d go back to work at a doomed website while I went to find a job before more candidates were dumped into the market by the crashing tech hot air balloon.

I quit smoking one day when I looked at myself in the mirrored glass windows of a building downtown. I’m a big guy, and smoking is probably at the top of things I shouldn’t be doing, just above “eating another cookie.” I saw myself and realized I looked worse than ridiculous. I looked suicidal. It wasn’t the last time I’d smoke, though. I allowed myself a pack of cigarettes every time I went to Vegas. In tech journalism, that’s usually once or twice a year, depending on which trade shows you attend. Everybody in Vegas looks vaguely suicidal.

I always kept my smoking away from my colleagues. This past year, I went to my favorite tobacco stand in the MGM Grand and asked for a pack of Djarum Specials. They’re now illegal in the United States. They taste too good, and the government decided that flavored cigarettes are targeted at kids. I could argue, I mean these aren’t chocolate covered cherry cigarettes I’m talking about. But when you argue against a law that keeps kids from smoking, you always sound like a schmuck.

Speaking of sounding like a schmuck, I hated Twitter when I first started using it. I joined Twitter for purely competitive reasons. There was an industry event, and I hadn’t gotten the invitation. A friend mentioned that people I knew were discussing the event on Twitter. I signed up immediately. I was never interested in personal blogging, and micro blogging seemed even more self-indulgent. But if I could gain some business advantage from Twitter, I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Twitter grew on me. After two and a half years of traveling into Manhattan from New Jersey for my last job, I started to work from home when my son was born. At first, it was so that I could help out and be around him more, but I also started to enjoy the benefits of working from home. No long commutes. Less money spent on gas and tolls. Working in sweats. I was even more productive at home, because I was more likely to work early in the morning, and later at night. When I worked at an office, I worked when I was literally in the office. At home, I always felt like I was on call, and that was a good thing.

Still, working from home can be lonely. Though I was in constant contact with my employees and my supervisor, casual conversation took a back seat to productivity. When you’re sitting in your home office trying to focus on a task, it’s almost impossible to get everyone else to agree to a fifteen-minute break where we all step outside and shoot the breeze.

I started to enjoy Twitter when I started thinking of it as the virtual water cooler; the digital cigarette break. Instead of making broad pronouncements or quoting inspirational texts, I just posted the same sort of short, conversational statements I might make in passing, or spark the same conversations I would have standing on the sidewalk with a cigarette in my hand.

The character limit lends itself well to chatting. You can’t dominate a conversation on Twitter.

Everybody is welcome, just as anyone can walk up to the water cooler and chime in if they have something to contribute. I might not ask everyone to join me when I want to step outside for a smoke, just as I don’t follow back everyone who follows me. But if you’re passing by and you want to contribute, I’ll always listen to what you have to say.

Every once in a while, someone around the water cooler has some cool pictures of vacation or their kids, and you pass them around, feigning interest of just ignoring them if they aren’t cool, ooohing and aaaahing if you see something interesting. There’s a guy who always makes jokes, and another guy who talks too much about the beer he drank last night or will drink this evening. There’s a woman who can’t stop talking business, probably because she’s in PR. Someone inevitably tells the same story at happy hour later that day that they told on the sidewalk, where Facebook is my virtual happy hour, free hors d’oeuvres and all.

Best of all, Alyssa Milano occasionally walks by, joins the conversation for a moment and walks away mumbling about her Chihuahuas. The world is getting smaller and smaller.

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