Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Twitter and the state of the economy

Wow. Is that a boring title: "The state of the economy". Bear with me, though. This is not an economic dissertation, but rather two lessons from one social event.

The setting: Marwen's Paintbrush Ball 2008, a charity dinner and live auction for a prominent Chicago visual arts program for "under-served young people".

How: Through the generosity of a friend's employer, who purchased a bundle of seats at the dinner. (Thank you.)

The players: JC, Marriott and myself,
plus hundreds of other people.

Lesson 1: Twittering live!

I've been playing around on Twitter for a few months in a very limited capacity. Twitter has been described by many people as "micro-blogging", but I like to describe it as blogging meets instant messaging.

Basically, you create an account and publish posts (aka Tweets) that are limited in size to 140 characters max (this figure has to do with the maximum number of characters allowed by instant messaging programs, or something like that).

You can choose to follow the Tweets of other Twitterers, and talk directly to those Twitterers by throwing an @ before their Twitter name.

Twitter in its simplicity plays nicely with other applications, so there are a lot of tools out there to make your Twitter experience more versatile. Like TwitterFox for my FireFox browser, which keeps me updated on new Tweets with little popup notices in the lower corner of my browser window, and TwitterSync, which updates my Tweets to my status window in Facebook.

So, for instance, I Tweeted this on Saturday afternoon:

Up until Saturday, I'd only ever published my Tweets from my computer. But Twitter is supposed to be more mobile than that. So before I left, I set up my Twitter account to work with instant messages from my cellphone. This was actually a challenge for me, because I don't *do* instant messaging.

Here we were, in the middle of a fancy dinner, with a live auction going on in the background, and I was plugging away at my cellphone trying to perfectly compose a Tweet. As you can see, I was reaching for subject matter, and even gave up toward the end when I couldn't find the "$". That figure is supposed to be $8,000.

Next step was sending a photo Tweet. I'd signed up for TwitPic right before I left the house, but I was inexperienced at emailing photos from my phone, so this was yet another technological hurdle that I had to overcome. Which I did.

When the opportunity came to raise my auction paddle and bid on an item I could afford, I grabbed it. (Nevermind that it was a "raise your paddle if you want to give a straight-up charitable contribution to Marwen" fake auction. I got to use my paddle! As did about a hundred other people.) So I snapped a photo with my phone, gave it a subject line, and emailed it off to TwitPic.

This is what the photo looked like, by the way.

And those three Tweets are my sum experience with Twittering live. (Except for those observations Twittered live from my desk chair, which often say something to the effect of "Is it lunchtime yet?" I never claimed to be the most fascinating person on Twitter. :P )

Lesson 2: The economy affects everyone

If you look up at that second Tweet, you'll see that the "Fighter Pilot for a Day" experience was auctioned off for $8,000. That seems like a lot of money to me. It's well out of my discretionary spending budget. But, the thing is, that same exact experience went for a lot more last year. All the live auction items did.

If my figures are right from last year, that same fighter pilot experience went for more than $20,000.

Quick! Someone do the math. What percentage change is that?

Another great for-instance? A local fashion designer auctioned off a wine-tasting party in his loft for 30-40 people. He supplies the wines, which are premiere.

Last year, there was a bidding war for the party. When the bidding hit $21,000, the designer decided he would happily host two parties and gave the prize to both bidders, raising $42,000 for Marwen.

This year, the party -- one party -- went for $10,000. Nothing to sneer at, certainly, but nothing like last year. What's the percentage change?

My interpretation of the change in bidding patterns? Everyone is tightening their purse strings. If they're not directly feeling the pinch, they're feeling more conservative as they watch those around them who are.

And just in case I was doubting my interpretation, I saw this article on the New York Times website yesterday: It’s Not So Easy Being Less Rich.

This snippet summarizes the theme of the article:
The wealthy don’t generally speak publicly about their finances, in good times or bad. ... But people who provide services to the wealthy — lawyers, art advisers, personal trainers and hairstylists — say they are getting an earful about their clients’ financial anxieties.

Interviews with the people who actually see the bank statements, like divorce lawyers and lenders, say their clients are definitely living on less than they did a year ago, regardless of how expansive the definition of “less” may be.
I think that's exactly what I was seeing live on Saturday night. Generous spending, certainly. But not nearly as generous as last year.


  1. I tried twittering the Eurovision song contest live. Was okay but ultimately my (lack of) speed of typing detracted from enjoying the thing I was trying to watch in the first place.

  2. @Mark -- I found this especially true when I was trying to use instant messaging. I can type quickly on a keyboard, but not using a numeric keypad. I remember you Tweeting about Eurovision. Your tweets were the first I noticed using the # tagging convention on Twitter.


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