What an anonymous British sheep farmer can teach us about the power of Twitter

Now that Twitter (s twtr) is almost eight years old, has over 200 million users and is a multibillion-dollar company, it’s easy to forget what using the service was like in the early days — what made it seem so special, and how those features helped turn it into a global media entity. That’s why it was so fascinating to read a recent piece at The Atlantic by an anonymous British shepherd, who has become a full-on devotee of Twitter, even as he pursues a way of life that has gone unchanged for centuries.

The account known as @herdyshepherd1 is run by a sheep farmer in Britain’s Lake District, and is the antithesis of the celebrity accounts that have come to dominate Twitter in recent years — the Justin Biebers and Miley Cyruses — and that likely accounts for a large part of its charm. It consists of photos of sheep, the “fells” or mountains of the Lake District, and commentary about the simple life that this Twitter user enjoys along with his co-workers.

In his Atlantic piece, the shepherd talks about how he is more or less a Luddite, and likes “old things, old ways of doing things, old stories, old places, and old people.” In other words, he is the complete opposite of the type of person who would be likely to adopt Twitter or become a regular user. And yet he now tweets almost every day, and has more than 13,000 followers — which is pretty impressive for a guy who mostly posts photos of sheep.

So what happened? He says he upgraded his phone to an iPhone, and gave Twitter a try, and realized that he had the ability to share his work — and his love of the mountains and an ancient way of life — with people everywhere, with the click of a button: “I suddenly had a camera and Twitter app in my pocket whilst I worked,” he says. “And though it took me a while to realize it, I had the tools to connect to thousands of people around the world.”

The shepherd goes on to describe how he was afraid that his neighbors wouldn’t appreciate him sharing the details of their lives on Twitter, but as it turned out they were happy when they found out — and started asking him to post photos of their sheep, or to tell the world “things that need to be said” about their way of life. “My world has become shareable in real time with other people,” he said, and that has changed the way he looks at it for the better.

“Tweeting doesn’t affect the basic economics of what we do (it’s a lousy way to make money), or how cold the rain or snow is, so some folk will never be interested. That’s fine. But tweeting surprised me, because it does sometimes give you heart to know so many other people respect and appreciate what we do. Sometimes it just makes you feel a little less lonely. It gives you a kind of courage to carry on.”

It’s easy to get distracted by Twitter’s moves to generate more value from TV networks or embedded advertising. But for me at least, the shepherd’s story gets at the heart of Twitter’s fundamental appeal: it is that ability to share our thoughts and feelings with people we don’t even know, thousands of miles away — and to connect with them, even in a small way:

“Twitter gives you an amplifier for your voice… It cuts out the middleman (I don’t need you to interpret and translate my life and my work for other people – sorry journalists but I’m a shepherd not an idiot). It lets you find your niche (and that niche can be massive). It lets you sell things… and it lets you connect with weirdly interesting other people.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Twitter user herdyshepherd1