“So, Um, Twitter. What’s the Point?”
As the so-called social media expert among my friends and family, I’ve been asked this question a number of times in the last couple years. And each time I find myself in the strange position of trying to explain to people what is quite unexplainable. It’s like trying to describe sex. It’s one of those things that you really have to experience to understand—and experience in the right way.
However, since I have written approximately 8,457 words about Facebook and not a single one about Twitter that I can recall, I feel it is my duty to try to explain the unexplainable. At least the application—you’re on your own with the sex.
(Phew, I thought I was going to go a whole post without mentioning Facebook. That was a close call.)
The social media elite have been using Twitter, a microblogging tool that limits your posts to 140 characters, for years. (I say elite with tongue firmly planted in cheek; I’ve been tweeting for the last couple years, but no matter how elite you call yourself, there are always those who are more elite. Therefore, the word means little.) Others of you have been using Twitter for a shorter time, but still are familiar with how it works. To all of you, I say please be patient. I’ll cover more advanced Twitter topics in the future, but first want to lay out the basics.
This post is for those of you who are still learning about Twitter, taking a look at it and wondering what it can do for you. I’ll talk about some of my favorite ways to use it, but this is not an exhaustive list by any means. People use it in a lot of different ways, and you should play around to find what works best for you.
So, first let me start with one key point: If you’re planning to write solely about your personal life, you should probably not bother. You can do that on Facebook. This use of Twitter is probably the reason why people ask me “What’s the point?” (Facebook, of course, changed its “is________” status message format to a blank box, allowing more flexibility in status messages and seemingly to better compete with Twitter.) In my opinion, Twitter is best used for its own particular strengths, and not for discussing what you had for lunch.
Unless of course you’re Ashton Kutcher (@plusk) or his wife Demi Moore (@mrskutcher), who have 6 million and 3 million followers respectively. Then you can write about what you did today all you want.
Kutcher, by the way, was the first Twitter user to reach the 1 million follower milestone, in a hotly contested race (and perhaps publicity stunt) with CNN.
Now many celebrities have joined the Twitter madness. For instance, I follow:@stephenathome (Stephen Colbert), @stevemartintogo, @dalailama and @thichnhathanh, @oprah, @davejmatthews, @arianahuff (Ariana Huffington), @moonfrye (Punky Brewster!), @susanorlean, @dooce, and @craignewmark as well as a lot of well-knowns within the worlds of social media and old-fashioned media that you probably have never heard of.
There are various sites that tell you what other celebrities you can stalk on Twitter, such as Celebwitter and articles, such as this one from Mashable. Just Google “celebrities on Twitter” for a host of additional resources.
Don’t get me wrong—following the famous isn’t the biggest advantage of Twitter in my mind, but it’s a neat one. The service provides a direct line to you from people you’d never ordinarily have access to without the intermediary of a reporter, TV screen, etc. It puts you into direct contact with the thoughts in their heads. Short, informal, off-the-cuff thoughts. Pretty awesome. When I first joined Twitter, it seemed to me that I’d been invited to a party where all the cool kids were. And sometimes they’ll even talk to you.
You may not be interested in any of the folks I’ve mentioned so far, but I bet there’s some notable person in your field or area of interest that you’d love to listen in on. (Go to www.twitter.com, click in the Search box, enter their name and then select the tab for People to hunt them down.)
Another big reason I use Twitter: quick access to news and information in bite-sized pieces. Now some may argue that newsbytes are what is killing our civilized society. However, I’ll point out that these tweets provide links. So for instance, I might see the headline, “Bear mauls Metro rider at Gallery Place station” and a link. If I want to know more, I just click on the link and I can read the whole article at whatever site posted it—whether it’s the Washington Post, City Paper, etc.
News, media, and publishing Twitter feeds I follow include @newyorker, @newyorktimes, @theatlantic, @washingtonpost, @washingtonian, @wsj, @cnnbrk, @nprnews, @salon, @slate, @wired, @newsweek, and of course @thefastertimes. Plus a number of web-only publications and individual feeds from journalists. Skimming the 140-character tweets of these publications each morning or throughout the day enables me to get a wide-ranging view of what’s happening without having to go to a lot of individual websites.
In addition to news organizations, you can find publications and websites in your field of interest whose Twitter feeds will provide you with good information in 140-character bits. Want to know more? Just click the link.
I used to get my morning overview from blogs’ and websites’ RSS feeds. However, posts would build up in my Google Reader, and I’d feel overwhelmed and guilty that I wasn’t reading them. Twitter doesn’t save anything unless you set up lists to do so. You can step in and out of the stream as you feel inclined. So freeing.
If you’re just starting out on Twitter, I highly recommend that you start by following some folks and watching how they use it. If you don’t follow anyone, you will probably think that Twitter is pretty boring. Talking to yourself when you don’t have any followers is kinda lame.
How can you find people and sites to follow? Search on names as I mentioned above, or on terms. Find someone to follow and then look at whom they follow. Use Twitter’s new “who to follow suggestions” (which looks at what type of people you already follow and then offers additional recommendations). Go to websites you like and click on their Twitter icon.
Now it’s time to talk about you tweeting. I think personally that Twitter is best used as a serious tool. What are you interested in, passionate about, what do you do? Post about that. Post links to interesting articles and resources and post links to your own material and activities. But be careful—you want to keep a good mix. Get too heavily self-promotional and you’ll turn people off.
You can also mix in some personal stuff here and there for flavor. When done in moderation, I find this makes the feed more interesting and helps the person seem more human. But you probably don’t want to follow the lead of this Daily Caller twitterer. Most employers would probably not be so understanding.
Remember that whatever you put on the Internet is going to last forever. And it can be seen by everyone—unless you protect your tweets and make people request to follow you (you can do this under your profile settings). But that, in my opinion, is kind of dumb, because social media is all about being social. (So don’t forget to talk back to people and interact with them!)
In any case, a consultant that talked to some folks at my day job said that you should divide your tweets like this: a third posting helpful news and information, a third promoting yourself, and a third listening and responding to others.
This listening piece is important, and there are lots of companies that do a good job with this that can serve as models. For example, last week I tweeted about how convenient @progressive made it when I forgot to renew my husband’s motorcycle insurance (an automated system called me up, asked me if I wanted to renew over the phone, took my credit card info—bam, done!). Later in the day, I got a personalized tweet back from the company, who had a search set up on their name: “Phew! Close call. Glad we could make it easy for you.”
Listening is especially critical when the feedback is negative. If I’d said something about how much @progressive sucked, they could find me and try to address my concern, so that I end up a happy customer who didn’t badmouth them to other potential customers.
There are lots of ways to misstep on Twitter if you’re a company or a brand or own a business. Here’s a great slideshow on some of the biggest social media mistakes, including a bunch on Twitter.
It seems to me that Twitter, like blogs, started out more a personal tool and then was adopted by the professional world. It can be a powerful application for connecting with people professionally, keeping up on news and information, and just having fun by listening in on people you want to learn more about.
If you use it wisely.
Resources on how to use Twitter abound. Here are a few good ones to start with:
• Twitter for Dummies Cheat Sheet (Also see other links on right-hand side.)
Search on “how to use Twitter” and you’ll find a gazillion more. Please note that there are also many applications to use Twitter besides the basic Twitter homepage (which has recently been revamped in an attempt to get you to stay there and not use other applications). I like Tweetdeck, but browse around and see what works for you.
You can find me on Twitter, @evakl.
So tell us, those who are more experienced, how do you use Twitter? Those who are new to it, how do you see yourself using it?
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
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