If you are over the age of 25, Twitter is most likely a complete mystery. You may have heard bits and pieces about Twitter and figure that it has something to do with sending messages with lots of acronyms and juvenile abbreviations like:
r u organized? Find gr8 tips 2 help u @ beruly.com.
I have to admit that I had no interest in using Twitter and figured it just wasn’t a medium that fit my strengths well. Then I read an article in a business publication recommending that a good way to gauge a prospective business partner is to read the last couple of tweets the person wrote, since the content is both brief and freshly produced. Reluctantly, I set up a Twitter account.
What on earth is Twitter? How do you use it and not look ridiculous? Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein have written a concise but thought-provoking book, called simply, The Twitter Book, to help the Twitter novice understand the Twitter universe. The book is written much the way Twitter functions with short paragraphs of text on the right-hand pages combined with example Tweets on the left-hand pages. The book doesn’t go into great detail on any one topic but rather gives you a quick reference on a variety of ways to use Twitter.
I really wish I would have read The Twitter Book before I set up my own Twitter account as I am now painfully aware of numerous mistakes I have made (and see other Twitterers making as well).
Backing up for just a minute, though. If you still have no idea what Twitter is, allow me to give a very brief Twitter-like explanation:
What are you doing? 140 characters. 5 minutes of fame.
Twitter is a social network where people joining the network communicate using only 140 characters or less (a limit imposed by cell phone text messaging systems). The messages are stream of consciousness writing answering the question “What are you doing/thinking?” Your answer to the question may change minute by minute and your answer doesn’t have to respond to anything anyone else has already said. This is the part of Twitter that was really hard for me to grasp. There is no situation in real world social life that is similar. It would be kind of like everyone driving down the highway opening their windows and yelling out random things. You might hear a lot of useless noise or you might hear something helpful and interesting depending on who you are listening to.
Twitter messages can be viewed on cell phones or on the computer. You can also post links, including links to photos. Anyone can read your messages and you can subscribe to other people’s Twitter posts by “following” them or just looking at their Twitter web page. You can spread someone else’s message by “retweeting” it yourself or have a public or private conversation with individual users. The @ sign to refer publicly to an individual person is a Twitter invention, which some people use in other contexts. For example, someone could Twitter:
@rulyllc Great tip! Thanks!
According to The Twitter Book, the average Twitter message has a lifespan of about 5 minutes. Generally, if your tweet is considered interesting, it will be retweeted or shared by others within 5 minutes of your posting. After 5 minutes, the chance anyone will even notice it starts dropping quickly to zero.
The Twitter Book gives a little background on these basic fundamentals and then gives examples of different contexts where you might use Twitter, either as a user or a researcher. Below I will share just a few of the gems in this book:
Even if you have no desire to create a Twitter account, Twitter can be a great way to monitor mentions about your business. O’Reilly and Milstein give several great ideas here including the following:
- Track Twitter mentions of your company’s name. Go to search.twitter.com and you can see who is talking about your company and what they are saying. If you want to continually monitor any tweets about your company, you can pull the RSS feed or use a service like TweetBeep to receive emails when your keywords are mentioned.
- Track Twittered links to your website. Wondering if anyone is Twittering a link to your website? Go to backtweets.com, type in your company’s website to see a list. You can even be alerted by email when a link to your website is tweeted.
Some of the most valuable parts of The Twitter Book are the quick etiquette tips about the Twitter community. For example:
- Reply to all of your @ messages where you are addressed directly (unless you think it may be spam).
- Don’t use up all 140 characters to allow space for people to retweet your posts. The magic formula for your own character limit is 140 minus 4 characters (for RT a space and the @ sign) minus the number of characters in your Twitter username. In my case, that number is 129 characters.
- If you retweet someone else’s post, make sure they are credited with the @ sign (including all people in the message chain where possible, or if not possible due to the character limit, just the first and last person) and maintain their shortened links as they have posted them.
- If you quote someone who is not on Twitter, use the word “via” to reference where you got the information from.
- It’s considered lame to reply to followers with a “Thanks for the follow.” routine message. It is far better to find something interesting they have said and retweet it or call them out with a personalized @ message.
Businesses will especially appreciate the tips in The Twitter Book on attracting followers and visibility. Some of the tips will require time and effort (such as following interesting people and retweeting interesting tweets) but some are pretty simple. For example:
- To get your Tweets more visibility, learn the Twitter filing system: “hashtags.” Hashtags are keywords with a pound or hash sign in front of them. For example, the hashtag for The Twitter Book is #TwitterBook. If you add a hashtag to your tweets, they will be added to the group of tweets with that same hashtag. To find a list of hashtags, visit hashtags.org.
- If you are using a Twitter account for your business, put your business name in the “Name” field in your profile rather than the actual name of the person Twittering to make it easier for people to search and find your business.
- Follow journalists who are looking to write stories in your industry. For example, “Help a Reporter Out” or HARO is Twitter user @petershankman who routinely posts requests for sources from reporters.
If you find the above tips helpful, you will find so many more in The Twitter Book. It is a really quick read in addition to being a solid reference book.
I’m still thinking through the concept of Twitter and how I could use it better. Would readers really want to know my spur-of-the-moment thoughts as I unclutter something or photos of new organizing tools the moment I discover them? Am I comfortable sharing those unpolished thoughts? There are definitely some pitfalls to Twitter but there is no denying it is a powerful communications tool for those who know how to use it.
Do you use Twitter? Have a Twitter tip or a Twitter question? Please share in the comments.