New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 2: Twitter

New Adventures in Wi-Fi (with apologies to R.E.M.)

Forming the second part of the trilogy that commenced with:

New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 1: Blogging

 
Introduction

To tweet, or not to tweet. That is the question.

First of all some caveats:

I am not a social media expert, nor any of its many variants.
I do not work in marketing or PR.
I will not be encouraging you to unleash the power of FaceTube/YouSpace/MyBook to make the world a better place (and your bank vault a fuller one), or to sell a million more of your product.
I can not claim to have some secret formula for success in the world of on-line communication (indeed I tend to be allergic to such things as per Recipes for Success?).

If you want all the answers, then please look elsewhere. Good luck with your search!

However:

I am an IT person, with a reasonable degree of commercial awareness and a background in sales and sales support.
I have been involved in running web-sites and various on-line communities since 1999.
I do author a business, technology and change blog that has been relatively well-received (why else would you be reading this?)
I think that Twitter.com can be an extremely useful way of interacting with people, expanding your network and coming into contact with interesting new people.

This is the middle chapter of a series of articles about the experiences of a neophyte in the sometimes confusing world of social media. View this article as akin to Herodotus describing crocodiles and you won’t go far wrong. If you learn something useful, then that’s great. If not, I hope that my adventures prove a harmless diversion for the reader.
 
 
Origins

I thought of adding a fourth zero, but that seemed much too applied. For the avoidance of doubt this illustration should not be taken as an endorsement of Ab Initio.

I covered some of my previous forays in what has now come to be called social media in my earlier article, so I won’t revisit them here. The main focus of this piece is Twitter, a service that I joined back in December 2008, a couple of months after establishing this blog. It took me some time to figure Twitter out and I am not sure that I entirely “get it” in full.

In a recent article – How I write – I referred to many of my blog posts flowing quickly and easily. I must admit that writing this piece is proving to be something more of a struggle. Perhaps this reflects the fact that making progress on Twitter was also anything but easy. Indeed I felt that for a long time I was blundering about without any real idea about how to use the medium, or what I wanted to use it for. It also probably reflects my admitted lack of expertise in social media.
 

An aside for fellow pedants:

One in a million

Twitter is positioned as a micro-blogging service. This terminology offends the scientific bent of my mind. Micro (μικρός) implies 10-6 or one millionth. I tend to write relatively long blog posts and the average size of one of my articles is about 1,200 words; this equates to just over 7,000 characters. Twitter’s 140 character limit (originally set as the length of an SMS) is one fiftieth of this figure, so a more accurate description of Twitter would be a centi-blogging service; for less verbose bloggers maybe deci-blogging would also work.

 
Many aficionados of Twitter claim that it is the ideal way to promote your product, your service and/or yourself (or all three at the same time). The same people also say that it is a great tool for listening to existing and potential customers, obtaining information about what they like and dislike and picking up on trends. All this may very well be true, but this is not how I have come to use Twitter and I will not be covering any of these aspects here.

For me the facility is not really about reaching a wide audience – however much I may be passionate about areas such as Business Intelligence, I realise that not everyone will feel then same. Instead it has been a great way to discover the members of a broader worldwide technology community focussed on areas such as databases and data warehousing, BI tools and approaches, numerical and text-based analysis and general technology industry issues.
 
 
So what is all the fuss about anway?

How come it doesn't recognise twttr.com?

Twitter started as a way to post updates from your mobile ‘phone by texting a message to a number (07624 801 423 here in the UK). The messages would generally be about the sorts of things that you would be doing when you don’t have access to a PC, but do to a mobile ‘phone. For example:

  • “I’m standing in line at the grocery”,
  • “It is raining outside“,
  • “The girl opposite on the bus is looking at me“,
  • “Oh dear so is her boyfriend and he seems less friendly“,

These messages were then posted on-line and could be read by other people. If these people found your output interesting (and let’s face it who could not be captivated by the examples I quote above), then they could subscribe to your posts (or follow your tweets in the lingo). When some one follows you, you are notified and can return the complement if you wish. In this way the network of people with whom you can share your updates grows.

At some point people began to realise that you could skip the mobile bit and use your computer to post tweets directly on-line. This opened up the entire:

  • "I was surfing the Net and found this cool site http://…"

type post and the rest, as they say is history. I have tweeted via my mobile ‘phone recently, but only by first loading Opera Mini and going to twitter.com. I suspect that there are people out there who have never sent an SMS to their Twitter account.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86–92

A relic of this history is the aforementioned 140 character limit. Because there is not much room to type, there is a limit to the length of thought that you can share. In turn this means that a defining characteristic of Twitter is brevity. For someone such as me who is not known for having this quality as a core characteristic, this presents something of a challenge. However when you have something exceeding 140 characters to say, the Twitter limit forces the approach of writing it down somewhere else (e.g. on a blog) and then posting a link. A lot of my Twitter posts contain either links to this site or to interesting articles that I have found elsewhere. In this way, Twitter has some attributes akin to a more dynamic version of a social bookmarking site (such as reddit.com or del.icio.us).

The other key characteristic of twitter is interaction. Most of my other tweets are either passing on comments made by other people, or links posted by them – of course this type of behaviour tends to lead to reciprocation, which binds people together (in a positive sense) and also potentially widens the network available to both. The balance of my tweeting is made up of chatting with people (tweeps if you must) either about industry issues, or – probably more frequently – just shooting the breeze.

To me rather than [insert appropriate negative power of 10 here]-blogging Twitter is much more akin to it’s historical roots of public texting. Instead of SMSing one person, or a small group, you share your abbreviated pearls of wisdom with potentially thousands of people, these people also have a much easier way of following your train of thought. Of course there is no guarantee that they put the same care and attention into reading your tweets as you did in to writing them; more on this later.
 
 
Some suggestions for blissful tweeting

Blue skies / Smiling at me / Nothing but blue skies / Do I see ||  Bluebirds / Singing a song / Nothing but bluebirds / All day long

These are some things that have worked for me and seem to make sense. There are lots of alternative perspectives out there, just a google away:

  1. Go to twitter.com and sign-up for an account.

    Unless you want to stay anonymous, I would suggest using your real name and a user name that is close to this: I’m @peterjthomas for example.

  2. Fill in your profile and tell people a bit about yourself.

    There is nothing more off-putting than being followed by someone, clicking on their page and finding… nothing. Why would anyone want to listen to what you have to say if you don’t lay down some markers here? While you are at it, think about customising your page to make it a bit more distinctive. But don’t go to town, at least at present, it is not that easy to come up with a scheme that will work on multiple screen resolutions.

  3. Find some people to follow.

    This can be a little easier said than done. What you are most likely looking for is people with similar interests to yourself. There are a number of approaches.

    1. You may already know some peers who use Twitter, as well as following them, go to their page (www.twitter.com/their-account-name) and see who they interact with when speaking about subjects that you also want to talk about. If they don’t have thousands of followers, take a look at the list and also look at who they follow.
    2. Many people in the blogosphere (as well as many corporations) have a Twitter presence and will often advertise this fact. If you have found an interesting blog article – say this one – then scan the site to see if there is a Twitter link; more often than not there will be.
    3. If you end up following some one that you view as being influential in your area, then take a look at the people that he or she tweets with – they will probably also be worth following.
    4. You can also use twitter search to see what other people are talking about that might be of interest – the following link looks for references to business intelligence: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23businessintelligence (more on how to tag your tweets later). It may be that some of the people that come up in a search list are worth following.
    5. Finally you can let other people do the hard work for you every Friday. Follow Friday is a Twitter tradition in which people give recommendations of tweeps that they feel others may want to follow. This can be gold-dust for someone hoping to find like-minded people.
       
  4. Think about how to get people to follow you.

    Maybe a good way to think about this is to consider the exercise that you have just completed to look for people to follow. What would make your Twitter account come into focus in such a process? Whatever you are looking for in some one to follow, similar people will also be looking for, so try to fit the bill.

    If you are looking for people who share cool articles, then share cool articles. If you are looking for people who express opinions about things that are important to you, then express opinions; either on Twitter, or via a blog and post links on Twitter. If you are looking for people who engage with others, then engage with others yourself. You can reference people who are not following you (and indeed who you are not following) just by putting an ‘@’ in front of their name.

    For example even if you are not following me and you post:

    “Wow! that @peterjthomas really knows his business intelligence”

    then first of all I will notice (as you reference me) and second I’m as human as the next person and am likely to at least consider following you, or at the very least sharing your comment with my followers.

    An aside on sharing tweets:

    Twitter etiquette is that you don’t share other people’s tweets without referencing them. So in the above example I might re-tweet your kind comment as:

    “RT @your-name Wow! that @peterjthomas really knows his business intelligence << Thanks"

    the RT stands for re-tweet and the << indicates my additional comments, in this case to say thank you – people do the latter in a number of way. An alternative to using RT is as follows:

    “Wow! that @peterjthomas really knows his business intelligence (via @your-name)”

    Not only is this polite, but now @your-name and @peterjthomas are linked – if I was worth following, then me mentioning you is a worthwhile objective.

    Of course the other two keys to gaining followers are the same as for getting people to read your blog: first share links that are worthwhile sharing (particularly if they are your own work) and second try to engage with people and refrain from being a passive by-stander.

One thing that is probably dawning on any Twitter novices right now is that the above are not discrete activities that you do once and then are finished with. If you want to get the most out of Twitter, then you will have to keep doing them.
 
 
More advanced techniques

Paul Dirac - the UK's greatest physicist since Newton

Unless you are looking to create a social media presence for a Fortune 500 company (assuming that there are any left who have not already created such a thing), then the above pointers are probably more than enough to get you started. Like me you may then just muddle through, hopefully learning from your mistakes. Alternatively, there are any number of guides out there which may or may not strike a chord with you and suit your personal style; just search for them.
 
Be yourself

On the subject of personal style, I’d suggest (as I also suggested in my article on blogging) that you be yourself on Twitter. Even within 140 characters, trying to be something that you are not comes across as fake; people aren’t impressed. On the same subject, treat people as you would face-to-face. If you are trying to sell something – even just your personal brand – then would you ram this down people’s throats in person? If not, then why would it be OK to do this on Twitter? A more low key approach is likely to lead to engagement and a better outcome than blowing your trumpet from the roof-tops (I know, I have tried the latter and it doesn’t work too well).
 
Use hash-tags

Above I mentioned tagging your posts. So if you write something about cloud computing, you might want to tag it with a key word, e.g. “cloud”. Though Twitter’s own search engine and the various other tools that you can employ on Twitter data will search for any occurence of specified text, it is still traditional to use hash tags, so in the above example a tweet might look like:

“I have just come across a great article sumarising new development in cloud computing – http://link.here #cloud

As ever the incomparable xkcd.com has a view on this world that is both acerbic and insightful:

I learnt everything I know about title/alt text from Randall Munroe
© xkcd.com

To see a slightly more positive use of Twitter search and hash-tags, try looking up coverage of a recent Teradata analyst event using #td3pi.
 
Shorten your URLs

On the subject of links, the 140 character limitation means that you don’t want to waste space with long URLs. Using a URL shortener is mandatory – I use http://bit.ly but there are many other such tools out there.
 
Check out the wide range of Twitter-related tools

Now that the subject of tools has come up, there is an entire hinterland of Twitter-related tools that can do a wide range of things to help you. These include:
 

  1. Twitter platforms

    These which help to manage your entire Twitter experience from reading other people’s posts, to making your own (sometimes doing link shortening for you automatically). If you are successful in finding people to follow and attracting people to follow you, then there will come a time when the noise level becomes unmanageable. This type of tool can help by providing filters and groups, which enable you to make sense of a tsunami of tweets, organise them and prioritise your time.

    I use TweetDeck, but again there are many alternatives.

  2. Twitter add-ins

    These are generally what you would employ on your blog or other internet site to allow people to easily tweet your content. There are several very slick and attractive looking options out there, just take a look at a handful of sites and take your pick. I’m staying old-school for present and hand-coding my Twitter links (as at the end of this article).

  3. Twitter analytics

    This is rather a grand name which covers everything from the trend of how many people are following you through to quite sophisticated analysis. Rather than provide a list, take a look at one that Pam Dyer has put together here.

  4. Other

    There are a lot of fun Twitter-related applications out there. Just one example to whet your appetite is the following app, written by @petewarden which graphs your relations to other people on Twitter and gives a very visual perspective on the totality of your tweeting:

    XXX
    © http://twitter.mailana.com

 
 
In closing

I chose to close this article with the above image for a reason. To me it captures the essence of what Twitter is about; forming a network of associations with people who can enrich your understanding, provide you with fresh perspectives, or even simply make you smile. The diagram looks awfully like a community doesn’t it? If you enjoy reading this blog and are looking for people to follow who might share your world-view, then clicking on the above graphic and checking out some of the people I interact with most may be a good starting point.

If you chose to take the plunge with Twitter then good luck and I hope that you get as much out of it as I have. You can also then do me a favour and use the handy link just below to share this article with your followers!
 


 
The New Adventures in Wi-Fi series of articles on Social Media concludes with a piece on professional networking and LinkedIn here.
 

13 thoughts on “New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 2: Twitter

  1. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for this really great post. As someone who is relatively new to Twitter (and to blogging), the information that you provide will help me better utilize the tools that are available. It can be daunting when trying to figure out how best to take advantage Twitter, and this advice will help me overcome many “newbie” mistakes.
    Trevor

    • Hi Trevor,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      The spirit in which I wrote the article was as a recent newbie. There are lots of experts out there, but maybe the advice of someone with just a little experience is more relevant to people starting out.

      Glad to be of assistance.

      Peter

  2. Peter,

    This is an excellent overview and intro to Twitter – very comprehensive and yet not too overwhelming. I’ll be sharing this link with colleagues when they ask me, “So what’s this Twitter thing all about?”

    Thank you for writing!

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