The following is cross-posted on Annie Hart’s blog, Stories Change The World, with thanks to Annie for requesting a guest post.
Twitter is pretty darned geeky. It’s full of symbols and jargon and half the time you can’t even tell if you’re being tweeted by a human or a robot. People wonder, with good reason, how they can possibly get anything useful, let alone humane, out of the untold number of tweets that pass through the system every day.
The first thing that I tell new Twitter users (after, “you won’t know if it’s a stupid idea or not until you try it”) is that they don’t have to read every tweet that comes through their account. Everything prior to a few minutes ago is water under the bridge. Unless it mentions you or is a direct message to you, in which case you need to keep track of and respond to it. Every Twitter client and the web site makes this easy to do.
Next, you need to follow a group of people who you find interesting or with whom you have common interests; people who you would like to talk to. Think of Twitter like a crowded party. The conversations flow around you and you can choose which ones to focus on and where to join in. If you’ve chosen your party (the people you’re following) well, this can be both entertaining and informative. If you’re at a party with a lot of obnoxious drunks…well, that can be less pleasant. Remember, you get to choose who you follow. If someone follows you and you don’t follow them back, it’s like they don’t exist. If you follow someone who you later decide to un-follow, they’ll get over it.
When you do decide to join a conversation, knowing some of Twitter’s somewhat quirky conventions will help you be better understood.
- The @ symbol. Including @username anywhere in your tweet will cause it to show up in that person’s list of “mentions”. If @username is the first thing in the tweet (i.e. @ is the first character), the tweet will only be visible to the recipient and anyone who follows both of you. So, when you want your tweet to go into the general Twitter stream and be noticed by an individual, include @username somewhere after the first character of the tweet.
- Hash tags. Hash tags were not a part of Twitter’s original release. People using the service found that they needed a way of identifying words to search on and settled on prefixing them with a hash (#) symbol. When you include a hash tag in a tweet, you are inviting people to search for that tag. For example, if I tweet about health care reform and include the hash tag #hcr, I can be sure that my tweet will show up in a lot of search results, in addition to my followers seeing it. Use the search box on Twitter.com to find commonly used hash tags. Brand names are also commonly used. If a company is paying attention, they should be monitoring for any usage of their name in a hash tag and respond to you. Sadly, this is not often the case.
- Retweets. Another instance of the users of Twitter coming up with a convention, in this case the letters “RT” followed by the @username of the original sender (so they will know that they’ve been retweeted). You can either retweet verbatim or edit it a bit and add your own comments. I like to put comments at the end, prefixed with <–.
- Links. If you use Twitter’s web site, URLs are automatically made clickable but they are not shortened, eating into your 140 character limit. Most of the 3rd party Twitter clients, either desktop or web-based, will shorten URLs using a service (4th party?) like bit.ly or tr.im.
Once you do start talking on Twitter, be a good conversationalist. You want people’s response to your tweets to be either, that was helpful or that was interesting or both. It’s not always easy to write stories in 140 characters or less but it can be done with practice. Here are some good examples:
Rain in DC this morning is mean to all who pass. The bones in my feet will be cold all day.
Fish communicate through farts http://bit.ly/2ybLKD
Didn’t realize I flew in on the same flight as @tmonhollon from Oklahoma. Okies represent! #bwe09
Breaking: Tipped off by Stockholm that he was about to be branded euro-wimp peacenik, Obama ordered NASA to bomb moon.
Be nice, give credit where credit is due and remember, more than 20 tweets a day and people will think you have way to much time on your hands.
Flock photo by: Eileen Maher