Friday, 5 February 2010

A Beginner's Guide to Twitter

So you just signed up to Twitter - and right now you're totally confused!

One reason is that 95% of what you've read in the newspaper or seen on TV about it is wrong. (Why Journalists Write So Much Rubbish About Twitter is a subject I wrote a whole other post on...)

The tricky thing with Twitter is it's very, very simple - you write 140 characters - and everything that makes it interesting is about using it smartly.

What is Twitter for?

Despite what you've probably read, it's not true that Twitter is about telling people what you had for breakfast. Only stupid people (and celebrities) do that - with the exception of people who are capable of making you laugh by the way they write about their breakfast.

The best way to think about Twitter is to see it as a giant, endless pub conversation. In fact, this is why I love Twitter: it's like having a little part of you that's always down the pub.

This also means it's hard to write about how to use Twitter in a way that doesn't sound stupid. Imagine a User's Guide to Pub Conversation. But here goes...

You could say there are two levels to good conversation: the content of individual statements and the flow of interaction. So let's think about Twitter in those terms.

Content - some types of Tweet

The longer I use Twitter, the more different ways of using those 140 characters I begin to recognise. Here are a few types of message I see a lot on Twitter and which seem to work well (the examples are from my own recent tweets):

- a thought, idea or observation:

I keep thinking we must have hit Peak Leopard Print, then I see more...

- something odd that just happened to you:

Starting the day with a random prog rock conversation with a chap in the Gallery cafe. He told me I looked like Mike Rutherford circa 1969.

- a good quote:

"Reality is such that both language and imagination have to exaggerate, in order to confront it truly." John Berger

- a gentle plug for something you're involved in:

Looking forward to running the RIBA/@spacemkrs mapping workshops with @monkeytreepro! http://bit.ly/bY1N65

- a link with enough information that people know why to click on it:

"It may be the most honest attempt at literature we've seen." High praise for @darkmtn from Sharon Astyk - http://bit.ly/drDQAf

There are lots more ways of using 140 characters - we could collect a whole Twitter typology for a future post - but those are enough to be going on with.

Three ways to get more out of Twitter

There are a few basic pieces of shorthand that people use on Twitter which make it much more interesting and useful, but which aren't obvious to the uninitiated.

1. At messages - if you start a tweet with someone's Twitter name (including the @ symbol), that's like addressing your message to them, e.g.:

@marcovanbelle You should meet @lloyddavis one of these days.

Just like in a pub conversation, other people can still overhear what you're saying - and may well join in. (If you really need to whisper, use a Direct Message - though you can only send these to people who are following you.)

Every time someone uses your name in a tweet, their message will appear in your 'Mentions', even if you're not following them. When you're logged in to Twitter, your @name appears in the right hand column, below Home and above Direct Messages. If you click on this, you can see all your Mentions.

(In the example above, the message would also apppear in Lloyd's Mentions, so this is a good way to introduce two people - or to get the attention of someone who's not following you.)

2. Hash tags - add a # to the front of a word and it becomes a 'hashtag'.

People use this to make it easy to find messages relating to a certain event or topic. For example, search for #tuttle and you'll see lots of conversations about the Tuttle club, a weekly coffee morning that brings together lots of the most interesting people using Twitter in London.

Again, this is a good way to start interacting with people you haven't
met/aren't following yet.

3. Retweets - if you like something someone else has posted, post it yourself, adding RT @username to the front. (Sometimes you have to sub down the original to fit 140chars.) This is how things travel virally through Twitter.

(Recently, Twitter have added an automatic version of this, but a lot of us still do it by hand - maybe because this gives you more control, maybe because we're old stick-in-the-muds.)

Flow: interaction is as important as content

Going back to the kinds of message that work, it's as much about interactions and conversations as the individual message. Here's a late night exchange with a couple of people:

[@dougald] Just been complimented on my trousers by woman on night bus. Well, they are very nice trousers, if I say so myself!

[@andybroomfield] @dougald Are they sparkly?

[@dougald] @andybroomfield No, but they have a rusty post-industrial sheen.

[@leashless] @Dougald #needsleatherpants

[@dougald] @leashless Can you please clarify that you're talking pants (US) not pants (GB)? You'll give people nightmares!

[@andybroomfield] @leashless @dougald only if they are leopard skin
#needsleatherpants

[@leashless] @dougald "No. Foucalt wears leather underwear" - anon grad student.

This is all obviously silly nonsense! (It's also riffing off a previous exchange in which I'd been told I needed leather trousers, as well as the whole leopard print thing...) But it's like pub conversation, and besides passing the time, it builds the kind of connections that mean people can call on each other for help in professional situations, on the basis that people are much more willing to help someone they've had fun with...

The general point behind this was summed up for me by Ze Frank, who makes the most fantastic, silly toys and jokes out of the internet, at the end of his TED talk:


If you come home and your spouse, or whoever it is, says "Let's talk" - that, like, chills you to the very core! It's peripheral activities like these that allow people to get together, doing fun things, and actually get to know each other. It is low-threshold, peripheral activities that I think are the key to bringing up some of the bonding social capital that I think we're lacking.


I'm clear from my own experience that using Twitter has led to a huge increase in my "social capital" and that of my friends - though I'm also clear that talking about "social capital" is a bit like writing a User's Guide to Pub Conversation, it's only useful as long as you realise that it's, um, totally missing the point.

So now it's time to get started...

Actually, it's time I went to the offline kind of pub, but if this has been helpful, I suggest the next thing you do is start following (and interacting with) some interesting people.

If you have friends or colleagues who are into Twitter, ask them to recommend people you should follow. (Try using an @ message to ask them...)

Failing that, try using a service like LocaFollow to find people with interests in common, in your area or around the world.

The final word...

Like I say, the thing to remember is it's all a big rambling conversation. People are willing to give help and advice freely, like they would in the pub, and sometimes you get into pub arguments with people you hardly know.

And, of course, no one ever gets the final word, because the conversation just keeps rolling on.

Have fun with it - and let me know how you get on.



(This was originally written as an email to @marcovanbelle. Thanks to @marmadukedando, @jackcabnory, @sctv and @tinich for encouraging me to turn it into a blog post.)

6 comments:

theundergroundrestaurant said...

Excellent guide. And some people (celebrities) get it so wrong.

Kevin said...

I agree, but remember, a significant portion of the human race can't access it.

Dougald Hine said...

@theundergroundrestaurant - Yes, don't they? Well, it's like I wrote before, "Trying to understand social media by looking at the behaviour of celebrity users is like trying to understand society by looking at the behaviour of celebrities!"

@kevin - thank you, that's a good reminder. Is there a similar platform which is available/in use in China, or is Chinese internet use evolving without an equivalent? And what are the big social media tools people are using there these days? I remember QQ being massive when I was living in Xinjiang, but that's about six years ago now, which is several lifetimes in internet years...

オテモヤン said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cicely Nigeria said...

Here in rural Nigeria - a real pub conversation would be extremely welcome but perhaps Twitter's the next best thing!

Whilst we have internet access here, it's restricted (only in work hours) and network is slow..

I'm trying to work out, if and how Twitter can help me to do my job in rural economic development better without me spending all of my working hours waiting for pages to load?

Answers on a postcard....

julianc said...

Possibly the best Twitter explanation I've read. Really helpful!

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