Rethink.

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For Bloggers: An Introduction to Twitter

I. Twitter isn’t for everyone, but it may be necessary for anyone wanting an audience

I’ll confess: I started using Twitter because I had to; when promoting a blog, you have to go where the audience may be. I’m very grateful for the people I’ve met on Twitter, many of whom are generous, willing to read and promote my work, confident enough to ask for help when they need it, and actually eager to know how I’m doing. And I think the interface itself and the many applications made for it are fun and intuitive.

Nonetheless, there are two major reasons why I can’t recommend Twitter to everyone:

  1. It is a major time trap. There is no way around this. And the audience you build there demands for the most part that you come to them. For some blogs, this is great – if you want tons of comments and interaction and people participating immediately, you should absolutely be on Twitter as much as possible in addition to running your blog.
  2. 140 characters only goes so far. I’ve gotten to know the people I’ve met on Twitter pretty well, but that’s because I ask a ton of personal questions and they’re pretty open anyway. I also use a number of approaches to make friends, because when all is said and done I want real friends. But at some point – especially when you’re reading and writing on, I dunno, Plato, Aristotle, Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison and a host of others fairly regularly – Twitter, like the Internet generally, creates another trap. Your content, after all, is just as good as anyone else’s, your opinion only matters as much as theirs. Your job is to convey the significance of your work in 140 characters or less, and yes, that is fundamentally unreasonable while being the hallmark of our democratic, interactive age. My ability to get readers is directly limited by the media I have to use: there is no incentive in that media for them to even look at what I do. Some of you are probably doubting the value of my work given how elitist I sound – I encourage you to take a look at some representative entries before telling me off, especially the commentary on Nietzsche’s “The Case of Wagner.”

II. So: If I want to use Twitter, what do I need to know?

The first thing you need to be aware of is that Twitter is a broadcast mechanism: you can use it for a small, intimate circle, sure, but you’re still broadcasting to some degree.

To a lesser degree, Twitter is like a chat room, a public Instant Messenger. I say this is “lesser” b/c if you tweet anything, you’ve broadcast something. If you tweet @ replies – replies directed at a user – you’ve still broadcast something. If you and that user go back and forth with @ replies, having a public conversation, then and only then are you conversing.

So why am I making a big deal about a fairly elementary point? Simple: you have to be aware of how you’re communicating in order to get the best group of followers possible. Anyone who’s spent 5 minutes on Twitter realizes that a good number on Twitter have absolutely no clue how to address another human being, let alone display manners or get other people to be interested in a topic or their own personality. If you think I’m exaggerating this, just follow a thousand people or so randomly and see how many are happy to crowd your updates with spam, random out-of-context quotes, tasteless links and jokes, and utterly useless personal information.

Now I need to be clear: while I am attacking many who use Twitter badly, I’m no advocate of coming up with hard and fast rules about how to use Twitter well. There are lots of gurus who think they can tell you how to craft the perfect tweet, or that there are an established set of mores for Twitter. There’s no such thing as the perfect tweet, though, or an established specific set of manners, and it should surprise no one that lists of rules about tweeting tend to get very pedantic very fast.

What you want to do for yourself is ask this: Who do I want to be interested in me, and what do I want to offer them? From there, it’s pretty intuitive how you use Twitter. Before I give you resources that will help, though, it’s important to go back to the broadcasting/chatting function of Twitter. Since you’re going to be doing a combination of both, it doesn’t matter if your Tweets read like you have a split personality. To some degree, we all have this – back in the day before mass media dominated our lives, people used to have to cultivate a public persona and not just “be themselves” as they were in private. Schools used to teach things like rhetoric to all students, because it was just assumed that an educated person would know how to conduct themselves in public. Your personae are united by your personality, and if you’re honest, the restraint you exercise in your tweets contributes to your authenticity. I don’t think I need to explain that people will usually not follow those who seem fake or are unlikeable, although there are important exceptions to this rule.

III. Resources and Strategies

I personally think the best strategy is to get a very devoted group of followers you want to talk to and help promote, and who are willing to talk to you and work with you. Since I’ve said Twitter is about broadcasting primarily, this means quantity counts too: you probably want to consider adding around 2000 followers before hitting the limit Twitter imposes on you.

I know, that sounds nuts, that sounds like I’m encouraging you to be a spammer. I’m not – I’m actually encouraging you to go find your audience, and deal with the fact that yes, a few people will ask you why you added them and tell you you’re creepy for existing and then those very same few people will Tweet about their sex lives in vivid detail to their audience of hundreds or thousands. The most important thing I’ve learned in 4 years of blogging and trying to reach the broadest possible audience is not to care what anyone thinks: if what you have to say or contribute is important, that’s all that matters.

I don’t think any of you will have trouble with getting quantity, and I do encourage you to get that quantity. Quality is trickier. We’ve talked about some criteria for who you want to add, but how do you find quality tweeters? And more importantly, how do you get quality tweeters to find you?

  1. Figure out what hashtags you want to use: Are the users you want to meet tweeting about a certain topic? All of us know that if you’re conservative or libertarian, #tcot or #tlot are hashtags you want to use for relevant tweets. Now that digg has canceled shouts, #digg and #digguser are a bigger deal than ever. One thing I’ll add – a hashtag is only as good as the people using it. If you want to check whether a potential hashtag is relevant, run it through http://search.twitter.com before tweeting it: if no one’s used it before, it’s probably not a good idea to start using it immediately.
  2. Start playing around with Twitter directories and groups: http://wefollow.com is self-explanatory, and I while still haven’t quite figured out http://www.twibes.com, I know I’m a member of one twibe or another. People have found me through these sorts of things – really – and it feels great to have someone say hi to you after spending a good amount of time trying to be more visible.
  3. http://blip.fm and grooveshark are pretty awesome – playing DJ for other people on Twitter can get conversations about music started easily. If you’re looking for a way to find like-minded users, you can’t go wrong with music.

My personal favorite Twitter toy is Mr. Tweet – it actually does find like-minded users pretty quickly for you, so if you’re wondering who to follow, there’s no need to think too hard about this. And if you can get recommended there, people will find you, although I must say the number finding me has reduced recently.

The day I like best on Twitter is #followfriday; a few people consider it spam, but it’s been hugely helpful in getting started on twitter, and people are thrilled to be recommended. It’s probably the best thing about Twitter, and the neat thing is that if you’re active enough on Twitter, it will most certainly benefit you.

IV. Some Final Notes

  • You might want a custom look for your Twitter page: I recommend @tweetplate but there are others.
  • I haven’t mentioned the word “retweeting” or RT or anything like that b/c I think that’s pretty much self-explanatory. There are RT conventions – you can’t change what you like when you retweet something, otherwise some people will get mad. That having been said, there are some people – just like people who pick on people’s grammar all the time – who go out of their way to look for mistakes in RT’s, I kid you not. You probably want to block anyone that gives you grief about this. Two relevant links – “What is ‘RT’ in Twitter” and “How to Retweet: A Simple Guide”
  • There are also apps for Twitter, in case you don’t want to update at the website, things like Tweetdeck and Twhirl and such. Not quite my cup of tea, but a relevant post if you want to see how Tweetdeck in particular can work: How to follow a lot of people on twitter and still be engaging
  • Twitter links are nofollow. That doesn’t mean they’re a waste, but it means that in addition to your audience building and friend making on Twitter that you are STILL going to have to build links to your site in other ways. Yes, it’s frustrating for me too.

Thank you for your time – if you have questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent article. I don’t know if I am ready to follow so many people. But I am becoming a Twitter junkie

  2. I got about 1000 followers quick and Twitter is just chaos for me. There are quite a few real people on there, but it’s hard to remember that skimming through all the garbage.

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