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Advanced Twitter Fu: Become a Master

Everyone talks about Twitter. It’s hard to describe why people like it and use it so much. You have to use it, and connect with some people, to really see why it’s worth it. If you’re looking at it from the outside, like watching the public timeline, it’s going to seem stupid and useless. That’s because, used like that, it is.

BUT.

If you know what you’re doing, Twitter is a REALLY POWERFUL and REALLY COOL way to connect with people. You can find basic, “entry level” explanations about why you should use Twitter everywhere. I even wrote such a post a couple of months ago (which includes the excellent “Twitter in Plain English” video, which you must watch if you haven’t already). The rest of this post is going to assume you have a (very) basic understanding of what Twitter is, and how it works. If not, go read my previous post, watch the video, and come back. I’ll wait. :-)

The Twitter Fu is Strong With This One

What I want to talk about here is some advanced “Twitter Fu” – techniques for “power users” (I hate that term), and people who are ready to start taking advantage of some of the really remarkable things you can accomplish with it. This isn’t comprehensive, of course, but I do speak from experience. What I’m going to write about comes from my daily use and experience with Twitter (which started in July 2006, making me an old timer in the Twitterverse. Most importantly, I want to show some ways you can use Twitter to accomplish something REALLY remarkable – connect up people in a community (or build a new community) with strong ties.

Here’s the reason I think all of this is so important. My job, and Intel Software Network‘s mission, is to build community. Community grows from connections made between people with a common interest. One way people make connections is through conversation. Real conversation in their natural human voice, with another human. You can’t have a conversation with a corporation. You just can’t. This is why I’m always harping on conversations, conversations, conversations! Twitter (and blogs, and other net tools, too) makes it easy to have more conversations, and thus build more connections, with other humans. You increase your “human surface area” – the ways people can connect with you. If you’re a software person, think of it as exposing a new API endpoint for people to hook into and use. And when you have more and more of these human connections, a really cool thing emerges – community. See how that all ties in?

Enough philosophical background. Let’s get on the the real, practical things you can do to become a high level Twitter Fu Master.

Grow Your Network, Carefully

Twitter is useless without following people. But it’s worse than useless if you follow people you don’t know. The public timeline, while it may be an entertaining peek into what the entire world is saying, isn’t going to do anything to connect you to those other people. Your network is the heart of Twitter. Guard it jealously. Follow people you know (either in real life, or through online interactions, or whatever). Don’t follow people you don’t know, or who you don’t have any reason to follow, other than because they followed you. In other words, don’t follow someone if you have no idea who they are. Reciprocating a “follow” on Twitter is NOT required, and no one is going to get offended if you don’t follow them back just because they followed you.

I did this in the beginning, and I found that it just added noise to my Twitter stream. So I pruned my “following” list down to people I had either met in real life, or knew from some other interaction. Basically, it came down to “do I have to think for more than half a second to know who this person is?” If they don’t pass that test, I don’t follow. You’ve got to keep the signal to noise ratio of your Twitter stream as high as possible. It’s hard enough only following people you DO know.

However, as commenters below have reminded me, it can be fun and useful to add new followees based on who the people in your network are talking with. You’ll naturally get to know new people through Twitter, and your network will grow. This is a good thing. I just think you should be careful, and no go crazy and add everyone and their dog (or cat) without a reason. Or, as @scobleizer says, “You are defined by who you follow.” 😉

Use a Desktop Client and Your Phone

There are two times you’ll want to use Twitter: when you’re at your computer, and when you’re not. For when you’re at your computer, I highly recommend using a desktop client application, which makes your Twitter stream kind of like an IM conversation. It’s always there, you can pay attention to it, or hide it in the background. But having a desktop client has lots of advantages over using the Twitter.com web page to engage with your network.

There are lots of desktop clients to choose from. I personally use and love one called Twitterrific, from Craig Hockenberry and Icon Factory. It’s Mac only, but I love it because a) it’s beautiful, b) it uses Growl for notifications, and c) I’ve been using it since it came out, and I’m used to it (inertia is a powerful thing). If you’re not on a Mac, or for some reason you don’t want to use Twitterrific, there are some awesome clients that use the cross platform Adobe AIR runtime (Windows, Mac, and now Linux). Spaz, Twhirl, and Alert Thingy are worth a look. They all do pretty much the same thing, but some offer features like integration with FriendFeed, Jaiku, Pownce, etc. Try them all and find one you like.

A desktop client is for when you’re sitting at your computer (which, for me, is most of the day). If you’re anything like me, you have a whole bunch of browser windows or tabs open at any given time. It’s worth it to have Twitter outside of that, in its own place. You can see the stream of conversation in your network flow by, hop in and tweet or reply to something, and get alerted when there’s a reply or direct message directed at you. If you need to concentrate, and avoid distraction, just hide or close the app.

When you’re away from your computer, use Twitter on your phone. Any cell phone that can do text messaging is a great Twitter client. Just enable your Twitter account to work via text messages on your phone. You have full control over what alerts/incoming messages you receive (all, direct, etc.). I follow so many people that the volume of tweets is just too much to deal with in text messages (not to mention expensive!), so I only get a text message from Twitter when I receive a Direct (private) message. But, even if you get no text message alerts at all, it’s important to set this up, so you can SEND tweets from your phone. Then, get in the habit of doing it.

If you have a phone with a web browser (iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, or whatever), you can use the Twitter mobile web interface at http://m.twitter.com. It’s fast, light, and provides an easy way to both read your tweets and post new ones from your phone. Depending on the device you have, there are other options. iPhone owners should check out an amazing web-based Twitter interface for iPhone called Hahlo (and rumor has it there will be an iPhone version of Twitterrific as soon as Apple launches the iPhone App Store – I can’t wait!). For BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices, there are free applications you can install on your phone to use Twitter. I haven’t used any of these, so I can’t really make a specific recommendation, but do some Googling, ask around on your Twitter network, and you can probably find one that you like.

Integrate Twitter With Your Online Life

Remember how I said that the whole point of all of this is to increase your conversational surface area, to make it easier for people to connect to you by conversing with you? To aid in that, you’ll want to include hooks/links to your presence on Twitter from the other places where you interact with people.

At the very least, put a link to your Twitter page on your blog and in your email signature and on your business cards.

Beyond that, there are a ton of great options for integrating your Twitter “microposts” (as I call them) on your blog, from a simple javascript badge to more complicated integrations (like the way I do it on my blog, which I explain “how and why” in this post). You can make this as simple or as complex as you want. Go nuts. But do it.

If you use social networks like Facebook, chances are there’s a way to integrate your Twitter conversations. Facebook lets you connect your tweets with your “Status” updates on Facebook, and vice versa. I haven’t used them, but there are ways to integrate Twitter with your MySpace page and I’m sure there are more. Again, do some Googling, and ask your new most valuable knowledge sharing tool, your Twitter network.

Don’t Miss Any Conversations

Twitter lets you direct a message at a specific person in two ways. First is the direct “D” message, which sends a private message that only the recipient can see. This is kind of like a short email. The second, and far more common way is the @reply. You can indicate that a tweet is for a certain person by typing @theirusername. Twitter turns that into a link to that person on Twitter, and TRIES to bring that message to their attention. But they way they do it is broken. It doesn’t work if the @username part isn’t at the beginning of the tweet. It doesn’t work if they don’t have their Twitter settings configured to show them “All @ replies”. If you want to be a Twitter master, you have to take a couple of extra steps to make sure that you don’t miss any messages directed at you using the @ sign.

This is where third party search tools like TweetScan and Summize come in. I’m assuming you’re using a feed reader/aggregator like Google Reader (you ARE using an aggregator, aren’t you? If not, we need to have a serious talk). If so, you can use TweetScan or Summize to do a search for your username, then subscribe to the feed for those search results. Presto – you’ll know every time someone even mentions your name on Twitter, whether you’re following them or not. At the very least, you need to do this. But search is powerful, and can do some other cool things, too.

For some reason, people often misspell my username on Twitter, or just make up some @username that has parts of my name, but isn’t anywhere near correct. No problem. I just set up search feeds on Summize to look for jabancroft (the correct name), bancroft, jbancroft, and joshbancroft. That way, I hear what people are saying about/to me, no matter how badly they butcher my name. If you know of common misspellings of your username, you should subscribe to search feeds for those, too.

Also, if there’s a specific topic, company, or product name that you want to track on Twitter, to see what people are saying, you can simply create a search feed for that word/phrase and subscribe to it. Twitter has a “track” feature, but it only works if you get updates via text message or IM – it doesn’t work if you use the web or a desktop client app. I have a few search feeds on Twitter – one for “Intel“, for example – that let me see everything people are saying, good and bad. Can you think of something that would be useful for? If you can’t, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

But Wait! There’s More!

Wow, this post got long. But I still have more to say. Specifically, some techniques about building groups and communities of interest on top of Twitter (something it lacks the native ability to do) using some simple tricks, and mashup tools. The online shoe seller Zappos.com has been getting a lot of press lately for their use of Twitter, and I’ve been involved in a couple of really cool mashups in the Portland geek community, like PulseoFPDX.com. How is this useful, rather than just interesting? Besides being a peek into the “stream of collective consciousness” of a particular group of people on Twitter, it’s a great way to find people to connect with. You know, build community by connecting with other people you know and have something in common with.

And I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve, too, so stay tuned! :-)

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31 thoughts on “Advanced Twitter Fu: Become a Master

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  3. Great post, I coulnd’t agree more!

    You might add TwitterBerry to the list of clients for cell phones (Blackberries, specifically).

    If I might self promote, I convinced a consulting client of mine to use twitter to provide daily hair styling tips. They are doing a great job, in my opinon: http://www.twitter.com/Hickox

  4. @Jmartens – thanks for the TwitterBerry recommendation. I knew about it, but I’ve never used it, so I don’t know if it’s crap or not. And promote away – that’s a cool usage of Twitter for a company.

    @ctb – Yeah, I should have talked about using Twitter over IM. Problem is, it’s never worked for me. Every time I’ve tried to use it, it’s been down, or had some other problem. And with a lot of followees, the constant flow of tweets can get pretty annoying. But it is a valid option, for sure.

    Thanks for the links and ideas – keep em coming! :-)

  5. I would love to be a part of a group/community with common interests in Twitter, but I haven’t had much luck. Probably because I’ve been doing what you suggested and only following people I know, and of those 15, at least 10 are people I’ve never met in person and who don’t know me (and therefore don’t follow me or receive my tweets). I’ve got 75 followers, but even they don’t respond to anything I tweet.

    How do you suggest building that community if you are in the situation where don’t know that many other people who use Twitter? The twitter-holics make it seem so easy to participate, but the barrier to entry is pretty high. The ones who can get conversations going are lucky, in my opinion.

  6. Ryan Paul says:

    TweetScan and Summize look really awesome. I had never heard of either of them before. Thanks!

    Any other useful Twitter-based web services that you think are worth checking out?

  7. @Lindsay – that’s a very good point. I can be hard to get conversations going before your network reaches “critical mass”.

    I think part of it can be helped by not being as strict as I was talking about above – you can follow people that your followees converse with – meeting new people through current friends, basically. There’s definitely value in that – your network grows over time. Be patient.

    Some of the community building/finding stuff I want to write about in my next post can help you find new people to connect with. For example, if you were in the Portland area, you could check out pulseofpdx.com to find new people to follow. There are starting to be more and more of these “communities of interest” built around Twitter, but you’re right. It’s still a tough problem.

  8. Josh — Great post, but I disagree re: only following people you *know* IRL. I began to follow you on twitter after seeing your insightful comments among others I follow. We haven’t met, but I appreciate your insight and have read your blog posts *specifically* due to twitter. You might want to rethink your “don’t follow” advice here. — ahg3

  9. Some things I try to pass on to people:

    * Some celebs you see on Twitter are fake (but not obviously so).

    * Checking the followers:followees ratio is a good thing to do. (Someone who follows 12k people and has 7 followers is probably suspicious)

    * Twitter is good for crowdsourcing things-you can find recommendations for all manner of things, find an expert in a programming language, get a job, get a date, get an opinion. Or a hundred.

    * A good way to expand your horizons is to see who the people you follow are conversing with or following themselves. It can be an interesting way to find new people or conversations.

    * Spammers ARE in fact, on Twitter. Being a company doesn’t automatically make you a spammer, but there are those who are doing a better job of it than others.

    * Following what everyone is saying to you (or about you) can be hard, especially if you follow a significant number of folks. Twitter only tracks messages that start with the @ and your username, not those where you are mentioned somewhere in the middle. A Yahoo! pipe designed by Dawn Foster can help you find the ones you missed. It’s here: http://twurl.cc/mv

    * Use the Twictionary at http://twictionary.pbwiki.com/ to learn the shorthand some folks use and if you see holes in it, contribute your own!

  10. @Arthur – Maybe I need to rewrite that part. I don’t recommend ONLY following people that you know in real life. I recommend following only people that you KNOW who they are. That is, you don’t have to stop and think for more than a half a second asking yourself “who is this person again? Why am I following them?”

    There are lots of people I follow because I know who they are (the guys who write some of my favorite software, like @chockenberry, @danielpunkass, etc.), or have had some kind of online interaction with them (I read their blog or webcomic or whatever), even though I haven’t met most of them IRL.

    I struggled to find a way to communicate what I meant, which is basically “don’t follow people you don’t have at least some sort of connection to – you know who they are, in one context or another.”

    Hope that helps! :-)

  11. @verso (Kelly) – those are all awesome – thanks for throwing them into the conversation.

    I covered the “track what people are saying about you” using Summize and search feeds, but Dawn’s tracking pipe is, indeed, awesome, so thanks for filling in the gap I left by linking to it. :-)

  12. @ahg3:

    Following people you know is just a starting point. It’s like going to a party with friends, or knowing you will have friends there. Then maybe you branch out and talk to some of the folks your friends introduce you to. It’s just a nice place to start. When I first signed up I looked at all the people being followed by people I knew, and that’s where a lot of my list came from at first.

    Some people stop at people they know, some people don’t stop at all. Everyone has to find that on their own.

  13. Josh — I think the context/community part is key. I run a tech marketing agency, so following tech, marketing and sm folks is a natural. I think Kelly’s comments above re: expanding your horizons are in line with my thoughts. — ahg3

  14. I updated the post with a little more on “rules for following”, including a great @scobleizer quote that he dropped on Twitter while I was editing, so it got inserted. 😉

  15. Excellent post Josh. Agree wholeheartedly with almost everything. Been trying to gather my thoughts for a post on how i use twitter too.

    I do agree with Lindsay that it can be overwhelming to a new twitter user, as it can be very cliquey. I tweeted this recently and got into a bit of a ruck with a follower/followee that ended up in us dropping/blocking each other. But I do stand by that opinion. You can either try to ‘Kreamer’ your way into a conversation (you know, burst into the door and say Hey Jerry). But this rarely works, I know as I’ve tried it. You can sit back and watch and wait for a moment to speak up, but that takes time and patience. You can wait for others to notice your tweets and add you, hoping for a connection. What are your thoughts/rules on this?

    When I first joined twitter in Feb 2007 I followed a bunch of people and added back those who followed me. But I agree with you it got too much to manage, too much noise. And not focused, most of the tweets were about stuff I had no interest in. It became too hard to weed out the cruft so i simply deleted my account and started a new one, which was drastic, but liberating. Now I have locked down my account and follow only tech/media/vlogger types, many of whom I have dialogues with outside of twitter.

    glad to say you are one of the tweeps I followed as @madmac66 and still follow as @influxx. Your tweets are always interesting, informative and on point. Proof that twitter and my system works :)

  16. I see some people prefacing certain words in their tweets with #, as in “now going to #Berkeley to shop for #music” or whatever. Is this some form of keyword tagging?

  17. @Durf – what you’re seeing are HashTags, and they are basically a way for people to tag their tweets on a certain topic or event, so they show up in a trackable way. You can learn more about it on the Hashtags site. It’s pretty straightforward.

  18. Great post, Josh.

    One decision folks have to make is whether or not they want to read everything by every person they follow. I find that most new Twitter users will do this… when they come online, they’ll go back and read everything that happened while they were away. This works great if you’re following 10 people, but once you develop a network of more than a few folks, this becomes totally impractical.

    For me, I plug into Twitter when I get a chance, and when I’m away, I’m away. Perhaps I’ll miss something. Such is life.

    I get around this by subscribing to the RSS feeds of about 15 “must read” Twitterfolks. This is less than 10% of my following list. Your list of “must read” people is going to be different than mine… but mine consists of a few folks that post high-quality messages, and I know that if I scan through them quickly I’ll pick up on anything important that happened while I was away.

    Combining these “must read” RSS feeds along with targeted searches (using Tweetscan and a couple other tools) ensures that I see the important things without having to always be tuned into the Twitterstream 24×7.

  19. Twitter dexterity +10!

    @ Durf, the #’s are called Hashtags. If you put words after a hash, you can track its use frequency on http://hashtags.org – very helpful to track things in an event.

    @ Josh, you talked about new users at the beginning of this post. I believe that providing easy to read informations for them could greatly reduce barriers of entry. New users should know that they’re not going to figure Twitter out right away, and the real fun won’t happen until they start participating in conversations, etc. This way, they’ll weather the withdrawal period (have anyone had some sort of a withdrawal from Twitter at some point?) and hopefully will find value by sticking around.

    We have, on different levels, had experience with these. But new users haven’t. It will be helpful to build out a list of steps that might happen so they know what to expect, from point of entry, adoption, integration to late-night addiction :)

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