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.
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.
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!