Most people read this blog because they are looking for advice about launching a web-based business. But this article isn’t about methodologies for development or strategies for a web launch. It’s about something more basic: Twitter. If you’re not using Twitter, it’s time to get started. This article will explain how.
Why Twitter? Every few years, there’s an important new way to use the Internet. There was a time when I’d ask someone for their email address and I’d hear, “My computer’s not set up for that, but you can fax me.” That changed all of a sudden, around 1996, when everyone discovered that email was really useful. The Internet works like that. BBS’s, USENET, email, the web, Google, instant messaging, blogs, social networking. Things that are dweeby, geeky, or an apparent preoccupation of youth suddenly go mainstream. Guess what’s next?
It’s called Twitter. Like email, people are using it for a variety of purposes. For that reason, no one can quite explain what it’s about and everyone seems to have a different explanation of why it’s important. Whatever the reason, it’s suddenly getting mainstream notice. David Pogue wrote about it (twice) in the New York Times. During the first weeks of March, Jon Stewart ranted about Twitter on The Daily Show, Good Morning America jumped on the Twitter wagon, and it appeared in the Doonesbury comic strip. This week, Oprah started using Twitter.
Why We Twitter
If you’re friends and family, I won’t presume to tell you why you might want to use Twitter, other than to say it’s nice to hear what’s going on with people you care about. Kind of like a Christmas newsletter, only it comes every day in short installments.
If, like me, you’re involved in a web startup, you absolutely must use Twitter, for the same reason you would read a newspaper or a trade magazine (especially since many of those no longer exist). Twitter will keep you informed of current events and tie you into a community, but more important, it will immerse you in the culture and mindset of startups and the consciousness of the Internet.
Twitter is about broadcasting short messages to those who follow you, and reading short messages from those who you follow. On the surface that doesn’t seem like much. But (to some) it also didn’t seem like email was much different than a fax. Trust me; you need to try it. But there’s tricks to getting started. Unless you get a little help, you’re going to end up scratching your head and not really using it.
How to Get Started With Twitter
Here, then, is how to get started.
Sign up at twitter.com. In most cases, you’ll want to use your own name so people who know you can find you. There’s really no point in being anonymous (you’re smart enough not to post something embarrassing, right?). Here’s an article on 8 Twitter username tips.
Go to “settings” to enter a short bio with keywords that will help identify your interests. If you’re interested in knitting, other knitters will find you if your bio describes your interests. When you check out other Twitter users, you’ll look at their bio and their recent messages and see if you want to follow them.
Next, upload a photo. It’s going to show up as a tiny little “avatar” so choose a photo that is bold, without intricate detail. I like headshots, because seeing a face helps me associate messages with a personality. But if you’re shy, you can upload something else that serves as your personal “logo.” Just be sure to upload something; using the Twitter default avatar will communicate that you are lazy or clueless.
To get going fast, start “following” a few of the services that “retweet” the most popular tweeted URLs. To “retweet” (abbreviated “RT”) is to find an interesting message among the people you follow (often a link to an interesting web page) and post it for the people who follow you (like forwarding an email). These services will show you popular “retweets” and give you a taste of what people are finding interesting:
To “follow,” click on a link like http://twitter.com/danielkehoe and click on the “follow” button (you can follow me if you want!).
It’s fun to see what’s interesting to everyone in the Twitter universe but you’ll want to follow some people, too.
Follow Your Friends
Start with your friends. It’s difficult to find out if people you know are using Twitter. There’s an option to search your email contact list if you use Gmail or other popular email hosting services such as Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, or MSN. Choose the “Find People” link and the tab “Find on Other Networks.” You can also search for people you know who already have a Twitter account with a username and first or last name. Mostly you just have to ask your friends if they are on Twitter.
When you follow someone, they will know you’ve followed them. And they may check you out to see if they want to follow you. It’s considered polite to follow people who follow you but, really, you don’t have to follow people who are not interesting to you.
Here’s a tip. Wait until you’ve posted a few messages (known as updates or “tweets”) before you start following people you don’t know. People who don’t know you will look at your tweets to see if you’re interesting before they decide to follow you. You may think you don’t care if anyone follows you but really, if no one follows you, you’re not going to have the opportunity to ask questions and get helpful replies (which is one of Twitter’s benefits). So start posting a few tweets that reveal your interests and personality.
How often to “tweet”? Try one or two messages every few days to start. If you wait weeks to post new tweets, people will figure you’ve signed up for an account and have not figured out how to use Twitter. On the other hand, if you post dozens of tweets a day, you’d better be an extremely interesting person or else people will get fatigued and stop following you. As a rule of thumb, if you look at Twitter every day, and find it interesting, you can probably manage to contribute an interesting tweet once a day.
So what do you tweet? Personally, I aim for a mix. 25% retweeting interesting URLs, 25% insights or inspirational thoughts or funny observations, 25% personal life, 25% gratuitous self-promotion and business communication or problem-solving. But that’s just me. You can find your own Twitter personality type here: The 14 Types of Twitter Personalities.
Now here’s the most important thing to know about Twitter. You’ll never get the hang of it if you just use the Twitter web site. That’s just where you go to sign up. No one would ever use Twitter if that was all there was to it. Just as there are zillions of ways to use Twitter, there are hundreds of applications and web sites you can use to read and post tweets. Almost all of them are better than Twitter’s own web site. If you a really want to get any use out of Twitter, install a good Twitter app on your computer.
Tweetdeck is among the very best. It runs on Macs or PCs (using the Adobe AIR software system). Download and install it. Now you can really use Twitter.
In TweetDeck, set up some columns for “searches” for keywords you are interested in. Pick words that are unique and common only to people who care about the things you are interested in (if you are guitarist, don’t pick “music,” pick “stratocaster”). Then look to see if you might want to follow some of the twitterers. Click on their name, look at their bio and recent tweets (useful? amusing? tedious?) and click to “follow” (you can always unfollow later).
Search and You Shall Find
When you find someone interesting, look to see who they follow and start following them yourself. Chances are, people who are interesting to you are following interesting people themselves. If someone is following a thousand people, look at the people they first started following to see who they really are interested in.
Overwhelmed? Don’t Be
How many people can you follow? You’d be surprised. This is not like email. You don’t have to read every Twitter message. You won’t get backlogged.
And Twitter is not like subscribing to a blog. You’re not slogging through entire articles. Twitter messages are only 140 characters long. It’s more like reading headlines (or haiku). It takes barely a microsecond to scan a tweet and gain something useful from it. With little more than a glance, you can keep up with a constant flow of tweets, staying stimulated and informed.
You don’t have to feel bad if you “fall behind.” If you just sip a little from the firehose whenever you want, you’ll be satisfied. So follow a thousand people if you want. Get selective. Sift and winnow. If someone is consistently tedious or irrelevant, just unfollow. Clear out the people who clutter your Twitter window. Soon you’ll have a constant flow of fascinating, interesting, useful Twitter messages. Which you can read or ignore, when you want.
What do you do if you’re following dozens of active, prolific Twitter strangers but your dearest friends only post once a week and you always miss their tweets? Here’s where TweetDeck comes in handy. You can set up a “group” for people who post infrequently. Use the TweetDeck “group” feature to make a column of tweets just from your friends who post infrequently. Call it the “infrequent” group.
You can also use the TweetDeck “group” feature to make columns for people who post only about certain topics that interest you. That way you can see, at a glance, the most recent postings from knitters (for example).
Reaching Your Twitter Comfort Level
How will you know if you’re up to speed with Twitter? Probably when you “check tweets” before you check a website for online news. (Plane down in the Hudson? It was on Twitter first.) You’ll be getting unique and timely news about your profession or avocation if you’ve followed peers and prominent people in your area of interest. And you’ll know you’re up to speed if you find you’re calling or emailing friends to congratulate them because you saw important news about their lives from their tweets. (You’ll be really up to speed — and you’ll be an advanced Twitter user — if you use the Twitter “direct message” feature instead of email to contact friends.)
Finally, you’re truly up to speed when you use a tweet to ask a question and get a dozen useful answers. That’s what’s convinced many people that Twitter is worth the effort.
Is Twitter another Internet time sink? Look at it this way. Twitter has become popular because it takes less time to stay in touch than email. And less time to stay current than blogs. Scanning a few dozen tweets at a time happens at the speed of thought. Twitter gives a lot of value for the amount of time you spend with it. After you’re up to speed, you’ll see. Hopefully, with these tips about getting started, you’ll get up to speed quickly.
More Tips and Tricks
28 June 2009 — Check to see if someone is a spammer before you follow them: TwitChuck.
14 September 2009 — What’s not allowed on Twitter: People You Won’t See on Twitter Anymore.
24 June 2010 — How to decide who to follow on Twitter: Angpang’s Twitter Follow Back Formula.
Why Comment? Just Tweet Me
Was this article useful? Let me know when you’re up and running with Twitter. Just post a tweet with my name, “@danielkehoe” and I’ll see it.