Social 101: Twitter

Twitter is a microblogging tool that allows users to send out “tweets” that contain 140 characters worth of information. Microblogging is defined by Dictionary.com as a verb:

to post very short entries, as a brief update or a photo, on a blog or social-networking Web site

Based on this definition, Twitter is a blog platform that allows very short entries of 140 characters. Of all the blogging platforms that exist, Twitter is by far the easiest to contribute content to.

The Big Question: What do I tweet?

If you have a blog, you should absolutely share your posts. If you want people to want to read your posts, you have to devote some time to interacting with people you’re following. I notice a significant difference in my traffic numbers when I’m active on twitter and when I’m not. People want to connect with you regularly and twitter is the best way to do that. When I started out, I had to make a conscious decision to get on Twitter. I had no idea what I was doing, but I watched other people. Eventually, I jumped into conversations more and more and started gaining a true following of people I engaged regularly. So, how do you engage? Here are some of the many ways you can do it:

  1. Post a tweet about what you’re doing (work, cooking, drinking, watching TV, playing with kids - anything).
  2. Share an article/blog post that you’re reading or have written.
  3. Tweet a photo you’ve taken.
  4. Ask a question.
  5. Jump into conversations.
  6. Tell a joke.
  7. Share valuable information - events, news, etc.
  8. Participate in a community via hashtags.
  9. Retweet others.
  10. Talk about your interests and look for others who share them. (Twitter Search is a great place to start).

Twitter has so many creative and business uses. It’s all about being social and sharing interesting information. I like to describe Twitter as a chat room - you know, those antiquated things were all hanging out in 15 years ago on dial-up? The difference is that this chatroom is completely open to the entire world (with the exception of private accounts).

It can be confusing to find your way on Twitter with all the different ways that people use it. There is a widespread belief that reciprocity is expected and required. I disagree with this notion.

If the guys who started Twitter had expected reciprocity, they would follow back everyone who follows them (they don’t) or they would have built the tool so that it required reciprocity (they didn’t). Twitter, unlike Facebook, allows every user to have a custom experience. There are some great features built into Twitter that aid this customization:

  • Lists - allow you to segment and group based on any parameter you want,
  • Favorites - a system for saving tweets that you want to review later,
  • Hashtags - follow a topic, participate in a community - even if you aren’t following everyone.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of Twitter features, but these are the most commonly used. Try them out. Play with Twitter and experiment to see what works. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to use it. With time and use, you will find a comfortable pace and practice.

If you’re using Twitter to connect with people, then you’re on the right track. Be intentional about it. Set aside a time each day to tweet, even if only to say hello to a few people when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. If you’re using Twitter to gain a following, then you may find yourself disappointed. I’d rather have 500 people who follow and interact with me than 400,000 who miss my tweets and never talk to me because they’re following 400,000 people back. Don’t get caught up in the numbers game - whether it’s follower counts, Klout scores or traffic to your blog. Social media growth is slow and steady for the vast majority of users.

Don’t take my word for it - here are some other recent Twitter articles for you to explore:

Now, I’ll ask you: What’s your best advice for Twitter users who don’t know what to say?

Part 1 of Demystifying #hashtags: 5 reasons you want to use them

I am a huge fan of hashtags. I try to use meaningful hashtags whenever I can, but I have fun with them too. I'm such a fan of hashtags that I would be totally fine with my email client implementing hashtag support, along with Facebook and every other social network - outside of Twitter (and Google+ soon). See? I'm a devoted fan.

As much as I like them, I recognize that hashtags can be confusing for the uninitiated.

Just what is a hashtag, anyway?

Simply put, it's a word or phrase that is preceded by a hash mark - #, e.g., #socialmedia. Hashtags as we know them today are in use primarily on Twitter though there is support in other places. They make search on subject instantaneous. I see a hashtag in a tweet and I can click on it and search results of every tweet that has that hashtag pop up for me to browse through. For twitter, it provided a much-needed search "engine" that allows users to group tweets together by topic.

Should I use hashtags?

I'm a hashtag fan girl, so you can take my word with a grain of salt, but yes you should definitely use them! And here are five reasons to use them that will enhance your twitter experience:

  1. Community - Many communities around a host of different subjects use hashtags to categorize tweets so the community will see them. Participants in the community can follow the hashtag to see what others are saying and engage the in conversation. One community I have seen that is very active is #w2p, Web 2.0 professionals.

  2. Topical - There are as many topics out there that people are talking about at any given time as there are minutes in the day. Probably more. How do you narrow it down, though, when you're  not following all those people or if you never see the tweets? If you're tweeting about #facebook, throw on a hashtag. #socialmedia is one I use often.

  3. Events - This one is similar to community, but centers around a specific event. Sometimes the hashtag extends outside of the event, but not always. This summer, the organizing committee for the first annual Social Capital Conference used #socapott to promote the conference and then it was our hashtag for conference related tweets. We continue to use it for our regular tweetups as well.

  4. Twitter Chats - One of the most valuable events to participate in on twitter is an organized chat. There are so many twitter chats and they're a great way to connect with other like-minded people and learn from them. Time has been in short supply lately, but my goal is to eventually schedule one a week - they are just that valuable. Participants in the chat, such as #blogchat, use the hashtag to follow the discussion, but it tends to last for a specific period of time.

  5. Causes - Many causes are using hashtags to raise awareness and invite discussion. One that is near and dear to the heart of Ottawans, particularly in the last couple of weeks, is #NoMoreBullies, bolstered further by the recent suicide of Jamie Hubley after years of bullying. Earlier this year, #twestivalOTT was in use to promote the region's largest ever tweetup and raise funds for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health.

  6. Bonus reason - Fun! - This is your bonus reason for using hashtags and it's one that I've seen discouraged by more than one person. It's not likely to be of any practical use, but editorial comments added to tweets - #coffeestat #whoneedssleep, etc. - can be entertaining.

Hashtags are a great tool for sharing information about topics and connecting with community. Used wisely, they will enhance your twitter experience and you'll get more value out of the time you spend. Next time, I'll dive into part 2 of demystifying hashtags and offer some best practices and tips so you can get even more out of using them!

Do you already use hashtags? Do you find them useful? Do you have any questions about them?