Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What is Twitter? (or How to Waste Your Life)

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In a post from a week or so ago I mentioned I should do a post dedicated to explaining Twitter and I've also noticed recently that I mention this communication tool fairly often on this blog. So, I decided now's the time to write up something about Twitter.

So what is Twitter?
Twitter is, in its simplest form, a social communication tool, similar to a blog or Facebook but much simpler in most respects.

Blogs are generally used for posting longer thoughts or articles while Twitter functions much more like a mini-blog as you are limited to no more than 140 characters for each "Tweet" or post.

In this respect it's similar to Facebook's status updates however Twitter lacks much of the network aspects of Facebook, like full profiles, fan pages, groups, photo albums, or the countless other 3rd-party applications. Like Facebook and other social networks, Twitter allows you to connect with other users by "following" their tweets and others can follow you. Unlike Facebook and many other social networks, interactions you have on Twitter are public (for the most part). And this is the real value behind Twitter—most everything you do (and everyone else does) is public and searchable. This allows people from all over the web to find your posts and profile, connect with you, and start following your updates, making Twitter a great asset for marketing and personal branding.

So how does Twitter work?
After signing up for Twitter you're left with a blank profile. You can fill in some limited info like your name, location, website and a brief bio or description (you're limited to 140 characters).

From here the best thing to do is start following a few people. You can usually find a few friends to follow who are already on Twitter (like me @jerrythepunkrat) and many people who blog or write on the web will have an account as well. Just check out their "about" or "contact" page on their site and they'll usually have a link to follow them on Twitter.

Also, many companies, news outlets, websites and other organizations have their own twitter accounts where you can get updates, news, and even some giveaways and freebies just by following them. For instance you can follow updates from my band @smdband or from another blog I write for @humrem (Humanitas Remedium—a blog on theology, culture and politics).

As you start following people and organizations you'll find their tweets filling up your main page on Twitter (similar to the news feed on Facebook). As you follow more and more people you'll find it harder to keep up with every single post.

Don't.

The beauty of Twitter is the ability to get brief snapshots across a wide variety of sources like friends, news, and other special interests you might have. It's much like a running river of cool water: step in and get wet, grab a drink, or just sit and watch for a while but don't expect to catch every molecule of H2O that rushes by.

Lists
You can organize the people you follow by creating lists. For instance I have a list of all the guys in my band that are on Twitter. This way you can create a sub-section of your overall followers if you want to keep a closer eye on some of them.

Also, as you surf around others' profiles you can check out the lists they build and follow their lists as well. This is a great way to find new people that might be of interest to you. For instance I follow a list called PHXDC (Phoenix Design Community) that includes many people here in the Valley of the Sun that work in the design industry. I've been able to create some connections with quite a few people via this list.

What to "Tweet?"
This is probably the biggest question of all when it comes to starting out on Twitter. Here you are following a few friends, organizations and maybe some other big names from around the web, and in return maybe a few are following you. But what to post?

Start simple.

Post what you're doing at that moment (a status update) or where you're headed next. Maybe send out a link to something cool you just found on the web with a brief snippet about what you like about it. Or, if you're witty, post something funny or thoughtful. And posting about things you are passionate about is always a great place to start.

But whatever you do, be yourself.

Twitter is not a place to create a new you or try to make yourself out to be someone that you're not. The web is already full of these people and generally others are savvy to it. They're not going to follow you or pay attention if you're not being real with them.

In general, though, what you post about is dictated most by what you're using Twitter for. Are you looking to connect with other professionals in your industry? Are you out to find other like-minded enthusiasts for a hobby or passion of yours? Are you using Twitter to market your business, web site or blog?

I've found the best way to get the most out of Twitter is to take one or two main passions and follow those people and post about those subjects. Trying to chase everything and everyone will only overload you.

There are a ton of other tools and tips for maximizing Twitter that I will try to get to in a future post, so stay tuned.

Be sure to let me know your thoughts on Twitter, why you use it (or don't use it). I'd love to hear from you!
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