[Published in the OSALL newsletter of August 2009]
Fine : when in Rome, do as the Romans do but when on Twitter . . . abandon the principle. That’s as negative as this column is going to get as I’ve recently found this service to be a landmine of useful information if, as with all else in the electronic domain and particularly within Web 2.0 applications, one uses it judiciously.
So, dis-remember what you’ve probably heard about Twitter and, if you don’t already use it, consider the facts. No-one else chooses your toothbrush – don’t let anyone mess with the individual choice of bristles in your information management arsenal if they work for you.
The Twitter protocol is referred to as micro-blogging. Participants post messages of up to 140 characters which are seen almost immediately by all who have chosen to follow individual profiles ; these Tweets are also visible to casual visitors in archived format and become searchable on Google but the primary strength of Twitter is its immediacy. The fact that it’s free and supremely mobile has also boosted its meteoric rise. Its membership had reached 32 million users by May 2009, up from 2 million a year earlier, and its growth is estimated at 50-100% per month. It is primarily designed for use on cellphones but I use it quite happily from my desktop and prefer not to be exposed to it 24/7.
Yes, there’s an inordinate amount of Twitter litter out there – the figure currently being bandied about is 40% of Twitter traffic being ‘babble’. However, if one takes the time to identify useful sources and bears in mind its role as a form of real-time messaging, the rewards are worthwhile. To be honest, my knowledge of Twitter was minimal and firsthand experience absolutely zippo until, about two months ago, I was asked to incorporate it into my work. It took a few weeks of almost completely silent watching and listening to learn the etiquette and identify people who add value to my particular set of interests.
Why to Tweet
Possibly being exposed to constant streams of information makes us reticent when it comes to adding more to the flow. However, consider some of the reasons the UK Cabinet has directed government departments to use Twitter. Please read the full document1 as I’m only referring to three points here :
“provide thought leadership and credibility, increasing our visibility as the experts in our remit within the online space ;
provide an informal, ‘human’ voice of the organisation to promote comprehension of and engagement with our corporate messages ;
provide an additional, low-barrier method for audiences to interact with the Department to provide feedback, seek help and suggest ideas”.
What organisation/company/firm would not espouse those goals in an ongoing programme of customer relationship management?
Consider too the article by Paul Lippe2 which discusses social networking within the legal field. It points out that, despite the concern of some lawyers that ‘social’ precludes ‘professional’, “knowledge in law is distributed (ie social)”. Access to information from a trusted source, eg colleague or someone within a known network, is extremely valuable and can help reduce costs to clients or, conversely, generate income for a law firm.
American attorneys have already created a huge repository of specialised information within Twitter. I was surprised at how quickly some of them started following one of my Twitter profiles. So too with law librarians in the UK as well as US. This is a community with endless potential. (By the way, South African attorneys are already represented too although most posts so far relate to the gym and golf).
Twitter allows one to build a reputation in one’s field and create an extensive directory of like-minded contacts. It provides the perfect forum to post questions and get answers from sources that are already known or traceable at least. Because of the hyper-networking that takes place, it is also being increasingly used in the field of job-hunting and recruiting. Just as one has long been able to ‘Google’ individuals, it is now possible to gain further insight by following their Twitter streams, once again making use of information in the public domain.
What to Tweet
Reference has been made to the 40% guano – invaluable to those who have an interest in it but generally avoided by those of us who clean our own shoes – and few would deliberately aspire to be among the producers thereof.
Remember that this is “more like headlines than hard core contents”3 and aim to make a unique contribution. Unless one is posting a brief comment or advisory (@SabinetLaw excels at these), Tweets usually contain an abbreviated link to a blog post or other online resource. Reading comments from a wide variety of bloggers and their readers, almost everyone values personalised input with a mixture of links to articles (both by the person posting the link and by third parties), humour, quotations and ReTweets (more further on).
Twitter is a more concise way of informing clients of newsletters, additions to website/s, events . . . than RSS feeds, either of which the client would have chosen to opt into. On the down side, if one is experiencing technical difficulties, delays in service delivery or other problems, inform clients via Twitter so they aren’t left to wonder what’s going on.
Unfortunately there are plenty of Tweeters who put up an endless mishmash of (largely uncredited) quotes, sometimes very funny but that quickly palls when the same person reposts the same content repeatedly. Life’s too short to spend much time on unoriginal material. Fortunately the power to “Follow” and “Unfollow” rests entirely with each account holder.
It is suggested that one publishes between two and ten Tweets a day : too few and followers lose interest ; too many and followers lose interest.
A feature that we are sure to see more of is the ability to conduct polls through various services such as StrawPoll and Twitter Poll Daddy. Brief questions and answers is what Twitter excels in.
How to Tweet
Literally type a short message into the window and press Update. Once published it can be read by your followers and will become searchable on Google in due course. It may also be ReTweeted by those who read it : this means reposted with credit to you. Beware : it can also be retrieved by an evil service even if you later choose to delete the post so – Think Twice before posting. These days mistakes quickly become viral communications for the entertainment of the masses.
Should you wish to send a private message to an individual follower, send a Direct Message which will be visible only to you and the recipient. Semi-private conversations held in the public domain quickly become boring for others.
It is worth bearing in mind this oft-repeated advice. After setting up your free account (username and password), include a relevant photograph in your Profile and complete a short Bio. As you will discover when you visit others’ Profiles, the personal touch is appealing and inspires more confidence and motivation to Follow someone than the profile of an unknown entity. Put some thought into your choice of Handle or username unless this is obvious, such as the name of a company. One’s Handle can be changed later on without losing contacts or timelines.
There are over 2 000 applications to help manage the incredible amount of information one can be subjected to. One name that crops up inevitably is TweetDeck. I used this for the first time yesterday and it may grow on me. I have no problem with it but also currently have no problem managing my accounts as I do not subscribe to one of the Twitter norms. This is to have as many Followers and to Follow as many people as possible, ostensibly to boost one’s profile and reputation. One is not expected to read all the posts that will then come through.
My philosophy is that I have chosen to Follow each person because I believe they have something of value to offer so, yes, I do want to read what they post. I don’t care if my modest figures (just tipped three figures on one profile compared to many account holders who boast tens of thousands of both categories) give me a lower ranking and I do not think that impossibly high numbers reflect favourably on one’s credibility.
Who to Follow
This is the part I know a number of us are finding difficult. The most effective method I’ve used to date is looking to see who my contacts are Following ; it’s surprising how many familiar names are starting to appear. It’s also a bit disconcerting at first when well-known names start Following one’s own profile. Be aware that Twitter, as with the Internet as a whole, is plagued by porn stars and people who automatically Follow others in order to get their numbers up. Once again, delete/ignore/report them.
Trying to find others in one’s area who Tweet is not as easy as it would be in America where zip codes are easily searched. A tip that makes a lot of sense is identifying local news sources (see News sites below) and looking through their contacts as they will likely be Followed by people in the area.
Tweeters I’d Recommend
▪ @sabinetlaw (www.twitter.com/sabinetlaw)
▪ News sites (visit the homepage of the website and look for the link to their Twitter page just as you would for the RSS feeds icon. Tip : go to the top of the page, press <Control F> and type in Twitter (or RSS/XML))
▪ Find one law librarian and more will quickly follow
▪ Stephen Fry because, if you share his humour, you will understand that he really deserves to be followed by over 728 000 people (his bio describes him as, among other factors, Lord of Dance, Prince of Swimwear)
Twitter is here to stay, although it will be a while before the service settles into a more stable model and finds its true niche. After reading others’ Twitter streams for a week or two, I began to get a feel for this slightly different protocol and am definitely finding information is coming to me more quickly and, as with RSS feeds, am not spending so much time looking for it.
1 Template Twitter Strategy for Government Departments / United Kingdom. Cabinet Office
2 Welcome to the Future : Oh So Social? / Paul Lippe
3 25 Twitter Tips for Business / David Zak
4 5 Methods I Used To Get A Job Through Twitter / Jade Craven
Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.