Monday, April 20, 2009

The only thing you need to know about tweeting

I don't really like to write about social media; I like to use it to connect others to my writing and discover other interesting people.

But lately I'm noticing a lot of friends (mostly migrating from Facebook) signing up for Twitter accounts. Their Twitter trajectory goes like this: they follow a few friends, post one or two updates saying something like, "Am I supposed to write in third person?" and then not post anything for a while. For the longest time. To the point where you think they are never going to post anything again, at which point I stop specifically seeking out their updates and go back to pretending they were never on Twitter.

Because of this, I was going to write a post filled with several useful tips for people who are familiar with Facebook but are just getting started with Twitter.

But, I'm not.

You can find something like that here, or everywhere else on the internet.

I've decided instead that there is really only one thing you need to know about Twitter, or more specifically, about tweeting (which is what you put in your updates, i.e. the entirety of your presence on Twitter).

The advice comes directly from the mouth of Andy Ihnatko. I recently went to a panel at Boulder's Conference on World Affairs called, "Tweet Me, Blog Me, Poke Me," and when he spouted this gem I just had to take it down.

Because in the spirit of Twitter, the only thing you need to know about tweeting should be able to be said in 140 characters or less. It is:

Maintain a good signal-to-noise ratio.

What it means: People new to Twitter have the annoying tendency to ask questions like, "But, why would I want to know when my friend is taking a nap with his cat?" This is not what Twitter is about. I'm sure there are tons of people writing about taking naps with their cat, but I don't follow them, because those kinds of posts are what we call noise.

Noise on Twitter is created when you tell me how awesome your cheese steak tastes. How your grandmother just sent you a check in the mail. How you bought this lip gloss but it comes out darker than it looks from the outside and what is Sephora's return policy.

The thing is, noise is actually crucial to tweeting. Think about how boring it would be if everyone only posted links. It'd be way too much information to handle, and no one would really stand out because there would be no personal voice involved.

My noise tends to look like this:

Listening to classical music, drinking jasmine tea in front of a fire, reading "The Artist's Way." I'm not even trying to be pretentious.

I took a photo with a bunny on Easter weekend, but it was at a vegan festival where he was thanking people for not eating him. Still counts?

A comma is a pause with purpose, with intention. An ellipses is a pause that is standing there awkwardly, wondering what you'll make of him.

I love chatting online with my ex in iambic pentameter.

I try to make them somewhat interesting, so they give not a flat description of what I'm doing, but a picture of my personality or, at the very least, temporary disposition.

The genius of Twitter is that not only can your updates be about you, they can be about things that are of interest to other people. But it has to be both.

Which brings us to your other ingredient: signals. Signals are useful information. The definition of "useful" is always objective, but think about the kinds of things that you find humorous or thought-provoking. Links to news articles, real or fake, quotes people may find inspiring or relevant, links to local sandwich shops that offer awesome discounts. You can posts links to your work, either being careful not to overload people on self-promotion, or simply calling out the fact that you are shamelessly promoting yourself and letting it lie.

Granted, some of your timeline is going to be taken up by @replies. @replies are the way you publicly respond to someone on Twitter, kind of like the wall on Facebook, except on Twitter it annoyingly shows up on your feed instead of theirs, and they just get to check their @ box for it.

But in my opinion, you shouldn't exceed 25% of your tweets with @replies. Make the rest split between noise and signals.

And whatever you do, don't underestimate the value of having a limited number of characters. Being concise and clever is a challenge. Take for instance, this eerie phrase, taken from the Post Secret Twitter feed:
"Did you stare at the ceiling fan too while my fiance made love to you? Sisters are so alike." It's only 94 characters, yet it says quite a lot. A lot more than the kind of cheese on your sandwich.

If you follow this advice
and also, use it as a guideline when choosing who you follow you will enjoy and make the most of Twitter, I promise.

Note: on Fridays, you will see something called #followfriday. It just means you add that hashtag (#followfriday) to the end of your tweet and in it recommend someone you think others should follow by including their name followed by the @ sign (@AmySegreti). On Fridays, I give out "Smooth Transitioner" awards for new users who are immediately awesome at Twitter and don't spend 10 posts telling us how they're trying to "figure it out." Feel free to win.


  1. Makes perfect sense! I am definitely one of those people you described at the beginning. I've always wanted more of an online presence to network, meet people, and learn more about the things that interest me. I think what's hard is that I have so much going on (school and work mostly) that I find it hard to keep up with everything or I just lose interest. I think the problem is that I don't keep it going long enough to build up a significant following. I always kind of get discouraged pretty quick because it feels like nobody is listening at first.

    Perhaps I'll give it another shot.

  2. @Juan - Thank you! The cool thing about Twitter is that you can follow news networks (Washington Post tweets, as does the New York Times, the Daily Camera, Denver Post, and the Onion too, for that matter), so that might make it more interesting for you.

    If you do a search for Boulder, you'll find the Boulder Bookstore on Twitter, the Boulder Theater, Full Cycle, some Boulder non-profits, various restaurants, and more - and a lot of them have news to share and discounts to give to loyal customers.

    Good luck if you choose to try again. :)

  3. Bravo Amy! When I saw you tweet about this post, I thought it would be yet another "What is Twitter?" tutorial. But your advice is the kind that it normally takes people a lot longer to figure out. Thanks for sharing. I'm very sensitive to sending out more noise than quality, which is why I like to take breaks from Twitter. Living an interesting life makes it much easier to send out interesting tweets.

  4. @Tara Anderson - "Living an interesting life makes it much easier to send out interesting tweets." Wonderfully phrased. Thank you so much for reading (even though you thought it was yet another "What is Twitter?" tutorial, which is exactly the same thing I would have thought if I were you) and commenting!

  5. I am not new to Twitter , but I was one of those who use it once and then left it behind until read some useful articles and posts about Twitter, this pushed me to go back and reuse it.

    This is a great post, I have learned from you, you didn't talk about social media but you described a great way to use it!

  6. Twitter is a great way to share news, both global and personal news. I use it to stream for current events now as it is alot more off-beat than my usual vanilla sources.

  7. @Hesham - I'm so glad you found it useful! Thanks for reading and commenting.

    @Toxic Brit - Just the other day I read a tweet from an editor I follow in N.C. who wrote about an article that really affected him emotionally, one that would be published in his newspaper on Sunday. I let him know of my curiosity about the piece, and when it went live, he tweeted me the link. Now here I am, reading a gem published in a small newspaper in Greensboro, N.C. that I would not otherwise have found.

    Twitter can be a great way to share news, I completely agree. I'm glad you see that, too.