Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tweeting Too Soon

If you’re one of the many Internet users who loathe Twitter, maybe you just tweeted too soon. Twitter is, and always has been, a work in progress.

Twitter started out as a social media platform that asked users to answer in 140 characters or less the question, “What are you doing?” The better question is “What were they thinking?”

Did they think we really need a social media platform with thousands of messages saying, “walking the dog now” or “Suzy looks so cute today”? Actually, according to a story in today’s New York Times entitled Twitter Serves Up Ideas From Its Followers, Twitter’s management didn’t really know what to think. Their business model is to provide some functionality and let their users point the direction of the service’s future. That’s either a truly great idea or a truly great after-the-fact rationalization to explain why things have turned out the way they have.

No one can blame users who tried the service early on and were driven away by thousands of inane updates, but Twitter has evolved. I hated it early on, too. I’d rather chew on a piece of aluminum foil while I shave my head with a cheese grater than read one more vacuous tweet. But now, my Twitter application is a well-organized source of information that I actually want and the goofy stuff is nowhere in sight. Here’s how I did it.

First, I recognized that the value of Twitter is following the right people and filtering out the rest. SteveCase, my old boss at AOL, tweets better than anyone else I know. He constantly covers a wide range of interesting topics, from global warming to the Washington Redskins. His tweets contain a brief topic description, and here’s the important part, a hyperlink to the real story. I rarely find interesting tweets that don’t include a hyperlink. Here’s one from today:

         SteveCase As Redskins fumble, some fans are saying, 'See ya' (WPost) http://bit.ly/4jIVS6

This isn’t a “What Are You Doing?” update, it’s a link to an interesting story that I wanted to read. Johnclayiv, a sports reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, provides inside information on University of Kentucky sports that I probably would miss here in North Carolina. DiamondHeels alerted me to a UNC baseball game that had been canceled minutes before I was planning to leave for the ballpark. When Kentucky games or UNC baseball games aren’t on TV or radio, those two post scores on Twitter. I’m working with an amazing Career Coach, LauraLabovich, to help a friend find a job. She posts links to great job search articles on Twitter.

Businesses are using Twitter in interesting ways, too. The other day, I sent a tweet to TwelpForce, which is apparently monitored by Best Buy sales people who aren’t helping a real customer at the moment. I asked who makes a printer with an envelope feeder and who makes subcompact cameras with an optical viewfinder. I got answers in minutes (Epson and Olympus). If you have trouble getting someone to help you in the store, try walking over to their computer section and tweeting them.

When you follow great sources, they will frequently recommend other sources you might want to follow. It is customary to do so on what Twitter calls “Follow Friday”, but it happens all the time, so it’s easy to build up a quality list of resources for whatever topic interests you.

The next step is to get rid of the tweets you don’t want. You choose whose tweets you want to see by following them, but you may sometimes come to regret your decision. “Unfollow” people who don’t send interesting information your way. Clicking on their name at the beginning of their Tweet links you to their Twitter profile page where you can click on the gear icon and select the unfollow option. Poof! Their stupid tweets will never again sully your desktop. It's a gratifying experience.

Speaking of desktops, there are many Twitter applications to choose from. You don’t need an application at all, you can use the Twitter.com website, but the applications make the service easier to use and they’re a lot more fun. I like Seesmic, but TweetDeck is probably the most popular. Both make it easier to organize the information you receive, simplify functions like Re-Tweeting (RT) and accessing multiple accounts, like one for the office, maybe and one for home, and both are free downloads.

I set up Seesmic to show several different columns of information called User Lists. The first User List shows tweets from everyone I follow. In the second list, I display only tweets from Kentucky sports people I follow and I have another for my close friends and family. If I’m interested in sports, I only look at the second list.

I get lots of women followers who have their profile pictures taken in provocative attire. I assume they have strong intellectual interest in the financial information I post, or maybe they’re trying to tempt me to follow them. I don’t. I used to block them when I received their request, so they can't see what I post, but I’m not really sure they’re worth the effort. I don’t follow them, but I figure it’s OK if maybe they learn something about convertible debentures from me occasionally.

There are lots of other features you might find interesting, like sending direct messages to another Twitter user (a.k.a., “Twit”), searching tweets, posting pictures and retweeting, but you can pick those up as you go along. Recently, I signed up for SMS service by going to my profile page and selecting SETTINGS>DEVICES. Register your cell phone number and you can post tweets by sending a text message from your cell phone to 40404. I’m still trying to figure out why I would want to do that, but maybe I’ll be sitting at a baseball game one day and think, “My god, I have to post this right now.”

I think Twitter earned itself a bad rap early on. Taking these steps has turned Twitter into a useful tool for me. People I respect connect me with information that I might otherwise miss. It’s all organized by my desktop application. I winnowed out the bonehead tweeters and gradually built a list of excellent resources to follow.

If you haven’t tried Twitter since the “boy, do I hate rainy Mondays” era, you might want to give it another try. If you still don’t like it, see what it's like in about six months.

It’s a work in progress.

Follow me on Twitter.

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