Wherever did you learn to Twitter so beautifully?

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Has anyone ever asked you that question? I thought not, me neither. The underlying question that is in my mind is how do you learn to use Twitter? At first sight the basic idea is easy to understand but getting to grips with it and really making it work for you is not so straightforward.

It is easy to overlook many Twitter features in the rush to get going. It is also easy to assume that something so brief will be quick to create. After all, the limited length is the defining characteristic of this medium and it fits perfectly into (or perhaps it even defines) our increasingly abbreviated culture.

How long is a string of 140 characters?

How long is a piece of string?

It is in the nature of this beast that you don’t expect to spend very long on such short messages. Surely 140 characters or less should take 140 seconds or less of your valuable time? Well I am not so sure. If you really compose a Twitter message well it will:

  • Be less than 125 characters long (to allow for retweets with added comments etc)*
  • Include a link (shortened to size)*
  • Include an @mention or two
  • Be clear, succinct and have a point.*
*I regard these as highly desirable options if not obligatory ingredients

That’s quite a lot to squeeze into such a small package and in my experience it can take anything up to fifteen minutes to get it all sorted out so it ends up as a kind of beautifully crafted online haiku.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

A lot of the work in the list above is already done for you if you retweet which is what I find I do most of the time. I have learned to think of myself as a living breathing information filter that passes on nuggets of interesting information that have been brought to my attention by the generosity of all the people I follow. To me this is the main point of Twitter, through this filtering and re-filtering of information, all the best stuff should rise to the top and be widely distributed. I think a lot of people start off with the misconception that they should think up a stream of thoughts that other people will find amusing or informative. On the whole I do not regard myself as a fount of wisdom that has a whole lot to tell the world apart from the occasional news of projects I have worked on or produced myself.

Learning to fly

Swallows in flight

I found Twitter very hard to learn, probably because I approach many things with a strong feeling of being an outsider, if anything I tend to lurk at the less-social end of the social spectrum so social media is always going to be a challenge for me.  After taking some time to get used to using this medium I now think this is completely irrelevant to my ability to enjoy the benefits of the site but I do detect that a lot of people are put off by their own preconceptions of what it does and who it is for.

I assumed it was aimed at young people with lots of friends who were active online – this turns out to be much more applicable to Facebook than to Twitter. I also assumed I should try and write funny or clever things which I now realise is likely to make you sound very un-natural  – unless of course you are naturally funny or clever  – which most of us aren’t, however fine we are in all sorts of other ordinary and human ways. As a medium of expression I think  it’s pretty muted and subtle: On Twitter I express myself most of the time through what I select and how I frame the information more than by generating it directly myself.

Friends, links and hashtags

Personally I think Twitter is not very user friendly. It is relatively easy to find hints and tips all over the internet and there are extensive support pages which are well structured and clear. I think I found it difficult because the main site is so deceptively simple and uncluttered, also because tweets are so laden with links, hashtags and mentions all apparently in code, so the meaning and use is not evident until you learn the language.

Shortened Links are the easiest thing to get used to. Hashtags take more persistence to really understand both how they are best used and why they work for subject searches but these are beginning to fall out of favour with search engines like Google following miss-use by spammers. Mentions, well I am not sure I understand these yet but I believe they add value to your tweets in that they link you to other users so they add weight to your profile from the point of view of search rankings. Here’s the official twitter explanation of mentions

Like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment.**

Satistics image coloured 3d numbers in white space
With these thoughts in mind I did a small survey about how people learn and use Twitter. I did this to research this blog and to see if my views are shared and to what extent.

I asked people “How did you learn to use Twitter?”
and at the time of writing 87.5% of you said “I just started and learned as I went.”-  as yet no-one has said they were trained. Personally I think training may have a future here if only to bring out the more hidden features of the site. I imagine it is already the norm or soon will be if you work in online marketing.

I also asked “How do you use Twitter?”  and the response I got indicates that people Tweet as much as they Retweet. This surprises me as I am sure I Retweet about twice as much or more than I tweet.

On the issue of user friendliness my respondents almost completely disagreed with me, all the responses to date indicate that Twitter is user friendly and easy to use with 70% of responses falling at the ‘easy to use’ end of the spectrum. I still don’t agree…

You too can complete my questionaire if you want – or at least the first 100 of you can.

Tips to Improve your Twitter performance

To conclude, here is a list of things that might help you get more from Twitter

  1. 125 is the new 140: Although you can now tweet more than 140 characters, the whole purpose of Twitter is the short messages. Shorten your tweets to 125 (or shorter if you can) to encourage easy retweets and added comments. From
  2. Another way to browse Twitter is by broad subject areas, there’s a text link at the bottom of the list  on your homepage entitled “Who to follow”. It takes you to the interests page
  3. Even if you don’t use Lists as a matter of course you might want to create a special list of “Recommended Users” also known as “#Warm Sign Up” find it at item 3 on the “Promoting your profile” page.  It’s like a list of favourites that other people can follow.
  4. You can search Twitter from the Google interface by searching what they call “Realtime” – I guess they don’t want to give Twitter too much credit by using their trademark.On a Google search results page go to the list on the left under the logo, “Realtime” should be in that list, if not click “ more” to see it. Clicking on it will make Google search Twitter for you.
  5. Search tips, learn how to use operators – I am going to bookmark this as I think it will exponentially improve my effectiveness as an internet researcher:
  6. Need a more focussed search? Try Twitter advanced search
  7. Try using your followers as a crowd search engine. Tweet your query to get your followers answers to a question, answers may be less accurate but they will be richer and more human.
  8. The Twitter help pages might seem a bit obvious but they are always worth a browse, the basics is full of clear instructions and new tricks.
  9. A useful and wide ranging guide to Twitter and all its camp followers can be found at mashable the basics -it is positively bursting with ideas and information.

Learn more, sooner rather than later

If you want to understand what Twitter is all about and are finding it doesn’t quite make sense, try learning more about the nitty gritty of how it works, the tips above might help as might exchanging ideas with friends and colleagues. I have found ever since I first started using computers that the empowerment that learning basic techniques leads to is incredibly rewarding but it does require patience in an impatient world.

Simon Fell is senior designer at Pedalo.
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** Jean Baudrillard