Twitter: Why You Should Care
Chris in Washington asks:
Randy: you've mentioned Twitter a couple of times, and I see you have a link on TRUE's home page to your Twitter page. I've looked at Twitter a couple of times, and I just don't get it. Do people really care that their friends (or favorite celebrities) are "Waking up to face the day." or "Eating a bologna sandwich for lunch."? Why?
Weekly Weird News
No, no one is interested in their friends' lunch habits, and anyone who is interested in celebrities' wake-up times are in desperate need of lives. But Twitter can be an interesting -- and even useful -- part of your day.
The main problem, I think, is that Twitter's founders didn't really "get" what would make it useful. That's made clear on your Twitter home page, where the little box that you type your updates into asks you to answer the question, "What are you doing?" Twitter's power users have disregarded that, and made the site useful by applying their own ideas as to what it's all about.
This is the secret to making Twitter really useful: No one cares what it is you're doing. When people put in there that they're "Waking up to face the day." or "Eating a bologna sandwich for lunch.", it means they have no clue as to the power of Twitter -- and no respect for their friends' time. And the percentage of Twitter users that have no clue (thanks in part to Twitter's own confusion) is uncomfortably high, leading most people to say "I don't get it" when they look at Twitter.
Rohit Bhargava, a Senior Vice President at Ogilvy (a giant advertising, marketing and public relations agency), who wrote a book about putting personality back into marketing, posted what he calls "The 5 Stages Of Twitter Acceptance" on his Influential Marketing Blog:
I'll certainly admit that I've gone through those stages myself. The important thing is to not get stuck in the first or second stage.
Twitter lets you post "Tweets" (as they call them) of brief tidbits of information, with or without links, to other Twitter users who "follow" you or go to your Twitter page. How brief? No more than 140 characters. You can send the Tweets via the Twitter web interface, cell phone text message, various instant message services, or stand-alone applications that interface with Twitter (and there are a lot of them).
You can also send a "Direct Message" to anyone who is following you -- a private 140-character message, or you can "reply" to them in public by starting a Tweet with their user name, starting with an @ -- like, "@ThisIsTrue: I didn't understand the joke in your latest video, but I still laughed!"
A more recent convention is "hash tags", which makes it easier to find Tweets about particular events. For instance, people in the know Tweeting about Obama's presidential inauguration are including #inaug09 in their post to make it easy for people looking for information on that event to find what people are saying via Twitter's search tool.
...but Lee also emphasizes the "What are you doing?" aspect -- probably because Twitter asked him to. So you can see why so many people post about their lunch. I think those people are making a huge mistake, because Twitter can actually be useful to ordinary human beings; it doesn't have to be stupid "I'm having lunch" posts that only three people in the world care about.
No One Cares What You Are Doing
Ignore Twitter's suggestion that you post about "what you are doing". If you post that you're leaving the office and will "Tweet" again later to tell people you are now home, most of the very few people that are following you will quickly figure out you don't have a life and will "unfollow" you, and you'll be tweeting to the wind instead of adding value.
What, then, should you post? Tidbits of information that are worth your followers' time to read. If you're a blogger, that might mean a link to an interesting new post. If you read other blogs, that might mean a link to an interesting post you've read -- share it. Links to interesting news articles or videos. A note that you just saw a plane crash into the Hudson river.
Here's where it gets really interesting: let's say you're a leader in your field, which, say, might be Macintosh updates. You'd not only Tweet links to your own new blog posts, but (this is vital!) links to useful articles, videos and blog posts in your field of expertise. Over time, people with interest in Mac issues will find you, follow you, and start to get an impression as to your expertise in the field. If they find your Tweets interesting or useful, they'll tell others (or give you appropriate credit by "Retweeting" them, which you do like this: "RT @MyBuddy: Put their post here, and with luck they left enough space for the RT and attribution!") And your reputation will grow from those retweets, since interested readers can click through to your own Twitter page from that, and can follow you with a click.
That's why a Senior Vice President at Ogilvy -- a guy who who wrote a book about "putting personality back into marketing" -- cares about Twitter. He understands that reputations and brands can be established 140 characters at a time ...if you do it right.
No One Wants to Read Your Private Conversations
(At least, not when they're boring.) Have you seen Twitter posts along the lines of "@MyBuddy: Yeah, you bet I did!" The "@MyBuddy" part shows that the tweet is a public reply: the poster is replying to his friend "MyBuddy". This is what is meant by "1-on-1 conversations" on Twitter. But most people spew garbage, like the above or "Yes: I'll be there shortly" to hundreds, maybe even thousands of followers, only one of which cares. People who do that are again showing contempt for their followers' time.
So, if no one is interested in what you're doing, or in your private conversations, what are they interested in? Knowledge and entertainment. If you've got either (or even better, both!) to share, you're set. For instance, in the days before I wrote this blog post, I Tweeted a link to my latest video, a link to a blog post, a link to an amusing article about the Washington DC police posting "Warning, Prostitution Free Zone" signs in the Inauguration area (I still had enough space to wonder, "It's legal at other times/places?"), and a link to just-released video that a security camera happened to get of the New York plane crash. If you would find those sorts of things interesting or entertaining, you might want to follow me. (If you don't, you'd "unfollow" and move on. It's no sin to unfollow someone, even if they're following you.)
But really, you don't need to post anything if you're not a blogger, an expert in a particular field wanting to build a reputation, or whatever. While Twitter can help you establish and build the "brand" that is you, there's still great utility in Twitter even if you have no interest in doing that.
The Key is Who You Follow
Don't have anything to say? Then don't say anything! But you can still get information or entertainment by having a Twitter account. Because once you have an account, you choose who you want to follow.
Let's say you're interested in environmental issues in the hotel industry. Then you'd follow my wife, Kit, since she happens to be a leader in that field. Want the latest in computer kinks and tips? Follow Ask Leo or Chris Pirillo. The latest trends in online video? Check out Steve Rosenbaum. Trends in online marketing and PR? Try Don Crowther. Home improvement? Tim Carter. You get the idea.
And then there are the current events, like the inauguration, as I mentioned: searching for their "hash tags" (like #inaug09) brings the latest updates to you. For instance, the recent plane crash into New York's Hudson River was reported first on Twitter, and eyewitnesses posted updates much faster than the news media could.
No matter what the subject, someone on Twitter is covering it, and you can follow them and keep up to date.
And here's where the magic begins: for everyone you check out on Twitter, you can see who they are following too, and choose to follow those people directly. For instance, you can see who I'm currently following here.
And there's still room for a bit of personality, as long as it's not the only thing, and has a bit of relevance. That'll make Rohit Bhargava smile for sure.
And to get all the stuff that you chose from, you can check in from time to time on one page to see what the people you choose to follow have to say: your Twitter home page.
Can you see how that might be powerful?
Of course, you can follow Twitter's original model and only see what "friends" are having for lunch. But I'm hoping this has opened your eyes a bit as to the real power of Twitter, and you can start getting actual personal or professional benefit from your time spent there, rather than be stuck at "Stage 1" or 2. And if so, please feel free to link to this page in your blog -- or just Twitter this page to your followers! Use this short version of the URL http://ThisIsTrue.com/d-twitter so you don't use up too many of your 140 characters. I wanted you to have room to add a bit of personality to your Tweet. :-)
Happily, Twitter finally abandoned the "What are you doing?" question and replaced it with a somewhat better one: "What's Happening?"