The Bare Bones Guide to Twitter

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Technology is constantly changing, but it has funny ways of repeating itself. Some fifteen years ago, my brother Kevin created a small site called the Bare Bones Guide to HTML, to help non-technical people create web pages. This was before Google, Dreamweaver, Movable Type, Wordpress and hundreds of other tools that made working with the web more intuitive. The little site was translated by volunteers into more than 20 languages and became the basis for one of those "For Dummies" books. Today, centuries later in Internet time, people still visit the Bare Bones Guide, even though it hasn't been updated in years and most websites are created without ever seeing the HTML code.

The culture of twittering now stands in a similar stage of development to web authoring in 1996. Some people are really good at it, many doubt it will stick, others think it's too frenetic to grasp. Using Twitter is nowhere near as technical as HTML coding, but the social rules are more complex. The nuances can easily befuddle unfamiliar users.

In the last few weeks a number of friends have decided to jump in and have asked about Twitter etiquette, so I asked my brother Kevin to redux his old role and help me produce a Bare Bones Guide to Twitter.

The Bare Bones Guide to Twitter

1) Twitter is a giant conversation. No matter how much you listen, though, you won't hear everything relevant to you. No matter how much you talk, you won't reach everyone that wants to hear you. Facebook is for your friends; Twitter is for your friends and anyone else who might be interested in what you have to say.

2) Set up a SHORT Twitter handle. Kevin is @kwerb. I'm @adamwerbach. His handle is five characters long and mine is 11. Every character matters. The key to getting retweeted is being short and memorable. Retweeting -- when someone sends your message to their followers -- is the key to building readership. So create a short handle, because you can't change it easily.

3) Use an application like TweetDeck (our choice), Hootsuite, Seesmic or a mobile client if you tweet from your phone. These applications provide more functionality than the Twitter homepage, although Twitter is getting better. Some applications integrate Twitter with Facebook, LinkedIn and other tools, so you can have a single "social dashboard."

4) Tweet often. Twitter provides a river of data, and your tweets will quickly flow off your followers' screens. Tweeting frequently will build you a bigger following. Adam recommends once per hour. Kevin thinks that's excessive, but notes that Adam was always the talkative one.

5) Tweet regularly. It helps you integrate tweeting into your regular workflow, and builds expectations among your followers. If you post 15 tweets in a day, but all in the same half hour, most of your followers won't ever see them. (And don't be like Kevin, who tweets intensively for periods, and then stops for weeks at a time.)

6) Share the love. You'll gain credibility by selectively retweeting interesting nuggets that your followers haven't seen. You can retweet with one click, or you can use "RT" to quote from and comment on what you're forwarding. Twitter thrives on information sharing; you need to give in order to get.  Always give credit when you retweet. You can also "reply" to tweets. Replies don't show up in your followers tweet streams.

7) Make your own voice heard. Retweeting is important, but ultimately you need to add something unique and personal to be heard above the din of the twitterverse. Be yourself; it's the role you're the best at playing. Do you have a strong opinion like business blogger @umairh? Are you a collector of interesting ephemera, like @brainpicker? Are you spreading the startup gospel like @stevecase? Are you reporting on technology trends like @timoreilly?

8) Leave enough room for retweets. Your Twitter messages can be up to 140 characters, and retweeters have the same limit. But to get your message retweeted multiple times, you need to make your tweets short so people can add their own commentary and your handle. For Adam, this means a maximum tweet of about 120 characters, leaving room for RT @adamwerbach.

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Adam Werbach is the co-founder of sharing startup Yerdle, formerly the chief sustainability officer for Saatchi & Saatchi and the president of the Sierra Club. He is the author of Strategy for Sustainability: A Business ManifestoHe lives in San Francisco and Bolinas, California.

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