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.

9) Time-shifting will save your love life. Many of the Twitter clients allow you to schedule tweets to appear later. That helps with #4 and #5, and also comes in handy when you have an upcoming event you want to remind people about. You don't want to be chained to your digital device when someone wants a different type of input.

10) Test and shorten the links that you retweet. Don't accidentally spam your followers. Convert your links with an automatic shortener, such as bit.ly, through your Twitter client, and you'll have more space in your tweet and you'll be able to track which tweets go viral.

11) Don't overfollow. When you follow someone, they may follow you back, but that's a poor strategy to generate a real audience. A few hundred well-selected followers can supply a lot of information. As a starting point, find users who interest you, and check out who they are following. Following too many users will make your own Twitter feed unmanageable. Start by searching for your friends and writers you like. Prune your list if someone overtweets.

12) Pithy facts go viral. Did you know that Buziraguhindwa means "we will succeed despite all obstacles?" It's also the name of an amazing fair trade coffee. Did you know that scientists estimate that there are only 2,711 California Sea Otters left in the wild? Did you know that in the U.S. twice as many young adults bowl as ride bicycles?

13) The # symbol is called a hashtag. Hashtags designate that your tweet connects to a certain subject. This works particularly well when you're at a conference or tweeting on a topic that lots of people are watching at the moment. Like the #oscars or #superbowl or #TED or #POPTECH or #supernovahub (Kevin's conference). You can make up hashtags or find them in other people's tweets.

14) Love the DM; fear the DM. You can send a private message to someone by starting a tweet with D (for direct message) or using the message function on your Twitter client.  It only works, though, if they're following you. But if it's late at night, remember that direct messages are frequently set to send a text to your friend's phone. And beware the infamous DM Fail, a private note that you accidentally send to all of your followers.*

15) Blog n' Tweet. Tweet when you blog something new. Most blogging services can tweet automatically and display your daily tweets. And be sure to put your Twitter handle on your blog, your Facebook profile, your e-mail signature and that tattoo on your arm; it will get you more followers. Don't automatically syndicate your tweets to your Facebook page. Facebook has a less staccato rhythm, so you're likely to annoy your friends.

16) Life outside of Twitter. For the love of humanity, reduce your tweeting from time to time, or even consider going dark on weekends. Go outside. Spend time with your friends F2F, not just via DM.

Finally, the biggest question that most reluctant Twitter users pose is, Why? Why would I possibly care about facts randomly vomited by millions of strangers? Why do I need another digital tool to waste my time?

Here are three good reasons.

First, Twitter is the most comprehensive "pulse" of digital information today. If you want to know what digitally-oriented people are thinking and talking about now, it's the best tool.

Second, Twitter is personal. You can find terrific reporting in the New York Times or The Atlantic, but on Twitter you can hear directly from Egyptians during the uprising in Tahrir Square, or from Cisco's chief technologist about what cloud computing means to her.

Third, tweet because you have something to say. Everyone has topics they're passionate about and insights to share. Clay Shirky calls this your cognitive surplus. You can learn an enormous amount on Twitter, and others can learn from you.

Social media tools like Twitter are fast becoming platforms for a well-functioning society, and those tools are just beginning to flourish. So, tweet away! 


This article originally stated that you can send a direct message by starting a tweet with DM. We regret the error.

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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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