Be Better at Twitter: The Definitive, Data-Driven Guide

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A study based on 43,000 responses to Tweets found precisely what people like -- and loathe -- about microblog posts.


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If you could construct, algorithmically, the Most Annoying Tweet Imaginable, it might look something like this:

The Most Annoying Tweet Imaginable, in other words, would be overly long. It would contain stale information. It would #totally #overuse #hashtags. It would be excessively personal. It would be aggressively mundane. It would be whiny. 

All this, at least, according to a new study, released today, that explores what we like in our tweets -- and what we find really, really off-putting. "Who Gives a Tweet: Evaluating Microblog Content Value" is the culmination of a year's worth of analysis conducted by the researchers Paul André of Carnegie Mellon, Michael Bernstein of MIT, and Kurt Luther of Georgia Tech as they set to find out what separates value from vagary in a Twitter post. Last year, the team created a site, Who Gives a Tweet -- essentially, a Hot or Not for microcontent -- that asked users to designate a selection of tweets according to the emotional responses they provoked ("positive," "neutral," "negative"). And then, intriguingly, to explain those responses in their own words. The team, with the help of Mechanical Turk, then analyzed the 43,000 crowdsourced responses they'd collected from the site, looking for patterns and takeaways that might help the rest of us to become better, more crowd-pleasing members of the Twittersphere.

One piece of advice: Nix the "sandwich tweets." People do not care what you are eating for lunch. (Specifically: "Sorry, but I don't care what people are eating," "too much personal info," "He moans about this ALL THE TIME. Seriously.") Twitter, as a communications platform, has evolved beyond nascent Twttr's charmingly mundane updates ("cleaning my apartment"; "hungry") and into something more crowd-conscious and curatorial. Though Twitter won't necessarily replace traditional news, it increasingly functions as a real-time newswire, disseminating and amplifying information gathered from the world and the web. At the same time, though, being social, it functions as a source of entertainment. Which means that we have increasingly high -- and increasingly normalized -- expectations for Twitter as both a place and a platform. We want it to enlighten us, but we also want it to amuse us. 

In that context, tweets that are informative or funny -- or, ideally, informative and funny -- evoke the best responses. And tweets that contain old information, repeat conventional wisdom, offer uselessly de-contextual news, or extoll the virtues of the awesome salad I had for lunch today don't, ultimately, do much to justify themselves. 

So: Do be useful. Do be novel. Do be compelling. Do not, under any circumstances, be boring. 

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And: Don't be afraid to be self-promotional. Surprisingly and intriguingly, the research respondents had pretty much the same reaction to tweets that contained plain old information and tweets that contained information that was created by the tweet-sender. "The Twitter ecosystem values learning about new content," the study notes -- so new info, it seems, is new info, regardless of who provides it. And sharing your own work conveys excitement about that work -- which means that self-promotion, rather than being a Twitter turn-off, can actually be an added value.

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This may seem like overthinking it; spontaneity, after all, is a big part of Twitter's charm. Still, it's also worth noting that, in the study's sample, respondents considered only 36 percent of the tweets on display worth reading -- and another 39 percent barely worth the effort. "These results," the authors note, "highlight the need for better awareness and presentation of valued content."

With that in mind, here's their advice for creating that content. Feel free to retweet it. 

Old news is no news: Twitter emphasizes real-time information, so information rapidly gets stale. Followers quickly get bored of even relatively fresh links seen multiple times.

Contribute to the story: To keep people interested, add an opinion, a pertinent fact or otherwise add to the conversation before hitting "send" on a retweet.

Keep it short: Twitter limits tweets to 140 characters, but followers still appreciate conciseness. Using as few characters as possible also leaves room for longer, more satisfying comments on retweets.

Limit Twitter-specific syntax: Overuse of #hashtags, @mentions and abbreviations makes tweets hard to read. But some syntax is helpful; if posing a question, adding a hashtag helps everyone follow along.

Keep it to yourself: The clichéd "sandwich" tweets about pedestrian, personal details were largely disliked. Reviewers reserved a special hatred for Foursquare location check-ins.

Provide context: Tweets that are too short leave readers unable to understand their meaning. Simply linking to a blog or photo, without giving readers a reason to click on it, was described as "lame."

Don't whine: Negative sentiments and complaints were disliked.

Be a tease: News or professional organizations that want readers to click on their links need to hook the reader, not give away all of the news in the tweet itself.


Image: Jeff Turner/Flickr.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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