Twitter is all about listening

Twitter is difficult to use because it's so easy to use. Once you've created an account, your Twitter page allows you to update your status and watch a scrolling list of status updates from your friends (in Twitterese, the people you are following). That's it. I ( @jcatcw) do my updates, and I read yours. Nothing to it.

Well, except to answer the why bother question. Two years ago, professionals disparagingly referred to Twitter as a place to mention what they had for lunch (well, at least this one did). That's something that, of course, we wouldn't do in our professional guise. There has been a sea change in that attitude, but when and why?

I started to think Twitter might be something more than messaging with friends and family in August 2007, when a colleague interviewed members of the Los Angeles Fire Department (@lafd) about their use of Twitter to keep their community informed. Those scrolling messages started to resemble police-band radio in text format. Now almost two years later, many more professional uses have emerged.

Given the simplicity of Twitter, you wouldn't think that it would take 241 pages to explain how to post a 140-character message, but Sarah Milstein and Tim O'Reilly put those pages to good use in The Twitter Book, aka #TwitterBook. I found a few great tips that I didn't know before, and I deepened my understanding of how to use Twitter, in no small part thanks to the screenshots that take up half of those pages. After you've gone through the book once somewhat closely, skimming the screenshots may be all that's necessary to get a quick refresher.

According to the authors, the crux of the matter is to use Twitter to form communities. You can start by following people you already know. As the book points out, this can be more important than it sounds. For example, I might not generally care that my brother, who is 2,000 miles away, is on his way to the hardware store. But if he mentions buying a substantial quantity of roofing materials, I might call to find out about that last big storm.

But you'll also want to listen in on topics that interest you, rather than using Twitter as a daily diary of your activities. While the first part of the book concentrates on the basics, the next few chapters focus on listening and conversing.

Begin from the beginning

The book is very nicely organized. Each chapter is divided into subtopics, each of which is discussed on an odd-numbered page, with corresponding screenshots to explain or provide examples on the even-numbered page. For example, the first chapter, "Getting Started," covers Twitter jargon, with screenshots and narrative explaining @messages, #hashtags, retweets and Fail Whale.

The second chapter, "Listen In," promises "a guided tour of essential listening on Twitter." If you have multiple interests, you may start to follow a wide variety of people and organizations. At that point, Twitter's simplicity starts to be a drawback. Luckily, there are many tools within and beyond Twitter to help you stay organized and engaged. If you're new to Twitter, pay close attention to hints about using the Search feature. If you're interested in knowing what everyone else is tweeting about, there are great tips about how to follow trends.

As you get more involved, you may find the simplicity of the Twitter interface too limiting. There are many, many applications out there to help. So many, in fact, that a big value of this book is seeing what those tools look like before you download or sign up or subscribe. I've used most of the tools mentioned at some point, and I found the descriptions and evaluations quite accurate. I was also very happily surprised to find a new tool, BackTweets, that I now use every day.

If you need advice about who to follow, this advice from chapter two sums things up exactly: "Follow smart people you don't know" (yet). These are people who will likely discuss ideas and articles in your area(s) of interest. You might search for them by name -- for example, if you're interested in cooking, search for one of your favorite chefs; if you're interested in national politics, search for a journalist you enjoy reading. Or you can use one of the recommended tools: We Follow, Twellow, Mr. Tweet or Who Should I Follow?

Listen up

The heart of the book is probably the third chapter, "Hold Great Conversations." By then, you should be up to speed on the basics. Now it's time for some etiquette. "Twitter isnt so much a broadcast medium as it is a discussion channel. Indeed, the secret of social media is that its not about you, your product or your story." This is charm school for the social media world. Be interesting. Be conversational. Get in with a good crowd. Learn the gentle art of retweeting classily. Don't spam people.

Sometimes it's hard to know what to add to the conversation. Chapter four, "Share Information and Ideas," has some good suggestions. You can live-twitter events you attend, participate in fundraising, link to websites you like or use Twitter as a publish platform.

Chapter five, "Reveal Yourself," teaches us how to improve our "ambient intimacy." By giving people glimpses into our lives, we reveal who we are. That's important in creating bonds, which lead to relationships, which lead to great conversations, or vice versa. Even those who use Twitter for professional reasons have personalities that should, and will, come out in writing and link selection. Don't be so stingy with your personality that no one gets to know you.

Chapter six is "Twitter for Business: Special Considerations and Ideas." There are some tools that might be of special interest to businesses, but the general rules are the same: Listen first. Start slowly. Reveal the person behind the curtain. This chapter also recommends tools for managing multiple accounts, which can be a nightmare for the people in your company who are tweeting for the corporate account, their professional account and their own personal account.

My one criticism is about the layout. O'Reilly sent me a PDF prior to final publication. This is, importantly, a picture book in which screenshots appear on the left page and the corresponding text is on the right. It's very difficult to see both simultaneously on a monitor (I found it very frustrating to read, "The first screen you see looks like the one here," without seeing what the one here looks like), and I imagine it's completely impossible on a Kindle. You can get the book in either print ($19.99) or e-book ($15.99) format -- the e-book is available for the iPhone, Kindle, or Sony Reader, or as a PDF.

That aside, I highly recommend this book to anyone at any level of expertise with Twitter.

If you're just getting started, spend a few weeks with the text. Make an account and start following a few smart people. After a week, move on to chapter two. A week or two later, try to incorporate the lessons of chapter 3. And so on.

If you're already using Twitter on a daily basis, you'll find this a quick and pleasant refresher with lots of good advice. Flip through it again every now and then. You're bound to notice something you've already forgotten.

This story, "Twitter is all about listening" was originally published by Computerworld.

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