A couple of months back, I wrote a post about my love/hate relationship with Twitter. In that article, I talked about what I see as being the big downfall of Twitter, which is that it is hard to quickly and easily get people using and understanding it. Twitter is hard to explain, there is no key selling proposition, people sign up and then leave, and the language of Twitter is hard to understand.
But now I am starting to grasp what I think is the real reason that it’s so hard to catch onto Twitter – everyone uses it for something different. And because there is no standard way of using Twitter, it’s hard to watch the Twitter stream (the flow of posts to Twitter) and figure out what’s going on and how you should participate. When users sign up, they have to just jump right in and start posting and participating.
The flexibility of Twitter is both its genius and its downfall.
It’s unlikely that anyone sticks with just one way of using Twitter all the time. Most people bounce back and forth between the various ways of using the service. But for me, my Twitter epiphany happened when I picked one primary way of using the service – the way that “fit” me and felt right – and stuck primarily with that. Now, about 6 months and 284 updates into my own use of Twitter, I’m finally starting to hit my Twitter groove.
Here are just a few of the many ways that people use Twitter. If you are someone who has used Twitter and quit, of if you are trying to get started, but just can’t figure out how, try picking one of these that feels best to you and go with it for a week – and see what happens.
Talking to people. If you see a post with an @ sign in it, that post is directed to the Twitter user whose name follows the @ sign. So if you write a post and include @mchang16 in that post, you’re talking to me. Not only do people use this for talking to people they know, but also to respond to other people’s Twitter thoughts and comments – it’s a way to have a conversation. Amanda Chapel (@AmandaChapel) does this quite a bit.
Promotional tool. People post links to their own stuff. The most prominent of these is probably Michael Arrington of TechCrunch (@TechCrunch), who posts a link to a new article every time one goes up on his site. My friend Denise (@ddubie), who is a writer at Network World, also does this very effectively.
Information gathering. If you see someone post a question looking for input or feedback on a specific topic, they are likely using Twitter for information gathering. Chris Brogan (@ChrisBrogan) uses Twitter to post questions fairly frequently, sometimes for blog posts he’s working on and often just to stir up conversation.
To cover events. Because Twitter is easy to use on a mobile phone, people can easily use the service to report on live events. This happens quite a bit at technology conferences (where many Twitter users converge), as well as during natural disasters (San Diego fires) or sporting events (Celtics vs. Lakers – GO CELTICS!!) Sometimes people use a # sign to indicate that they are writing a post about a specific topic/event. (Those are called Hashtags – and you can read more about them here if you’re interested in following or covering an event.)
Create a group of like-minded people. It’s possible to set up an account at Twitter that multiple people can participate in – creating a group. The one I’m most familiar with is Lyric of the Day, which was set up by Fred Wilson (@FredWilson). Members of the group submit a lyric every day, starting the message with @lotd. Check it out here.
Linking to cool stuff on the Web. Many people post cool, interesting or helpful links that they find elsewhere on the Web in Twitter for others to see. This type of post is a way to share the knowledge. Steve Rubel (@SteveRubel) is a Twitter user who often posts interesting links to articles, stories, etc. (A quick aside – my one pet peeve with this type of post is that Twitter changes URLs into TinyURLs to save on space, but I like to be able to see the URL to identify what site I’ll be going to if I click a link.)
Answer the question “What are you doing?” This seems to be the original reason that Twitter came into existence – to let people comment on what they are doing so that people they know can follow them and what they’re up to. Two of my favorite bloggers use Twitter this way Dooce (@dooce) and Penelope Trunk (@PenelopeTrunk).
It’s with this last type of Twitter posts that I’ve mostly settled. You’ll see the occasional promotional Twitter, or conversational Twitter, or link to something cool and interesting Twitter coming from me. But the majority of my posts now answer the question “What are you doing?”
Follow me at @mchang.