Oh Twitter… How misunderstood you are. You are the semi-colon of social media – people have an idea of your existence but many have not fully grasped your usefulness and beauty. I love twitter and find it immensely valuable for a myriad of reasons: yes, it can be a time waster, however, it can also be a news source, a way to gauge public sentiment, and even a research tool.
Now, first, let me address the issue of drivel on Twitter. Yes, there is useless garbage on twitter – a lot of it. It’s also on Facebook as well as the new Google+. There’s lots of trash on the internet in general. However, there is also lots of worthless and poorly written material that has been disseminated via the printing press. I give you Atlas Shrugged as an example. That book was terrible and I was forced to read it at 16. It nearly turned me off to the written word all together. However, I persevered.
Now, when I tell people that I use Twitter, I frequently get an eye-roll and a sigh. People have an incredible misconception about Twitter. In fact, I would call it the most misunderstood of all social media tools. However, I also think it has the most potential. In spite of its shortcomings, Twitter can been an incredibly useful tool – it’s about knowing how to navigate it.
To give you an idea of how I use it (professionally and personally) I use it to promote my blog, to find interesting archaeological news (not generally in the mainstream media), get latest news releases, and to gauge what other people think about a certain topic (both silly, like Nicole Kidman’s dress at the Oscar’s and the more serious, like the Presidential Election). Twitter was how I learned about the repeal of Proposition 8 (well before it was announced on the news) and that President Obama was going to announce the death of Osama bin Laden (about 45 minutes before his address). I have also used it to keep an eye on what has been happening in places like Syria where main stream media has been banned.
In terms of the basic “How To’s” (how do I create an account, how do I send someone a message, etc), HowCast has an excellent video (it’s only a couple of minutes long – I apologize for the 10 second ad at the beginning, but trust me, it’s great).
So, in terms of making Twitter useful for you, think about how you want to use it. I highly recommend not thinking of twitter as solely a tool for telling people about your trips to Starbucks. Don’t get me wrong, the occasional social post can be fun. However, there is so much more to the program.
The first component of Twitter is who you follow. I came up with a short list and posted them in my Blog Post “Who to Follow on Twitter.” Build your list slowly and discriminately – pick authors, news reporters, bloggers, friends, and so forth that you respect and trust. Once you get a basic list of followers established, Twitter will even suggest a few to you – just click on the menu button “Who to Follow.”
If you’re nervous about following a legitimate person instead of a faux-account (a big problem if you like to follow celebrities or other prominent individuals), Twitter will actually certify their account. Look for the blue check-mark next to their name – this indicates that the individual (or their publicist) has gone through a process to verify that they are the legitimate owner of the name – it is their official Twitter account. If an individual or organization has an authenticated Twitter account, you can reasonably assume that this is their official voice and statement. Note that this is only a feature for individuals of note. Twitter takes it for granted that I’m who I say I am. Some celebrities and organizations don’t bother to authenticate. So, if it’s an unauthenticated account – trust your instincts (and stay skeptical).
The Twitter homepage is probably your best resource and tool for seeing what people are doing and talking about. You will see a steady stream of “tweets” – it shows you what the people you’re following are saying. Now, the biggest thing to keep in mind with Twitter is that you don’t have to keep up with everything! I always recommend just treating it as an organic entity – getting a snapshot of the happenings is fine. If something grabs your attention, go there. If not, there are other ways to find information. Your twitter feed will be busier at different times of the day – the heaviest seem to Monday through Friday, 8 – 6 pm (hmmm…. interesting).
Another key element is how do you search for material on Twitter. Twitter does have a search window:
However, one thing that people notice is that a simple search can bring up a lot of useless information. For example, if I want to search for historical topics and simply input “History” I will get every post that has the word history in it, most of which is not useful:
This is where hashtags come in. A hashtag is simply the “pound sign” (#) put next to a keyword. Twitter users who are posting on a particular topic matter will put that hashtag in their post to make it more searchable, so if I put “#history” in twitter search, I get something a little more useful:
You can use the hashtag as a means of performing a topical search on twitter. If you will notice, more shows and media topics have started to include a hashtag designation in their promotions (although this is more common with popular culture outlets like film, television, and even some news shows). It helps to make topical discussions easier. As hashtags are self-determined and placed, there is sometimes a rash of hashtag spam. Interestingly, the community on Twitter will react against this – sometimes heavily. The most famous incident occurred during the Egyptian uprisings. The hashtag #Cairo was being used by those tweeting about the event. Kenneth Cole, the prominent designer, used the #Cairo to promote its current fashion line. The reaction against the abuse of the hashtag was swift and angry: Fashion Label Kenneth Cole Misfires with Egypt Tweet. The community does a pretty good job of policing itself – now that you’re a member, make sure that you use the “Report Spam” feature if you see it.
When following current events, knowing your trusted and untrusted sources is also key. If you’re following recognized reporters who are on the ground, then that source is as reliable as they would be in a newsroom (based on your own consideration). For example, Anderson Cooper reported from the ground in Cairo. Even when his satellite feeds were blocked, he was able to ‘tweet’ news via his Twitter feed.
Still, in some instances, you’re reading unverified sources and their legitimacy can be questionable. How do you know that you’re actually reading what’s happening in Syria and not a silly joke by a teenager in Des Moines? There are a few ways to help you determine the validity of a ‘non-vetted’ source. One is to look at that user’s history – is this their first post? Did they join twitter yesterday? If the user has been a member of Twitter and been posting regularly and consistently for a few months then they are more reliable than say an account that has been opened the same day. If the information they’re putting out there is consistent with others’, then it can be verified. For example, when my twitter feed got filled up with “Proposition 8 repealed! #NOH8”, I felt confident that this was a factual event (which it was). There is also a healthy dose of skepticism involved, when I see “Charlie Sheen dies in skiing accident #winning”, I never quite take it seriously.
The reality is, that Twitter is all about how you want to use it – it’s that flexibility that makes it so invaluable. You can use it to socialize with your friends, search for deals (almost all merchants post flash sales via twitter), search for news, research a topic of interest, or cyber-stalk your favorite celebrities from a healthy distance. At first, it can be intimidating, but I promise that it’s got a very shallow learning curve and a generous community.