How I Use Twitter

By , 10/01/2009

I often get asked about my Twitter habits, by students and others. I spoke to a class earlier this week, and about half of the class’ 20 students had Twitter accounts, some using it more than others. But even for people who have had accounts for a little while, it can feel a bit like a foreign language. So, here are a few ways that I use Twitter, and I hope this is helpful. I’m not a Twitter power user (by any means), but so far this has worked for me.

The Tools

  • Desktop Tool: I rarely use Twitter on the website itself. Twitter is built on an open API environment, which basically means that third parties can develop applications for it. On my desktop (I’m a Mac user, both professionally and personally), I use TweetDeck. I like that I can sort and see multiple columns simultaneously. I do use the standard columns (All Friends, Mentions and Direct Messages), and I’ve also created custom columns. I have a custom “Group” that I call “Personal Contacts” (more like “people I know in real life”), and include the people I want to make sure not to miss in the full stream. I also have “Search” columns set up for the name of our firm, as well as for some of our clients. (I’ve downloaded Seesmic, another desktop application that some people like [particularly for handling multiple Twitter accounts], but I haven’t tested it much yet.)
  • Mobile Tool: Part of what has fueled Twitter’s growth is the ability to use and access it from mobile devices. I’m an iPhone user, and these days I’ve mostly been using Tweetie, more rarely using TweetDeck for iPhone. (I’m not crazy about Tweetie’s retweet [or RT] approach, but otherwise am mostly happy with it.) These applications aren’t free, but they do make using Twitter easier on the go. You can also use SMS text messages to send and receive certain content from Twitter. I have my Twitter settings set to receive Direct Messages (DM’s) also as a text message, but you should check your mobile plan to make sure that wouldn’t put you over your text message limits.
  • Other Tools and Resources: There are a LOT of tools and services for Twitter. (In fact, Laura Fitton, aka @Pistachio, just started as a resource for Twitter apps, among other things.) But, I’ve found the following particularly helpful: TweetChat (for participating in/following Twitter chats); WTHashtag?! (for figuring out what particular hashtags mean); TweepML (for sharing lists of Twitter users); and Twictionary (dictionary for Twitter; some entries are a bit ridiculous, but still helpful). For searching Twitter, I use the standard Twitter search and occasionally Twazzup. (There are other ways to search Twitter too.) For a simple way to store and search my own tweets, which is hard to do on Twitter itself, I’ve added my Twitter feed to my RSS reader (Google Reader), and have found that to be very helpful. There are many other tools, like picture sharing tools, but these are ones I use more frequently.

The Technique

How I Read: One of the things I hear most often from newer Twitter users is how overwhelming the amount of content seems, even for people following <100 people. For me, I’ve found that part of the process is learning to let go, and acknowledging that there’s no way you can read everything. No day is exactly the same, but I generally read in this way:

  1. Morning: I check Tweetie on my iPhone in the morning after I’ve scanned my email, sometime soonish after I wake up. I scan the full feed to see if there is any breaking news. I check my @replies to see if there’s anything waiting for me. And I double-check my direct messages, even though theoretically those should have come through as text messages as well.
  2. When I Get to the Office: I wait and open Tweetdeck until after I’ve read and responded to emails. Then, I spend a good amount of time going through each column. This is probably the time of day I use Twitter in the most focused way. (I also do this before I go through my Google Reader.)
  3. Throughout the Day: I keep Tweetdeck open but minimized, and resist the urge to open it too frequently. I generally check in about once an hour when I’m in the office, spending a little more time (10-15 minutes, say) over lunch and at the very end of the day, but try to set time limits for myself during those times.
  4. Night: I check once more before bed in the same way I do in the morning.

How I Write:

  1. I haven’t done a full analysis, but I’d estimate that about 1 in 10 of my tweets is personal. I use Twitter more for sharing resources, either direct links or retweets (RT) of content I think others may find useful and/or I think may have missed. I also use it to respond to and engage with people that I’m following – answering questions, engaging in discussion or commenting on something they’ve tweeted.
  2. The majority of my client work is confidential, so generally speaking, I don’t tweet about my travel. If I’m going to Chicago, say, it’d be unlikely for anyone to figure out what client I’m going to see. But if I’m traveling to a smaller destination or a place where one company dominates, you won’t be hearing about it from me.
  3. I also am a bit more careful than some I observe about writing about my personal activities. I’ve had jobs in the past where I had a few situations when someone was following me (not in the Twitter sense of “follow,” either) or paying undue attention to me, and it’s left me a little wary. What can I say, I’ve also lived in New York City long enough to take my personal safety seriously.

How I Find New People to Follow: (another common question from new Twitter users)

  1. People Who Follow Me: I don’t follow everyone back that follows me, but I do look at each one and follow most people back if they: a) are real people; b) are not spammers (who I block and sometimes report); c) relate to my areas of interest (education, communications, public relations, social media, media & journalism, etc.); d) don’t have huge numbers of followers and aren’t just trying to drive up their numbers; and e) have a photo, a bio, and appear to actually be using Twitter (I look at their numbers of tweets). Note to new users: PLEASE add a bio and photo before you start following lots of people. Most people will not follow you back until you’ve included that information.
  2. In the RT’s or in the Body of Tweets of People I Follow: If I see something interesting in a RT of someone I’m following, or if I see another user’s name mentioned in the body of the tweet, I’ll often click through to look at the original source of the tweet (or person mentioned), scan their bio and recent tweets, and decide if I want to start following them. (Note: if the other user’s name is at the very beginning of the tweet, as in an @ reply, you won’t see the message unless you’re already following that person, or if there’s some kind of punctuation mark before the @ sign (e.g. a period, comma, exclamation point, etc.). People add punctuation marks before their @ replies when they want it to appear to everyone.)
  3. Events, Conferences, and Chats: If I’m at a conference, event or participating in a chat on Twitter, I’ll often find a number of new people that I want to start following. It’s a great way to meet others.
  4. Blog Posts: As I’m reading blogs, I do pay attention if someone is mentioned in a post and there’s a link to their Twitter account.
  5. Business Cards: More and more people are adding their Twitter names (and other social media account information) to their business cards, so sometimes I find new people to follow on Twitter because I’ve met them in real life.

There are many good blog posts, presentations and other good resources about Twitter out there. I’ve bookmarked many on my Delicious site, and you can do sub-searches under posts I’ve tagged with Twitter. Also, Shel Israel‘s book Twitterville is taunting me above my computer right now, waiting to be read.

This is a fairly long post, but what else would you add? Any other tips, services or tools that you find helpful?

Note: This is the first part in a series, spurred by a few questions from a graduate student, Stephen Woodall, at Purdue. Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu matched mentors with students in her Tech 621 class, and Stephen and I are paired for the semester. I had a number of pen pals growing up (Bindi in Australia, where are you now?), so this sort of feels like having a digital pen pal.


7 Responses to “How I Use Twitter”

  1. Lauren, thank you so much for spelling out your twitter habits! One of the main things I hope students will do in this class is create sustainable social media habits. I think your post can help a lot!

    … and thank you, again, for volunteering to be a social media mentor!

  2. Laurel Hart says:

    My pleasure, Mihaela! It’s a great idea – thank you again for asking.

    Yes, one of the things I try to stress with students it that there are ways to make all of this manageable and possible to integrate into daily life in a way that’s not overwhelming. It’s about finding a system or approach that works for each of them and the nuances of their lives.

  3. Laurel, I truly appreciate your blog post and your mentorship. Now that I finally got a chance to read it, I find some similarities in the tools and habits that we share.

    Two thoughts also occur to me while reading your post: I need to get a laptop yesterday and I wonder how many words we can add to the dictionary that start with “Tw”? I will post a response this evening on my blog,, answering why I have this two thoughts.

    I look forward to reading the next few blogs in the series and more.

    • Laurel Hart says:

      Yes, all of the “Tw” words can get a little bit old, can’t they?! Looking forward to reading your response.

  4. Peter Moran says:

    As a newcomer to Twitter, I have trouble identifying followers I know, might know, or absolutely don’t know. I don’t have a lot of followers, but it’s hard figuring out if a follower is just a random person you’ve never met before, or if you maybe know them through some other online group.

    Say for example you have a blog, and someone you’ve never met decides to follow your blog. Then, they decide to follow you on Twitter. So, this person, most likely identified by a screen-name, shows up on your Twitter followers list. You don’t recognize this person, you block them, and in turn, they get offended and stop following your blog.

    You actually have to research each follower you don’t know by name to see if you have any existing relationship with them–however distant or remote. How do you and others with many, many followers manage this?

    • Laurel Hart says:

      I agree, Peter, it can be hard to determine if there might be an existing relationship of some kind with a new follower. I can only speak for myself, but I’d say:

      a) My Twitter account is public, so I’m ok with people I don’t know following me.
      b) I use the block feature of Twitter very judiciously. I regularly block spammers (yes, all of those Britney video links). I have only on a few occasions blocked people that I thought were using hateful or attacking speech in their tweets. I wasn’t following them back, but when I looked at their stream I decided I didn’t even want them being able to follow me. But that’s only a few times since I started using Twitter in February 2008.
      c) If a person’s name looks familiar but I can’t place them based on the info in their bio or their most recent tweets, the context will often become clear over time. I’ll see something they write and say, “Ah ha! That’s how I know them.” It sort of works itself out much of the time. And I can safely say, my memory’s not very good, so that’s saying a lot.

  5. Peter Moran says:

    Your mention of resisting the urge to open Tweetdeck too often made me laugh, but it also gets me thinking more about something that recently crossed my mind.

    I’m a relative newcomer to social media. Like many people, I originally dismissed it as something which consumes a vast amount of time for something relatively inconsequential–like fantasy football.

    Though the point of fantasy football still elludes me, I’ve slowly realized the value of social media. I started blogging, Tweeting, and checking Facebook regularly. I soon began to experience the “high” of being involved in this giant online conversation we call social media. I’ll admit, there’s something thrilling about having instant validation to even a completely mundane Facebook status update.

    I know social media addiction has been addressed, but mostly in a tongue-in-cheek manner. I began wondering if things like tweeting or updating Facebook could become an actual addiction–similar to drug, gambling or sex. It seems like the brain chemistry and behavioral patterns could be similar.

    1.) You tweet or update Facebook status
    2.) You then wait eagerly for replies, comments, and people to “like” your status
    3.) Dopamine is released as the comments pour in, resulting in positive feelings of validation and self-actualization.
    4.) You repeat to chase the next “high”.
    5.) Social media begins to cut into other things in your life, reducing your productivity in other areas.

    Again, not judging–I’m just as guilty, but thought this was interesting.

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