Thursday, May 10, 2012

In defence of Twitter

When you mention Twitter to non-Tweeters you can see the eyes glaze over on the spot.

The word registers as a kids' thing, or a piece of teenage social media frippery. It may yet even become the ultimate scapegoat for all the ills of the present young generation.

So why are a lot of ordinary sane sober balanced people using it. Why are advocacy groups, political groups, media groups, and, even the most advanced techie groups on the planet using it.
The answer is simple. It is a tool. Just as a computer, phone, hammer, saw and screwdriver are tools.

You don't see people calling for the banning or ignoring of hammers just because some lunatic put one through the skull of his/her partner?

Of course you can use a hammer for all sorts of things. You can use it to nail up doorways to either imprison people or to keep them from entering dangerous buildings. You can use it to drive nails into walls to hang works of art to be admired, or manacles to suspend a torture victim.

So with Twitter. It's a tool, for good or evil. And, as far as I can see, it is mostly for good.

Choose your Company
The first thing to remember is that you don't have to put up with idiots, blatherers or the outpourings of pubescent teenagers. When you start out you are nobody. You get a handle (like @me) and that's just you and your account. You can then pick who you follow by specifying others (@other_people) and everything they tweet will come up on your homepage/column. You are then part of the community to which they broadcast. That's you listening to them.

So how do you get them to listen to you? Well they will have to opt to follow you, and then all your tweets will appear in their homepages. This sort of mutual following works best initially with communities which are already in existence eg real life acquaintances who are online, or people you are in touch with by email. Then, depending on how you use Twitter you will probably pick up more followers as you go on.

Avoid the Body Count
There is one thing to beware of, though. Some Tweeters are not interested in content, only in numbers, eg how many Tweets they've done, how many people they follow and, probably most importantly, how many people follow them. These are the bounty hunters. They don't care about the quality of their followers (eg do the followers read any of their tweets?) or of those they follow (some follow thousands of people). They are only interested in how many people follow them. Now, that might seem a bit strange, but to these people, the number of people following them (irrespective of whether these followers have any interest in them or not), these are like notches on a gun or trophies on the wall. Such macho idiots are to be avoided.

You can't stop other people following them, but make sure you don't end up following them yourself. They will often turn up, out of the blue, following you and expect you to follow them back.

If someone follows me, I check them out, and if I come to the conclusion that they have no interest in my Tweets, and that I am just another potential stuffed trophy on their wall, I make sure not to follow them back so I don't inflate their follower numbers. Then I BLOCK them. That means they can't follow me, they don't get my Tweets and they don't dilute the quality of my exclusive followers list. It's a bit like "Repel Boarders" and every bit as exciting.

Rebroadcasting other people's Tweets
If you haven't yet got round to composing your own Tweets, you can always rebroadcast the Tweets of those you follow to those who follow you. That may sound a bit odd, but a recent example shows how it can even be a lifesaver.

Recently, a troubled person's followers picked up from their Tweets that the person in question had lost it and was in the process of taking an overdose. Now, more often than not, you will only know the great majority of your followers online - you won't have a physical address or phone number. That was true in this case. But the person's followers started retweeting (ie rebroadcasting to their followers) an appeal for a physical address and included a link to the last plaintive Tweet of the person in trouble. Those Tweets went viral and one person responded with a name and then another came up with a reasonable guess at an address. The police were notified and arrived in time to save the troubled person's life. That person has already Tweeted their thanks to those who intervened.

Twitter can also be very useful in following the alternative media. Most publications Tweet when they publish an article and a judicious choice of who you follow can turn you into a virtual alternative media newsagency.

A Temporary Community
You can create temporary (or even long term) communities on Twitter, based around a particular event or interest. Here's how it works. Let us say you are interested in the upcoming International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. You may have decided to follow the organisers on Twitter (@iec2012), but that will only bring up on your homepage those Tweets which are posted by the organisers themselves.

That's where the hashtag (#) comes in. If you include in your Tweet a hashtag for the Congress (eg #iec2012) and put in a search for that expression, then you will see the Tweets of everyone who does likewise. So, a temporary online community is created around the event. The hashtag terms are thought up by the tweeters themselves but it is usually easy to find which one is in use for any given purpose. In particular, you can monitor live events in this way and create Twitter communities around the likes of the Heineken Cup (#hcup) or the Vincent Browne Show on TV3 (#vinb). These communities are great fun and people vent to their hearts' content during the live events.

A much more serious and unexpected role for Twitter emerged during the Arab Spring. Participants were Tweeting events as they happened and including photos from mobile phones. In many cases Tweets were used as part of the organisation of the protests. News was emerging in this way to the outside world which, in many cases, took another whole day or more to reach the mainstream media.

Such communities can be very effective in the case of natural disasters, or other occasions where support groups can be helpful.

Limit of 140 characters
Tweets are not blogposts. They are limited to a maximum of 140 characters and that has to include everything,the text of the Tweet, the Twitter name (@) of the person you are Tweeting, any hashtags, and, of course, any links to blogposts, websites etc. Now, as we know, some links can be very long and even take up more than 140 characters for just the link. So, Twitter will shorten links to 10 characters, or thereabouts, so you are left with plenty of space for the rest of the message.

Don't be Prolix
You will find that 140 characters is, in fact, very little, and your early experience with Tweeting may be a bit frustrating. But, persist. You will get the hang of getting the most into a short message, it will hone your editing skills and test your ingenuity to its limits.

Below is a typical tweet (as it happens, of mine). It is just over 120 characters, contains a shortened link, an id (@) and hashtags (#). You will also notice the avatar (picture) which is one I have uploaded to my account and which appears as an identifier on all of my tweets.

You can get a live version by clicking here and then you can click on the link etc. to see how things work.

When you've got the hang of it you might like to check out my post on Tweetdeck and also a third party post on Tweet Chats.

Happy Tweeting


  1. Where is your Twitter button on your Blog? If it was here I would re-Tweet you!

  2. @Dáithaí

    Haven't got round to that new fangled thing yet.

    I'm still working longhand. Right click on time shown, copy link location, paste into tweet. That's what I'm doing.

    Serious digital exercise :)

    Thanks for the compliment.


  3. @Dáithai

    I've now put a tweet button into my posts.

    Unfortunately, unlike yours, you clever chap, it only reproduces the actual page url. This is fine if all that is open is an individual tweet, but when it's the homepage open it just tweets the homepage address no matter from within which individual post it is invoked.

    I think this may be because I am on the old style Blogger template but don't know for sure.

    I have left a query on a Twitter developer forum and will report back if I have any luck.


  4. Addendum

    The above post is directed at those who are inclined to dismiss Twitter or to be critical of both it and those who use it.

    I have, therefore, dwelt on the positives.

    Like everything else in life Twitter can be used to harass and bully people. It can be used to impersonate people to their detriment, it can be used to scam and to spam. A single Tweet recently derailed an Irish Presidential candidates campaign during a live TV debate.

    These are, however, the normal vicissitudes of life that you just have to deal with.

    My point is that, on balance, and properly used, Twitter is an invaluable communication and social interaction and solidarity tool.


  5. Good guide to the whole thing.

  6. @Blackwatertown

    Thanks. I just got so fed up with people turning their noses up at it that I thought I'd try and document the positives and then have something to refer people to.

    I'm having a ball on it myself, including with one divine (impersonating) account.


  7. Recent example of the positive use of social media, including Twitter.

  8. I should have said that I now appear to have solved the "tweet this post" conundrum and that the TWEET button at the bottom of the posts does what it would say on the tin, if there were a tin.


  9. Addendum

    Got fed up blocking idiots and semi-nude women, so I'm just leaving them there.

    In other words I'm abandoning my original idea of restricting my followers to the quality. Too labour intensive.

  10. I have recently upgraded my Blogger template from the old to the new system. This includes a retweet button at the bottom of each post along with the opportunity to share via other means.