Bottom Line: There’s a lot more to Twitter than you might have guessed.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post on using RSS to make a customized newsfeed for your topics of interest. At that time, I also promised a post on Twitter, because I found quite a bit in common between the way I use RSS and the way I use Twitter. Well, here is that long-awaited Twitter post… I’m sure you’ve been anxiously awaiting it.

TOC

Basics

In short, Twitter is a social networking service with which you can make 140 character posts, including links to websites, images, etc. Your “timeline” is made up of your “tweets” as well as those of anyone you “follow.” People are generally notified when you “follow” them, but not when you unfollow them (although there are 3rd party tools that can provide this function. The 140 character limitation can be frustrating, but it’s also the best thing about Twitter.

Besides your standard 140 character tweet, you can also [email protected] or [email protected] to people by placing @ before their Twitter username, e.g. @n8henrie. Basically, the difference between mention and reply is that if you start your tweet with the [email protected] as the very first character, it’s considered a [email protected] and is not included in the timelines of everyone that follows you, unless they also follow the person you’re replying to. This prevents a bit of clutter. However, if you @mention someone by putting the @ as anything other than the first character in the tweet (e.g. “This is a tweet by @n8henrie!” or even “.@n8henrie is writing this post!”), it is considered more like one of your regular tweets and therefore included in the timeline of your followers, but the person you mentioned gets a notification about the tweet. A great post going more in depth on this topic can be found here.

Other than the [email protected], you’ve probably also seen #hashtags, which have now been implemented by a great variety of social networks. As far as I know, hashtags started by using the number sign to designate a string of characters as being the topic of a post, to make posts on that topic more searchable. For example, if you were at a conference called Teaching Healthy Eating (THE), you could search for tweets with #the and avoid getting hits on every tweet that had the word “the”.

There is also the ability to “favorite” a tweet… but this is often not what it seems. Although the favorite button can be used more or less like a Facebook “like,” just to notify someone that you appreciated their post, I am among many that use it more as a tool. Because I’m often checking Twitter on-the-go, if I see a tweet I want to come back to later, I’ll often favorite it so that I don’t lose track of it. Here’s a post talking a bit more about this: Why Twitter Favorites Aren’t Really Your Favorite Tweets.

Probably the most popular Twitter function is the “retweet” — where you take the tweet of someone you follow and repost it to your own timeline (which your followers will then see). It’s generally considered a compliment to have something you’ve posted be retweets; it’s a sign that you’ve posted something clever or interesting enough that others want to shared it with their friends, too.

There are other features, like direct messages (“DM”s), but I won’t go over them here. For further reading, here’s one of the best posts I’ve come across on how to use Twitter.

Twitter for News

My post on RSS feeds was mostly about how I use RSS to stay up-to-date on my topics of interest. Twitter serves the same function in many ways — nearly any website that publishes content regularly has some kind of bot that autoposts these to their Twitter. (It is, after all, the fastest growing social network in existence.) If you follow them, you’ll hear about all their new posts.

As far as world news, Twitter is one of my favorite resources for real-time updates and discussion. While its utility in disaster scenarios is questionable, you can often get incredible images and video footage within minutes of an event, and people will often “live-tweet” conferences for the benefit of those that are unable to attend. The group discussion and live fact-checking made the 2012 presidential debates a very different experience for me.

You can create “lists” of people you follow (or even those you don’t follow) to make custom “channels” for this news. I did this for a while, with separate lists for tech stuff, world news, medical news, entertainment news, etc. It worked fine. I still have separate lists for people I know well, so that I can filter everything else out and see what they’ve been up to.

One thing that surprised me was how much medical news I found on Twitter. Several of the major healthcare related organizations have fairly regular conversations on Twitter, and the emergency medicine community is especially active. You can search the #foamed (free open-access medical education) hashtag to find discussion of interesting cases, paper critiques, EKGs, radiographs, and more… any day of the week. If you’re in the medical field — especially emergency medicine — you ought to at least take a look. Then there are always the medical celebs like Atul Gawande, whose posts are often as enlightening as they are uplifting.

Twitter for Customer Support

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the level of customer support I’ve gotten through various companies’ Twitter teams has been vastly superior to what I get through email or even over the phone. I’ve had numerous instances in which I get a response through Twitter within minutes of a Tweet where I pose a concern or question. I’ve even had a few instances where I’ve been dissatisfied with customer support experiences that I’ve had over the phone and gone to Twitter secondarily and had much more gratifying results. Here are a few reasons why I think this is the case:

  • 140 character limit. This means the CS team doesn’t have to wade through multi-page complaints. Both the concern and the response will be brief.
  • Interaction is public. Anyone that looks will see both sides of the interaction, and so it is in a company’s best interest to respond quickly and professionally to reasonable requests. If ever there is a time to put your best foot forward, this is it.
  • They know you’re “connected.” It seems to me that Twitter users are more likely than many other social networks’ users (besides app.net) to have a significant online presence.

One last bonus when dealing with customer support: a company controls their Facebook page. Many people post their grievances on a Facebook page only to find that their post is deleted by the company so as not to frighten away other clients / customers. This is not the case with Twitter; if you mention them, there’s no way for them to hide it from the world. Their only choice is to respond or ignore.

Twitter for Your Online Identity

It didn’t take long after creating my account for my Twitter profile to float into the top 10 Google search results for my name. Because everything is so public by default, it is a great way to establish and maintain an online identity. Just remember that anyone from your mom to your employer to your future spouse can see what you post, and only post what you want the world to see. Keep in mind the powerful magnification that can happen with a fortunate (or unfortunate) retweet or two. While I don’t have many followers, I occasionally have someone with tens of thousands of followers retweet me, and inevitably several of their followers then see the message and retweet, and so on. That witty quip you just made might make it to 5 screens or 5 million — and on that note, it’s really a cool feeling to know that your voice was just heard by thousands upon thousands of people. Here’s a cool story about how this amplification was put to good use in getting back a stolen bike.

On the flip side of positive search engine optimization (SEO), I recommend that you reserve your name in Twitter (especially if an uncommon name), because parody Twitter accounts are ubiquitous — and hilarious. I imagine it would be less hilarious, however, if someone decided to make a Twitter handle from your name, use your picture, and then decide what they wanted to float to the top of Google searches for your name.

Not only does Twitter often result in great SEO for your name, it’s also one of the easiest ways to do this. Compared to Facebook or Google+, for example, with their layers upon layers of privacy and security settings, Twitter has only a few. Set a picture, set a one or two-sentence bio, and go. You know everything is 100% public, so you can leave behind all the privacy paranoia you’ve learned from other social networks.

Twitter for Fun

A few other points that I think make Twitter fun:

Celebs: Many of your favorite celebrities are on Twitter. You will probably never get a chance to talk to them one-on-one, but there’s a reasonable chance that you could get a shout-out from them on Twitter. For example, aside from having some hilarious tweets, Ricky Gervais has back-and-forth convos with fans all day long. Every once in a while I’ll have a little chat with the developer of a favorite app. It’s fun to tweet to someone famous and think that they may have seen your tweet… and they might even respond.

The Challenge of Brevity: Taking a thought down to 140 characters is tough, but it’s also fun. It’s often harder than you think to say something clever, funny, or interesting with such a small allotment of space.

No Reason Not to Follow: If someone looks interesting, you follow them. If it ends up that they’re boring or annoying, you unfollow. Twitter doesn’t notify them of the unfollow, and unlike Facebook “friending”, they are given no additional access to your posts either way. If someone has potential to be interesting, there’s really no downside to giving them a follow.

Perfect for Mobile: When I’m out and about, I find it a lot easier to take part in staccato, 140 character morsels of communication here and there than trying to navigate the pages and paragraphs of a Facebook conversation. It’s like texting versus calling: I love a good long conversation, they’re just not always practical.

I’ve been very slowly writing this post for quite a while now, and in that time I’ve compiled several of my favorite Twitter-related posts and pages links here in Pinboard. As always, feel free to give me your thoughts in the comments below, or just send me a tweet.