Why Tweet? (And How To Do It)

November 30th, 2011

About once a week I have this conversation: A friend says to me, “I really should get on to twitter.” She usually says it wearily, in the same tone she would use to say, “I really need to clean my bathroom.” To which I respond: “You don’t have to get on to twitter. It’s not a duty. It’s not like cleaning the bathroom!” The friend responds, “But everyone says I should for my business/social life/visibility. Also, you do it all the time.” “Yes,” I say. “I do it. And I think it probably helps my business/social life/visibility. But that is not why I like to tweet. I do it because it is fun, and social, and I learn from it. Plus, it helps my writing. If I thought I should tweet, I would never do it. Have you seen my bathroom lately?”

Why is my attitude towards twitter different than that of my friends’? Because my friends have been told they “should” tweet. Their bosses suggest it will help their companies; their mentors advise them to tweet to further their careers. So even though it is called social media, to them twitter sounds like work.Do not tweet because you have been told to, or because you feel you “should.” If you do, you will not help your company, nor further your career. And you certainly will not enjoy it.

Twitter is a like huge, successful cocktail party. Groups of people are chatting about different things in different parts of the room. Some are laughing together, some are noting down an interesting book title the person next to them mentioned. One group may be commiserating with someone who just received some bad news, and another is congratulating a guest’s good fortune. You are never the first to arrive nor the last to leave. But when you do leave, you might do so with a few new numbers in your smartphone and a book you want to read.

We have all been to parties with a guest who has come only to advance his agenda. He wants a job or to sell something. He zones out when you start talking and turns the conversation back to himself. He might be loud AND TALK IN ALL CAPS.

He is a bad guest, and twitter does not need more like him. But if you are want to hear what others have to say and add your thoughts to ongoing conversations, do not be afraid.

Here is another conversation I have about twitter. A friend or a student tells me he wants to improve his writing. I say: “You might get on twitter. It is a great way to become a clearer, more concise writer, because it forces you to choose your words carefully.” The friend looks at me as if I were crazy. Twitter can improve one’s writing? Isn’t twitter the most obvious example of how writing has gone downhill?

Au contraire. There is a reason authors and book publishers were some of twitter’s earliest adopters and remain some of its best practitioners. Effective tweeting requires effective writing.  The short form—each tweet is 140 characters or less—requires discipline. Tweets reward clarity, wit and concision. You could train yourself to be a better writer by using twitter effectively. It hones your focus on the sentence level, and the sentence is the most important unit of composition.

Once, I asked a group of students to take an essay they had written for class and tweet it, sentence by sentence. By forcing them to fit each sentence into that white box, I was asking them to analyze every word they used and to consider how they constructed the clauses in the sentence. They were furious with me: they hated the exercise. But they all agreed they thought about their sentences more than they had when they first wrote the paper.

Twitter helps my writing. The other day, I was tweeting back and forth in an elaborate joke about a friend, Matt, presenting a paper at a conference inappropriately attired. In the twitter box where one answers the question “What’s happening?” I retweeted someone else’s comment (see glossary below if you do not know what a retweet it). I wanted to add a comment, so I wrote:  “I can’t wait to see you with your shirt off!”  But I could not publish this tweet because it was too long. So I revised my comment to read “I can’t wait to see you without your shirt!” As soon as I finished, I thought: Duh! There is an even clearer way to put this! I revised once again and wrote: “I can’t wait to see you shirtless.” I had taken away excess letters (and words) and written more concisely.

Admittedly, that shirtless comment is not an example of great prose. But it is an example of how having to be economical leads to better prose. “Shirtless” is preferable to “without your shirt on.”  One word is better than four.  Twitter forces me to remember this, and to edit, edit, and edit again.

WHAT SHOULD I TWEET?

I have broken down effective tweets into four categories: headline, questions, self-contained quips and comments.

HEADLINE TWEETS

Many tweets are informative: they are passing on articles, blogs and videos, and they contain links to what they are telling followers about. Writing informative tweets can be as simple as typing “Check this out” or “This is interesting” and pasting a link. But a much better way to pass on this information is to tell your followers what the link is about and entice them to click. Give the link your own headline or title and you will seduce more people into clicking while honing your writing skills.

Good titles and headlines do three things: they explain the topic, they provide a sense of the thesis, and they “hook” the reader. Here is a tweet from @PoetryFound, the foundation that publishes Poetry magazine:

What’s in the People’s Library on Wall Street” [link]

This is a good headline tweet. In nine words, @PoetryFound conveys the topic (the People’s Library on Wall Street), the main idea (the contents of that library), and hooks the reader by piquing curiosity (what is in that library?).

Here is another headline tweet, this one from Maria Popova, the woman behind @brainpicker, a blog that picks up dozens of interesting tidbits each day: 

Because everything is a canvas for creativity – portraits from the World Beard & Mustache Championships [link]

This tweet tells us what the link contains—portraits of facial hair. @Brainpicker prefaces the topic with a comment about what she thinks about the portraits: “everything is a canvas of creativity.”

Here are a few more headline tweets:

Doctors protest too much—and it’s eroding the entire profession’s credibility. [Link]

The topic is doctors protesting, and the thesis is that these protests are bad for doctors.

Killer cantaloupes—What you need to know about the listeria outbreak [link]

Here, a purely informative link is enlivened by the hook: a funny (or scary) image of killer cantaloupes.

Writing a good headline is hard. If you ever struggled to write a title for a paper in school, you know what I am talking about. Writing headlines is also fantastic writing practice. You need use good verbs like “protest” and “eroding.” You need specific people or entities doing those actions, like  “doctors,” “cantaloupes,” “People’s Library” and “Wall Street”. And you have to infuse your words with tone and voice—“everything is a canvas for creativity,” or “killer.” Finally, you must have a solid understanding of the contents of your link to summarize it. Quickly.

If you are new to twitter and want to improve your writing, start writing headline tweets. Find some webpages you want to get the word out about.  Then do the following:

1.) Ask Yourself: Who Is The Subject? Who Is Doing Something? Choose A Concrete Noun.

—Concrete nouns are specific. The more specific, the better. Instead of  “rock star,” write “Lady Gaga.” Instead of  “They”’ write “The Tea Party.”

2.) Ask Yourself: What Is The Subject Doing? Choose An Active Verb.

—Make Lady Gaga or The Tea Party do something. Instead of Lady Gaga “is,” write “Lady Gaga amuses.” Instead of the Tea Party “has,” write

“The Tea Party invites.”

3.) Hook Your Reader

—”Lady Gaga Amuses Little Monster—But Not Me” gives your readers your perspective. “The Tea Party Invites….Obama?”  gives your headline a tone with just three little dots (called ellipses).

ASK A QUESTION

Twitter can be a great way to get more information on a topic or to solicit opinions. Just ask! The more specific your question the better. For example, the other day one person I follow asked a question about patent law in 18th-century America. Now that’s specific! I did not know the answer, but I follow a few American historians. So I sent the question to them—and they answered my friend. Twitter is a goldmine for exchanging information. If you have a specialized area of interest—from patent law to school bake sales to software engineering—find like-minded tweeps (a term for people on twitter), follow them and ask them questions.

SELF-CONTAINED

Many tweets are self-contained. They do not need explanation or refer to something someone else wrote, nor do they send you someplace else on the web with a link. They can be comments, jokes, observations. Self-contained tweets are often what people are referring to when they decry twitter as a mundane waste of time (“Do we really care what you had for lunch?” is a favorite line of naysayers, referring to tweets like “I had a great sandwich for lunch.”)

The best self-contained tweets are only one-tweet long. (It is tempting to draw them out over several, but usually this ruins the effect.) They are quips—pithy, quick and funny. The first thing I tweeted today was a quip: “That’s it. There’s too much stuff. I declare a moratorium on stuff.” I wrote this after spending 20 minutes on a blog about sidewalk art, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the internet. I wrote this off-the-cuff, ephemeral comment only to make a few people chuckle.

Here are more, better examples of quips:

I’m a mess. Not in the “beautiful mess” way. In the “you dropped an omelette all over the floor then stepped in it” way.

Started weight training yesterday. My peccaries are squealing. Or whatever they’re called. I’m in no shape to pick up that dictionary.

Just had honest talk with self. Not a bad fellow, knows a lot about me. Should consult him more often.

Notice these tweets follow a pattern. The first sentence starts with a cliché  (“I’m a mess”) or a mundane comment (“started weight training”). The second sentence qualifies the first one, setting up the joke. (“Not a bad fellow,” “my peccaries”). The final sentence is the punch line.

Some quips make a point beyond a joke, like this one:

Used a fax machine today. Join us next time as I contract the Black Death and test-drive a “horseless carriage!”

This writer transformed what could have been a boring, “I used a fax machine for the first time in years” comment into something witty. She also makes a point with her quip: what were once sparkly new technologies become obsolete.

RESPONSE—HAVE A CONVERSATION

Many tweets begin with the handle of someone else. (@araqueltrubek, or @BarackObama). These tweets are written in response to the person or people named. By adding your two cents to someone else’s tweet, you are engaging in a conversation. They may respond, and you will carry on more back-and-forth chatter. Someone else might jump in, and offer his or her perspective. Conversations like this are the heart of twitter. They are what transform it from simply a place to forward links (headline) or to talk about what a mess you are (self-contained quips).

I follow many people whose opinions I am eager to hear. If news breaks about Egypt, I look to see what those more knowledgeable than I about the Middle East are saying. I also follow people who are interested in the same topics I am. If a story comes out about how students are learning to write, for instance, I often talk about it at length with other writing professors on twitter. I have changed my mind and had intense intellectual debates on twitter. The shortness of each utterance—each point must be made quickly—helps us focus on the most important points. The ephemerality of the form—few people read tweets sent one day earlier, for example—makes it less intimidating to try out ideas, suggest strong opinions and think out loud.

As I am talking with three or four people about an article in a magazine, some people may be reading my tweets without understanding them. I do realize I am hogging their time and screen-space when I start having focused conversations with just a few others, but everybody does it. However, these sorts of tweets can confuse people just starting on twitter.

Do not try to understand everything you read on twitter—sometimes the tweet is really not meant for you, even if it appears on your screen.  You might be able to figure it out by reading backwards to an initial tweet, but sometimes people are referring to long-running inside jokes. It can be annoying. “Why have this conversation in public? Why not just email or phone each other?”

It can be cliquey or off-putting, but it also may be a convenient or fun way to communicate. But do not write too many “inside” tweets or twitter will become a less interesting place to hang out.

WAIT—I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO GET ON TWITTER!

To get started on twitter, create a handle (your name or a variation thereof).  Then find people to follow. You might consider a focus for your twitter account at first, and follow people involved in one certain area, such as a hobby (birders), news interest (the Middle East, the upcoming presidential campaign), profession (dentists) or form of entertainment (movie reviews).

Look up who your first followers follow—you might find some of interest and start following them, too.

Spend some time lurking, or reading the tweets of those you have started following. Then, start tweeting. To get your feet wet, join in a conversation by replying to someone else’s tweet. For instance, if one person you follow tweeted a review of a movie you saw, reply to that tweet by offering your opinion, or retweet their review and add your own headline for your followers.

As you start following people and tweeting, people will start following you. If someone follows you who you do not follow, it is up to you whether or not you want to follow them back. Some people follow everyone who follows them; others are more discriminate. (I choose to follow people whose tweets I think will enrich my twitter experience, and I only follow “real people” and never follow companies).  There are many “spambots” on twitter. You can usually spot a spam account if it has no information in its profile or if the account follows thousands of people but has only a few followers.

[After I wrote that paragraph, I published this tweet: “way too many "followers" and "following" in this chapter I am writing. Describing twitter is like describing a leaderless cult.”]

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? A GLOSSARY

RT (Retweet) If you want to forward someone’s tweet to your followers, put RT in front of it. Your followers will know who wrote the original tweet. It is a form of citation.

@  The @ symbol is placed in front of the handle (or twitter name) for everyone on twitter. If you want one person to see your tweet, put @ in front of his or her name. (For instance, you might tweet: Hey @araqueltrubek, I disagree with your twitter types. You forgot to mention the whatchmacallit!)

# The # symbol indicates a hashtag. A hashtag on twitter is an informal way to group certain tweets together. For instance, if your tweet has something to do with the Super Bowl, you might use #Superbowl. Anyone wanting to read all the Super Bowl tweets can search for “#Superbowl.”

Many people make up hashtags to make a comment on what they have just tweeted. For instance, the other day I tweeted “Time to pick up the brisket. #RoshHashana” It was just a funny way to invent a hashtag to help explain the tweet (which is a great example of a mundane, “who cares what you had for lunch?” tweet! Not all of mine are masterpieces.)

Followers are people who follow you on twitter. (Unlike facebook, twitter allows for you to follow people who do not follow you, and for people to follow you without you following them back.)

Following: People you follow on twitter. (Unlike facebook, twitter allows for you to follow people who do not follow you, and for people to follow you without you following them back.)

Lists: You can group those you follow into lists. (For example, “celebrities” “relatives” or “software geeks).

Mentions: Whenever someone tweets your handle (@yourname) it will appear in “mentions”.

DMs. Direct messages are sent from between two people. Both people have to follow each other to use direct messages. So if you follow Taylor Swift but she does not follow you back, you cannot send her a direct message.

F.A.Qs

What if you’re an introvert and don’t feel comfortable sharing details of your daily life with hundreds of people (I have the same problem with Facebook)? Can you still have fun with/make good use of Twitter?

Yes. Some of the best tweeters focus on headline tweets and have conversations about news, professional ideas and links without telling us about their girlfriends.

How do you use Twitter yet keep it from being a time suck? I’m easily distracted and once I get on social media I get caught up in everything and suddenly hours have passed.

Well, I can give you advice but it’s the same anyone would–give yourself limits, boundaries, etc. I tweet at night a lot, instead of watching TV. I find that if I am going to have a time-suck, twitter is a great one, because it is social rather than isolating, usually funny, and always informative.

 

 

comments

  1. I wish I had this available when I started twitter. I like to think that I’m technologically savvy (and social media-savvy, at that), but twitter presented a pretty steep learning curve, especially because of all those “strange” symbols. (Hash tags…what?)

    Since I started tweeting this spring (when I started my blog), I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get several friends to join, all of whom are academics on the job market (or markets, I should say). Next time, I’ll borrow your “cocktail party” metaphor to help make my case. Thanks!

  2. Amy–Thanks for stopping by (and now I’m tempted to offer you a drink!)

    I imagine those on the academic job market would be wary of twitter–but I would tell them they should get tweeting. Members of hiring committees probably have the same questions about how twitter works, and your friends can show themselves both with it and helpful!

    –Anne

  3. Great piece! I’d also recommend Jay Rosen’s categorization of tweets & self-analysis of his Twitter practice: http://435digital.com/blog/2011/01/12/social-media-icon-jayrosen_nyu-explains-how-he-tweets/

    Also, if you’re looking to add to your glossary, I’m a big fan of the MT (Modified Tweet), which allows you to RT more concisely to add your own commentary.

  4. Fantastic post: funny, enlightening, and worth sharing. It’s now on my students must read list. Brava!

  5. Wow, this is the best article I have EVER seen regarding twitter.

  6. Thanks! Very helpful. I’m a ludite, particularly when it comes to social media (ha! I won an award recently writing about police and social media! Shshsh). This article was very clear, concise, and felt like you’d written it in 140 characters! Well done!

  7. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

  8. Robert replied on November 18th, 2012.

    I’ve read a few articles like this one but still don’t get it. I’ve contributed thousands of mostly well thought out (not all:) comments to numerous websites over the years and have received many favourable responses. When it comes to ideas I don’t care who you are and don’t think it’s important who I am. Conversely twits(as I like to call them) seem obsessed with how many followers they can get. I’ve tried to read many tweets but most of them are inane half thoughts and re-tweets of news articles I can read about in depth on multiple websites. Sorry I can’t keep this speech to 140 characters but there it is! I’ve failed social media 101 and furthermore I just don’t care.
    You can all go back to your twittering now…..

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  10. April replied on September 3rd, 2013.

    I fully agree with the statement that twitter can make you a better writer. I’m new to the social media site, and noticed it only allows a few word, thus forcing you to make a short and clear statement. I want to become a better writer and im up for the challenge

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