Eight Observations About How I Use Twitter

1. MY TWITTER BACKGROUND

I joined Twitter in April 2008 – thanks @RicRaftis. Like most people, I didn’t know what to do with it and for several months I barely went near it. When I did, I tweeted about technology and the internet.

TwitterThen I started tweeting about Australian and American politics. Later in the year, I began tweeting Question Time, political speeches, press conferences and other media appearances by politicians.

At the time, as far as I knew, no-one else was doing this. Most media people were yet to discover Twitter. Politicians were all but unseen. I often felt I was talking to myself.

Around this time, I began to make contact with people besides PR, marketing and internet types. Bloggers with an interest in politics were flocking to Twitter, as were many others.

The big moment came in March 2009 when I tweeted the Queensland election results. I simply sat at my desk at home with the Queensland Electoral Commission website open and the ABC’s Queensland television feed streaming online. Hundreds of new followers came my way that night and I ended up on commercial radio commenting on the results. It opened my eyes to Twitter’s potential.

I decided I needed a consistent approach so I stopped tweeting about technology and internet issues and made politics my focus. I noticed that Twitter was driving traffic to my main website, AustralianPolitics.com.

By mid-2009, my current approach to Twitter was firmly established. Each night when I sat down to read the next morning’s newspapers online, a ritual I’d followed for years, I would tweet links and occasional comments to articles I thought were worth reading for one reason or another. I was curating content.

I began to more systematically explain and comment on political events. I drew attention to political and election anniversaries. I commented on new political books. I must have seemed obsessive. Whilst I continued to tweet about non-political subjects, my online identity was firmly associated with my political interests.

By mid-2010, I was writing for The Drum, an employment opportunity that arose out of a direct message from @GreenJ. Kevin Rudd was dumped, Julia Gillard called an election, and I was writing a daily piece for The Drum and tweeting like mad.

BBC radio interviewed me on election night after seeing my Twitter stream. I was invited to appear at a Media140 conference about the media and politics. Other writing work came my way online and in the mainstream media. Occasional radio appearances pop up from time to time. Lately, I’ve been invited to speak to organisations about their use of social media.

I need no reminder that Twitter has allowed me to carve out a little niche that would never otherwise have happened. I’ve never tweeted about what I had for breakfast and I scoff at people who think that’s what it’s all about.

2. THE INTERREGNUMS

Occasionally, I walked away from Twitter. Sometimes, I simply got sick of it. There were work and personal distractions. I worried about spending too much time on Twitter.

I always returned because I realised that Twitter didn’t really take up much of my time. I’ll read all that stuff anyway, so it’s not too difficult to tweet a link. I’ll sit at my computer and watch election counts unfold in far-flung states and countries, so I may as well tweet it also. And time spent that results in real world friendships is well worth it.

As much as I admire the technology behind Facebook, I have little interest in it, although I maintain an account as a contact point. Twitter suits me because it brings me into contact with people I would otherwise never encounter.

Acquiring an iPhone and iPad also meant that Twitter assumed a vital mobile dimension that added richness to its possibilities.

3. REAL HUMAN CONTACT

But the reason I’m probably hooked on Twitter is its real-life social networking impact. In the past three and a half years, I have lost count of the number of people I have met face-to-face as a result of Twitter. They number in the dozens.

Like all contacts, some of those people have become friends, some are simply casual acquaintances, whilst some are work-related contacts.

The direct contact has come from attending “tweet-ups”, regular social events that are usually held at a bar or pub. Other meetings have been specifically for people interested in politics via the “WonkDrinks” held in various cities around Australia. Sometimes I’ve met individually with people I’ve got to know online.

Like any other form of socialising, the more you participate the more likely you are to meet people or be approached by others.

4. MY RULES FOR FOLLOWING

I’ve deliberately kept my following numbers down. I aim to keep it around the 800 mark.

About half of these are media outlets, newspapers and other publications that I follow because I want to keep up with what’s being published in my areas of interest.

The other half are individuals I find interesting or have somehow got to know. I prefer to follow people who tweet links I might find interesting. Anything to do with politics, current affairs, history, education, media, technology, books, etc, is likely to attract me.

There are many people I talk to on Twitter but don’t follow. Some of them are people I know personally or have met on social occasions organised by various online groups. If their Twitter stream doesn’t interest me, I don’t follow them. It’s not a criticism, just a different approach.

I always look at the profiles of people who choose to follow me. I glance at their most recent tweets and always check out their website, blog or Facebook link. If you don’t have an avatar, if you’re completely anonymous, or if you don’t have any web link to your online presence, I probably won’t follow you.

5. CONVERSATION

I don’t respond to everyone who mentions me on Twitter. Sometimes this is because the comment doesn’t require a reply, sometimes it’s because I have nothing more to say.

Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s because I can’t be bothered. There are other things to do in life.

But the most likely reason I don’t respond to you is because I didn’t see the tweet and the moment has passed. Whilst I work with Twitter on a second screen on my desk, I don’t monitor it continuously by any means.

It’s like conversations at work or home. Sometimes an idea is touched upon and not developed. Perhaps the phone rang or the topic changed. Maybe I heard what you said but tucked it away in the back of my mind for later. Don’t get offended, it’s nothing personal, just real life at work.

As a rule, I do try to respond to people who have taken the trouble to talk to me, but I tweet about news and politics so every now and again it gets busy and I don’t engage with everyone.

6. DIRECT MESSAGES

The spontaneity and group interaction of many people is part of Twitter’s appeal but the private Direct Message (DM) is also important.

Some of the best, most pungent and libellous comments take place between people via Direct Messages. We tend to be more direct and indiscreet. But you need to pick your mark. Trust is vital.

By way of example, this article arose out of a Direct Message from @Kimbo_Ramplin that set me thinking about how people use Twitter. I can’t tell you what else she said.

Often I’m not active on the public Twitter stream but I’m talking via DMs. If Twitter is a back channel to the wider conversation, direct messages are the back channel’s back door.

7. CRITICISM AND ABUSE

I don’t get abused much, although it does happen. Talking about politics seems to provoke it.

Strangely enough, the most offensive comments come when all I’ve done is tweet a link to an article written by someone else. The mere naming of certain journalists and writers infuriates some people.

I may or may not comment on links I tweet. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes not. Sometimes they’re just interesting for some reason, good or bad.

I have no illusions that people read the links I tweet. It’s often achingly obvious that reading has not preceded reaction. I could put one of those pompous statements that “retweets and links do not constitute endorsement”, but I won’t. If you’re silly enough to think I agree with everything I link to, that’s your problem.

There is no escaping the vitriol online. In the past year or so, I’ve come to the view that Twitter is a much less pleasant place than it used to be. As it becomes more mainstream, the dregs and the cream mingle. Some people like nothing better than getting a reaction. There are sensitive souls who take everything as a personal criticism. Some people are not very bright and some are just nuts.

But the good far outweighs the bad and Twitter is like that old-fashioned implement, the telephone: you can hang up. I do it all the time.

I hang up by not following people. I will decide who I talk to and the manner in which I allow them into my life.

I block the spammers.

I filter hashtags that don’t interest me. I haven’t seen a #Masterchef or #Ashes tweet in ages. I’ve never heard of #JustinBieber.

I hang up by filtering people from my stream. Filtering is more satisfying than unfollowing, kind of like crossing the road before you see them coming. Maybe I’m passive aggressive but I’ve also got to that point in my life where I don’t feel the need to justify myself.

I have a simple rule: I try not to be rude or offensive. Most of the time I succeed.

Abuse me, swear at me, harass me, and I simply add you to my TweetDeck filter. You get one chance. I don’t warn you, I don’t tell you, I simply never respond. For all I know, you’re sending me messages every day but I never see them.

Judgmental? Of course, but it’s like my attitude to the wider media. I try to read widely and not restrict myself to what I already know, but I have to make choices, so I use Twitter the same way I use radio and television.

I choose to ignore the morons on breakfast television. When driving, I will choose not to listen to empty-headed FM presenters. At night, I choose not to watch A Current Affair. I filter the dross from the value, as I see it. As in real life, as on Twitter.

8. ONE MORE THING

There are no rules about how to use Twitter. There’s a lot of rubbish on it, but then most telephone conversations wouldn’t pass a quality control test either.

I may have it all wrong but what I’ve described is what works for me. I use Twitter to gather news and views. I socialise to some extent but that’s not my main interest, although late night conversations with various people have been some of the most rewarding moments.

Make a comment below. Better still, have a look for @mfarnsworth on Twitter.

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