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How I use Twitter  

This post, by Don Dodge, prompts me to address a point. Don says:

Robert Scoble follows 80,141 people on Twitter. Do you think he really reads the "tweets" of all those people? No way. Not humanly possible…even for Superman Scoble. Guy Kawasaki follows 97,276 people on Twitter. Clearly, follow means something different to them. The reality is that many Twitters engage in the "I will follow you, if you follow me" game in an attempt to amass more followers. The result is that no one really listens (follows) anyone. Twitter Litter.

I could reply in the comments section in Don's sidebar (weird place to put a comments section, by the way), but hey, I do have a blog, after all - and "how I use Twitter" is something that I seem to have to explain to people quite often. So, here it is.

First, how I don't use Twitter

I don't follow people in hope of them following me. In fact, for almost a year, I couldn't be bothered following people, so I followed no one back. Then, after I launched this site, I decided, out of plain politeness, to make the effort to look through the interesting people who follow me and see if they might be of interest to me too. So now I regularly go through the list of new followers and follow anyone who seems of interest.

I don't expect to gain followers this way. The way to gain Twitter followers isn't to follow people back - it's to do interesting stuff outside of Twitter. Like being Charlie Sheen, for example.

I don't follow people to read everything they write. I don't believe that's what Twitter is about. Where I may have complained, earlier, about the natural chronological devaluation problem of blogs, I believe this is one of Twitter's key features.

The now

Twitter is about the now. It's about what the world is talking about, thinking about, caring about and sharing right now. A tweet from an hour ago is a little stale. A tweet from yesterday is practically worthless. A tweet from a week ago is a historical curiosity. A tweet from last year belongs in a museum - or in a blog post, perhaps.

I don't really care what you tweeted yesterday, and I don't expect you to care what I tweeted either. Tweets are ephemeral. They're cheap to write, cheap to read, and rarely have that much thought in them. They can draw your attention to something that's relevant to you right now, or provide some welcome distraction, or show you what everyone else is thinking about. If you want to create something permanent, don't tweet: blog, comment, upload - but don't tweet. That's the wrong tool for the job. Twitter is a messaging protocol - not a content store.

So, with that in mind, how do I actually use Twitter?

The method

I have the official Twitter client open on my desktop, and on my iPad. I always see notifications of direct messages or @replies, and I read and respond to those as much as possible. Every once in a while, I'll get bored and wonder what the world is tweeting about. Then I go to my twitter stream, where I know I have a good, healthy mix of tweets.

If I see tweets by people I care about, I will glance at those first. But mostly, I will rarely if ever look back further than about half an hour into the past. Sometimes, if I'm exceptionally bored and I have Twitter open on my iPad, I might scroll back as much as an hour or two. The rest of the time, I am effectively blind to anything that has been tweeted more than half an hour ago.

This has several implications.

First of all, it means that I don't use Twitter as a substitute for ambient knowledge about people I care about. Facebook could have been that, if it wasn't for all the "friends" who I haven't spoken to in 10 years or more. Perhaps friending them was a mistake.

If I care about someone, I'll do more than follow them on Twitter to keep up with them. I'll email them, IM them, call them, meet them, and so on. I may also exchange a few tweets with them, but "following someone on Twitter" is not a way to build a relationship, as far as I'm concerned.

Another implication is that everyone who I follow on Twitter has an equal chance of getting me to read their tweets. I will reply to anyone, whether I know them or not, whether they've tweeted me in the past or not. If you happen to be under my eyes when I look at Twitter, your tweet will be read. You don't have to be one of the lucky 100 who I decided to actually care about. I don't have Twitter Lists, and I have no interest in building one. Everyone, from Bill Gates to my cofounders, from a VC to a 15-year old programmer in India, is equal - so long as they tweeted in the last ten minutes.

When I see something of interest, I will engage with it. I will @reply, and @reply again, and follow the conversation until it ends or I get tired of it. That is only really possible with things tweeted recently. You can't really @reply a tweet from a week ago - the recipient won't know what you're talking about.

All in all, I feel I get a lot out of Twitter this way. My Twitter followers and followees keep me appraised of what's happening, answer my questions when they can, read my blog posts (sometimes), spread my messages, bring some really cool stuff to my attention, and engage in spirited (if slightly staccato'ed) debates. I like having thousands of followers and followees. It works really well for me.

I warmly encourage others to try the same approach to Twitter. For one, it gets rid of the "I haven't read all the tweets I was supposed to read" stress. Another good thing is it enables you to engage more fully with the people around you (in a topical sense).

And, of course, another advantage is that it scales. I can do this just as well with a million followers/followees as with a thousand, without treating any of them unfairly.

More from the library:
On being an early startup employee
How to deliver an elevator pitch
A moral obligation to society?