Monday, December 22, 2008

A Minimalist’s Guide to Using Twitter Simply, Productively, and Funly

This morning after our hill run my sister asked me about Twitter: “What’s Twitter all about? I don’t get it?”

Neither did I at first — I resisted using Twitter for more than a year because it seemed like just another distraction, just another way to waste time and have noisy chatter going on in front of you.

But I decided to see what the fuss was all about, and did my Great Twitter Experiment. To my surprise, Twitter was actually fun, interesting, and useful — if used correctly.

I’ve also found that Twitter isn’t something you can explain, and it’s not something you can understand until you’ve used it for at least a few days. You have to use it to get it.

I think that’s because Twitter can be so many things to so many people. One person might use it as a marketing tool, another to stay in touch with friends, another to collaborate with co-workers, and still others to stay informed about their favorite bloggers, websites, the latest gossip, reading, news and more.

Today we’ll look at some different ways you can use Twitter without spending too much time doing it.

A Minimalist Approach

When I first signed up for Twitter a few months ago, I followed a bunch of people I knew and was instantly fed with a stream of new “tweets” from all the people I was following. I read through all the tweets, but the stream just kept coming.

I’d wake up in the morning and try to read through all the tweets, or at least scan them. Then I’d try to keep up periodically throughout the day. It was stressful.

Then I learned the secret of Twitter: don’t try to keep up.

Twitter is like a river … you can step into it at any point and feel the water, bathe in it, frolic if you like … and then get out. And go back in at any time, at any point. But, you don’t have to try to consume the entire river — it’s impossible and frankly a waste of time in my eyes.

So that’s how I approach Twitter these days: I’ll just jump into the stream of incoming tweets and see what people are saying. I can ignore them or follow their links or reply if I want. Then I get out of the stream. I don’t try to read everything I missed, and if I miss a lot of stuff, I’m OK with that.

I’ve actually used this approach I learned from with other things, such as email, Facebook, RSS, news and other information. I don’t have to consume it all, but I can jump into the river anytime I like and read, reply if I like, and get back out. So what if I miss a ton of blog posts, news stories, and emails? Will my life fall apart?

The answer turns out to be no.

Simple Ways to Use Twitter

If you follow this minimalist approach, you don’t have to spend a lot of time using Twitter to get a lot out of it, no matter what your goals are.

Here are some guidelines and ideas for using Twitter that I’ve found to be useful:

* Don’t follow a lot of people. Some people follow thousands of people. Their incoming stream must be incredible — I’m sure they don’t even try to keep up with everything. Others might be even more minimalist than I am: they follow a dozen people or less. But then what’s interesting about that? You’re not getting very much out of Twitter if you only follow a few people. Your needs will be different than mine, but I’ve found that following a few dozen to a hundred people is ideal if you’re trying to keep things simple but still get a lot out of Twitter. I think I’m following about 60 right now. I add people now and then but also drop others if they tweet too often and I don’t get anything out of their tweets.
* Don’t tweet too much. Some people are constantly tweeting. Personally, I don’t like to read that many every hour, so if they’re filling up my stream of incoming tweets, they’re wasting my time. I’ve found that once a day or a few times a day or even 10 times a day at the most is ideal for me — your usage will vary. But if you do it too much, you have to be using Twitter a lot, and to me that’s too much of a distraction and time drain. So I go on a few times a day (at most) and tweet only when I feel I have something interesting to say or ask.
* Don’t be on Twitter all the time. Some people have it open all the time — and that’s fine if it works for you. Personally, I’ve found that if Twitter is open (or if Twitterific, my desktop Twitter program, is open) all the time, I have a hard time focusing on other work. So like I said, I close it most of the time and open it a few times a day to see what’s going on. Mainly when I want to take a break. I only open it for a few minutes at most.
* Make announcements. I like to announce things on Twitter — it’s more effective than announcing things through email and less obtrusive than doing an entire post on my blog.
* Ask questions. Sometimes I’ll need a solution or some ideas for something, and I’ll ask the question on Twitter — and immediately get a dozen great replies. Thank you Twitterers! One time I couldn’t order a notebook (Muji Chronotebook) online so I asked if anyone lived near a Muji store, in New York for instance — and one Twitterer actually went to the store and bought it for me, and mailed it to me! Btw, I love this notebook and use it daily now. Thanks Chris!
* Take a poll. I’ve asked people how often they like to see posts on Zen Habits, things they want me to write about, whether I should do a Zen Habits post about the presidential election, and other similar poll questions, and have gotten some great feedback.
* Tell people interesting things. If you have something going on in your life that’s really interesting, by all means, share it. That’s what Twitter is about. It often gets some great conversations going. If you don’t have anything interesting to say, don’t be afraid to be silent. No one really cares if you don’t say anything, but it’s annoying to read people share things that aren’t interesting.
* Jump into conversations sometimes. I don’t think you should get involved in every conversation, but sometimes it can be fun to jump in and say your two cents. Then jump back out when you’re done.
* Find some great reading. When I feel like a distraction and want to read something useful or interesting, I’ll scan through my Twitter stream and find a few cool links to read. People share some really great stuff from the web on Twitter. However, as a warning, it can be overwhelming if you try to read everything. Again, it’s a river — go into the water when you feel like it, but get back out too — don’t try to consume the entire river.
* Learn to be concise. What I really love about Twitter is its 140 character limit for tweets. Some people cheat by doing multiple tweets about the same thing, but that defeats the purpose of the limit. Instead, learn to say just the essential in one post (or two if you really need to). It forces you to choose, to edit, to simplify. I love that. I wish email had a limit.
* Use it as a log. I forget where I read this idea, but one fitness blogger suggested using Twitter to help lose weight: post *everything* you eat on Twitter. It’s a great idea (I think it was Craig Ballantyne) because it hold you accountable, and you don’t want to post something that you shouldn’t have eaten. But Twitter could be used as a workout log, a travelogue, anything really.
* Find someone to hire. Just now I posted on Twitter to find someone to redo the software for in Drupal or Joomla. Got some great responses already! Whoever you need to find, Twitter should be able to help.
* Reduce your inboxes. If you use Twitter regularly, you can probably reduce your need for RSS (my favorite blogs are on Twitter anyways), email (you can DM people), IM, news sites, and so on. It’s nice to consolidate, as long as you use it intelligently.
* Create a Twitter personal assistant. Check out this guide for a pretty cool use of Twitter and associated services.

Just for fun: check out Twittervision 3D for an incredible global representation of tweets at they happen around the globe in real time.

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