Friday, 7 March 2014

To Tweet or Not To Tweet

by Catriona Troth: @L1bCat

It took me a long time to get into Twitter. I was resistant for all the usual reasons (what is the point of telling everyone what you had for breakfast in 140 characters or less?) but also because I couldn’t get the hang of how I could focus on people who were saying something I might be interested in.

I have to say, though, when I was finally persuaded to take it seriously, it took me about a month to go from sceptical to seriously addicted.

I didn’t tweet to begin with.  I just went looking for interesting feeds.  I started in the obvious places – the radio channels I listen to, the newspapers I read, the magazines I’d LIKE to read but somehow never have time for. I discovered that these would often alert me to articles that were absolutely fascinating, but which otherwise I would probably have missed. All I had to do was click on the link at the end of the tweet, and there they were! Magic.

Keeping half an eye on feeds like @BBCNews ensured that I could be the first to pick up on breaking news stories. A quick skim was enough to filter those stories I was interested in and the rest I could ignore. Easy, too, to pick up news from Canada, where I grew up. 

I started tentatively retweeting some of my discoveries. I even composed a tweet or two of my own, feeling desperately self-conscious. As I started exploring some of the less trodden paths of the Twittersphere, the number of people I was following exploded.  And I started to gain a few followers of my own.

At this point I should probably stop and explain a few basics for those to whom Twitter is still an alien land.  (If you are already a seasoned explorer, just skip to the end of the indented text.)

Generally speaking, if you put something out on Twitter, it is there, in public for anyone to see, whether they have a Twitter account or not. However, once you have an account of your own, you have two basic ways of looking at the Twitterverse. 

If you click on someone’s Twitter handle (a name starting with @) you will see an image, a few details about them, and then everything they have tweeted, in chronological order, starting with the most recent.  There will also be a button, next to their name, which will give you an option to Follow them.

If you now go back to your Home page, you’ll see the tweets from everyone you have chosen to follow, all mixed up together, sorted in chronological order and constantly updated.

As I discovered, it’s very easy to get carried away in those early days following all manner of people.  Suddenly your home page is updating with tweets every couple of seconds.  You can’t possibly keep track of it all and you’re missing those real-time updates that were the reason you got excited about Twitter in the first place.  DON’T PANIC.  This is where Lists come in.

Lists allow you to sort the accounts you follow into groups (and ignore those ones you followed just to be friendly and which turned out to be a little bit boring...)

For example, I am interested in writing and news about book awards.  So I have a list of people who tweet interesting things on these topics, which is quite separate from my list of current affairs feeds.  So when I want to see what is going on in the literary world, I click on that list and I see ONLY the tweets from those people I have put in that list. And when I want my 6pm news fix, I can switch to my current affairs list.

Creating a list couldn’t be easier.  Just right-click on a name of someone you follow and you will see an option to <add to / remove from lists>. Select that and you will see the names of lists you have already created, with tick boxes next to them, plus an option to ‘create new list’.

Now you are following lots of interesting people.  What about getting people to follow you?

I made a conscious decision from the start that I wasn’t going to chase the maximum number of followers.  There are apps out there that will automatically follow other accounts for you, so many per day, and weed out those that don’t follow back within a set period. They can ramp up your followers pretty quickly. But I can’t see the point of having ten thousand followers if only ten of them were actually interested in reading what I have to say.  So I focused on interacting with people who were interested in the same issues as I was.  I retweeted things they had to say that I thought were interesting, and I posted stuff I thought they would engage with. It's a slower, more organic process, but one I hope will result in more committed followers - something along the lines of what what Dan Holloway (@agnieszkasshoes) calls ‘A Thousand True Fans.’ I am still a long way from achieving that, but the goal is there.

[Note that it’s possible to use management tools like Hootsuite to schedule tweets in advance, or spread them out.  Be careful, though, about allowing management tools to auto-retweet for you.  The things they choose to retweet may not always be the things you would choose for yourself and it can be shortcut to pissing off your followers.]

Now we come to some of the more interesting, less obvious things about Twitter. We should probably start by talking about hashtags.  Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the last five years, you will have heard people talk about hashtags.  But even people who use Twitter can sometimes be confused about what they are and how to use them.

In essence, hashtags are just a way of making it simpler to search for something. Pick a topic – say the love of reading.  You tweet something interesting about the latest book releases and at the end of the tweet you write #lovereading.  If that hashtag catches on, and lots of other people use it at the end of what they have to say about the latest books, then anyone else will be able to type #lovereading into Twitter’s search box and see a whole load of tweets about books and reading from all kinds of people, whether they follow them or not.

One of the most exciting ways of using hashtags, I think, is in association with live events.  People attending those events can be told to use a particular hashtag (e.g. #LBF13 for the London Book Fair or #ManBooker for the Booker Prize Awards night) and anyone, anywhere can get a blow by blow account of what is happening more or less in real time.  So if you wanted to be, say, the first to know who won the Costa Book Award – you could check out #CostaBookAwards.

Twitter can also be an amazing way of connecting with people you would otherwise have no easy way of contacting. 

Call me old-fashioned, but ‘friending’ someone on Facebook is quite a personal act.  It presumes some prior relationship – or suggests the desire for a future one.  ‘Liking’ a Facebook Author page, on the other hand, is quite a passive act. It places you in the role of ‘fan’.

Twitter on the other hand is both public and egalitarian.  What people say on there is consciously intended for the whole world to see. And it enables its participants to engage with one another on a level playing field.

Essentially, Twitter provides three ways to engage with other users.

As well as retweeting someone else’s tweet (which simply makes their tweet appear in your feed, visible to your followers as well as theirs) you can REPLY.  This creates a conversation thread that links tweets together.  It also sends the originator an alert that someone has responded to their tweet.

By putting their twitter name at the start of a tweet, you can send a tweet to them.  This will appear in the list of tweets in your account, but won’t be automatically shown to those who follow you (or them).

Finally you can send them a direct message (a DM) which can only be seen by you and the recipient. Personally, I am not a fan of unsolicited DMs, but they can be a useful way to follow up privately on a conversation that opened in public.

Because of what I see as the egalitarian nature of Twitter, it can be amazingly easy to connect with figures in the public eye.  Of course, those with thousands upon thousands of followers may sometimes be too busy to respond (though they often do).  But my first connection with Alex Wheatle (@BrixtonBard, author of East of Acre Lane) and Horace Panter (@horacepanterart,  bassist of the Specials), both of whom I interviewed on my blog, came via Twitter.  I didn’t jump right in and ask for an interview.  I followed them first, engaged with what they had to say, waited until they had responded to me a few times so they had some idea who I was.  But it worked! I got my interviews – and much more easily than with others with whom my only point of contact was with their agent.

Finally, people, I need hardly say, that you should not use Twitter to stand on your soap box saying, “My book’s coming out; buy my new book!” Twitter is not about being a market trader on a slow Saturday.  As Alexandra Heminsley (@hemmo) put it at Byte the Book (#bytethebook), it is about ‘creating a generous space around you.’  Be authentic.  Be interesting.  Make connections.

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