It's been almost eight weeks since I gave in and started using Twitter. I had a rapid change of heart from my initial skepticism. For those who've never heard of Twitter, you may just have arrived here from some planet extraterrestrial. For those who have simply refused to give it a shot, I can list a few quick reasons why it might be worth it.
I've used it to rekindle old, lost friendships.
I've used it to promote my personal brand.
I've used it to develop a number of new, fruitful interactions in my field.
I've enjoyed the simple, lighthearted smalltalk and banter that it fosters.
It's nice to get to know people I've known for years on a more personal, human level, catching quick, concise glimpses of their thoughts.
It's also been fascinating to get an interior dialogue of some heroes/mentors/idols. Yes, I follow some "famous" folks. They don't seem to mind. And it's not entirely because of ego. Most of the ones I interact with simply seem to want to share the lessons they've learned--and are in the process of learning--so that others can be successful as well. Now THAT is selflessness. They don't need to do this!
Others have already gone before me and done a fine job of extrapolating more developed reasons to be on Twitter. I won't repeat entire prosaic tomes, but I'll point you to my favorite, Michael Hyatt's "12 reasons to start twittering."
That being said, Twitter can be a nightmare. Twitter is suffering measurable growing pains as it emerges as a trendy tool and a collection of pointless, verbal spew. It's ripe for being abused by spammers (who apparently now prefer the term "viral marketers," a category that apparently also includes...me, which may force me to write an explanatory and apologetic article later). In fact, they've already started abusing it. And the line between victim and culprit is a bit blurred. Like any social networking technology, it's remarkably addictive. And, unmanaged, your own connections can grow into something ugly and uncontrollable. We can accidentally contribute to the problem!
So, I think it's time we pitch some "best practices" for using Twitter. To bring you up to speed on what "best practices" means, keep in mind that emerging technology is based on open source and established standards. Violate the standard, and people probably won't trust what you're doing. It doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It means that you need to lobby to get the standard rewritten to accommodate your invention. But it takes time to get a standards board to revise a document. In the meantime, you want to establish market presence (even for a free product), so an interim document is often offered, a list of "best practices." Put simply, it's good things to do when nobody really knows for sure what to do.
So allow me to assume that if you're reading this you'll probably want to base your practices on the following fundamental assumptions:
We want to avoid receiving spam.
We want to avoid inadvertently contributing to the distribution of spam.
We want to avoid maliciousness.
We want to avoid intentionally or unintentionally facilitating maliciousness.
We want to be relevant.
We want to maximize and capitalize on our awareness of the relevance of others.
It is possible to use Twitter without being a twit. Here's how to do that: Control your follows and followers.
Set up your account appropriately
Here's why we need best practices. Twitter has two basic account settings: public and private. If you set up your account to be private, you protect yourself real well from receiving unwanted followers. Nobody can find you. But this sorta violates the premise of being able to establish, build, maintain, and develop an interactive relevance with others. "Best practices" recognizes that the most effective thing to do may not be the most useful thing to do. So, a "best practice" in the development of online relationships requires us to make those relationships public. That means we now have some subsequent work to do.
When someone adds you, you have three choices on how to respond.
You can do nothing. They will continue to be able to read your account information and any new tweets that you post. You can reciprocate the follow. That will allow you to engage in dialogue and conversation with them. Their followers will see their half of the conversation. Your followers will see yours. Mutual followers will observe the entire conversation. You can block them. They will then be unable to see your contributions, to send you private messages, or to view your profile.
Not everyone who adds you is really a friend.
You know those late-night infomercials that catch you off-guard when you wake up at 3am and realize you left the TV on? In your half-conscious state, some slick, friendly, good-looking and persuasive individual hypnotizes you into picking up the phone. Next thing you know, UPS has delivered three years worth of diet pills. Or tupperware. Or a set of encyclopedias you don't need. Or a lava lamp with a built-in AM/FM radio and a companion garlic chopper and a set of knives that are yours free to keep even if you choose to return the garlic chopper and the lava lamp AM/FM radio which will never work anyway because there's no one in customer support picking up the phone to let you know what address to send the lava lamp radio and garlic chopper to so that you can get your refund. Something like that. Yeah, Twitter's the same way.
Not everyone who adds you is really a person.
Some are entities. Some are corporations, or marketing firms, or "bots" that farm account names for the purpose of spreading malware, or advertising, or phishing schemes to purloin your account information. Some of them make this pretty obvious. To be fair, there are some companies (that identify themselves as such) that I'm interested in following. News. New product releases. Interesting interactive opportunities. Relevant technological organizations. Sure. There are reasons why you might want to do this, on purpose, selectively. Some of them are nasty sneaky about it. We'll get to this in more detail right after the next point.
Sometimes, the owner of a company uses his or her company's name as his or her account name.
Ok, fine, you can do that. Nothing wrong with that. There are a few owners of recruiting firms that I follow. Some of them use their firm's name as their account name. And when I'm looking for work, it's important to maintain contact with them.
Do you know who this is?
When you receive a new follower on Twitter, decide very quickly, Do I know who this person is? If you do (and you trust him or her) by all means, reciprocate the follow. If you don't, consider instantly blocking them from your account. Yes, there's a several step process if you block someone and then change your mind. But the hassle might be worth the control you maintain up front. And yes, I have blocked someone accidentally and recovered from it. And yes, I have probably been blocked inadvertently (Frosene, if you're reading this...it's me!).
Sometimes, I don't know them, but they look interesting.
Ok, let's see how we can find out real quick if they're on the up-and-up. How many followers do they have? If someone is following 1000+ accounts, I'm going to initially suspect that they're on the verge of dispensing fluff. Is anybody (except Ashton Kutcher) really that popular? But seriously. I even dropped Ashton Kutcher (and Demi Moore, and Miley Cyrus) from my follows. Why? Because if I were writing a marketing bot, I'd write it to find accounts that have hundreds and thousands of people in their lists, and farm those account names to add to my own. So if YOUR name appears on the list of an account who's following 10,000 folks for no reason at all, you're probably being added to a whole bunch of internet mailing lists faster than you can say "Kaspersky-compliant spam filter." That being said, there are a few people I follow, selectively, who have well into the tens of thousands of followers. Why? Because I've perused their tweets and I want to be involved with these folks. They're important to me. So judge wisely.
What's their ratio of followers to follows?
After eight weeks on Twitter, I've accumulated a little over a hundred people following me, and a little over 200 people whose "tweets" I'm following. I've observed this 2-to-1 ratio to be relatively consistent amongst my crowd, give or take. So I'm using that as a norm. If someone is following 800 people and only 7 people are following their account, this might say something significant. Consider the prevailing wisdom as a sign. They're either a bot, or they think that they can fabricate popularity...and it's not working.
What's their account name?
It is generally a best practice to set your real name (or some revealing reference to it) as your account name. This is a nice thing to do. It is not essential, but it is remarkably polite. There are a few legitimate reasons not to do this. If their account name is unusual, annoying, offensive, or illegible, think twice. Especially if it's a collection of random characters. That's a tell-tale sign that this account was created by a machine, not a human being. A machine will have nothing interesting, relevant, timely, or practical to offer you. Block.
Check their profile.
No bio? If their bio is nonexistent, what are they hiding?
Does their bio contain the honest but death-wishing phrase "internet marketer?" At least they're admitting it up front. Are they promising the dream of a life of ease, sipping piña coladas on the beach while fortunes are deposited in their bank accounts for them? If you have no reason to want what they're pedaling (or if they don't identify it), I recommend you encourage them to pedal it elsewhere.
Funky web address?
If their URL is a shortened, redirecting, non-descript URL, again, what are they hiding? Don't click on it to find out. You might find yourself where some man has been before. Many times. Many, many times, to quote Blanche Devereaux.
Peruse their lists of follows and followers.
If it's not someone you know, but 40 of your friends are in common, it might be someone you'd like to know. Again, use your wise discretion and judgment.
Is it "Britney?"
If their account description starts with the word "Britney" and ends with the word "vids" and has a naughty word between, BLOCK THEM IMMEDIATELY!! Good Lord I hate that person, whoever it is. And I use the term "hate" lightly in this case.
Consider why they added you.
Were they looking for you? That might be good. Were they looking for ANYONE AT ALL? Ok, not so good. If "number of followers" is your only metric for relevance, by all means, go ahead and add. But don't come crying to me when your inbox becomes clogged with emails asking if you want to see revealing videos of the aforementioned pop star. Best case scenario is this person is an emotional leech. Run. Fast.
Check their tweets.
Do they write in clear English? No, that does not apply if you're looking for friends who all speak Portuguese. I just mean that a random assortment of jargon and abbreviations every 5 to 10 minutes is not going to make for an enjoyable experience.
Was it something you said?
The other day, I retweeted something funny that David Pogue said about chess and kickboxing. Call me paranoid, but I was immediately followed by two chess playing bots. Like I said, I don't like bots with several thousand followers. Other bots are looking for that sort of information to use for "marketing." And Britney. I'm sure she plays chess. She's a semiconductor physicist, after all.
Yes, that link is safe. Yes, I'm pulling your leg.
Anyway, I blocked the chess bots. And I apologized to the friend who "re-tweeted" what I said (because it was funny) and probably received the same two immediate unwanted follows. Apparently, there are bots out there just waiting for you to mention certain terms. Say them, and immediately they figure you're an interested chap.
Same tweet, over and over and over and over and over and over and...
If someone's posting the same tweet (or at least the same hidden link) repeatedly, it's probably a machine just promoting itself at regular intervals. I'd rather hear from human beings.
Protect your identity!
This should be a no-brainer. It isn't. Spence Smith thought it was ok to register his account with a third-party site. Their disclaimer even admitted that they MIGHT occasionally change his status (that is, his most recent tweet). Mr. Smith didn't consider that they would change his status (and the status of the thousands of others who registered) frequently for the purpose of promoting their own choice of product or opinion. Spence changed his password and distanced himself from that service. When you're encouraged to register your account somewhere else, ponder why they would want this information and why you would want to give it to them.
How does a new follower act?
The aforementioned Spence Smith, a few days after his epiphany, tweeted this: "FYI, for [my] new followers: if the first private message I get from you is a marketing message, then I'm unfollowing you. Get to know me first." Wiser words are rarely spoken. Thanks, Spence!
Act urgently and responsibly.
If I don't clear out my new follows right away and block them if they're inappropriate, MY friends are gonna wind up on their lists. I don't want to subject my friends to that! The thing about best practices is that they're emergent and flexible. They're part of a conversation. So if anyone has any questions about these, suggestions, challenges, or additions, the whole community of Twitter users should be all ears. We'll probably never have a standard, really. I'm not sure we'd want an environment for open communications being limited by a rigid set of standards anyway. But let's iteratively make the best set of best practices we can, reform it as necessary, and apply good and wise judgment to make the best experience possible for everyone. Follow me, but you might want to drop me a quick email first so I know who you are. And please, if your first name is Britney, consider changing it.
Tags: Twitter best Practices, Twitter, Rules of Twitter, Tweets, Twitter Profiles, Bots, Twitter users, Follow me, Global Best practice, Global IT News, unfollowing, Twitter rules,