How do you use Twitter?

I was recently asked by a colleague to explain how I use Twitter, whether people reply to appeals for help/contributions, what I’ve learned along the way and how the BBC should use Twitter.

I use Twitter quite a bit. I follow a couple of hundred people who I care about enough to want to know what they’re doing and thinking. Many are good friends while some are people I’m interested in getting to know better.

Other people have described this better than I can. In March 2007, Leisa Reichelt wrote about what she terms Ambient Intimacy

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

More people follow me on Twitter than subscribe to my blog feed (perhaps I’m more interesting when I’m less verbose?) and I mainly use it to share what I’m up to, and sometimes use it to ask for help or advice. Some examples are more serious than others. At the silly end, I once asked Twitter whether any English word rhymes with ‘Gareth’ and got a staggering number of replies, which I collated here. Slightly trivial perhaps but it pleased me no end. More recently, I asked what people thought about O2 as an ISP, because I was considering switching from PlusNet. The results were very useful to me but I was particularly impressed that someone at PlusNet was keeping an eye on people complaining about their service and asked me if I needed help. I’d never have thought to find or follow PlusNet on Twitter but they didn’t need me to; PlusNet keep an eye out for the people they most need to start conversations with directly.

Twitter is, for me, a lot like a highly conversational, lightweight and highly interconnected blog. I don’t think we need additional guidelines or rules for individual BBC employees using it, since the existing ones (here, here and here) are perfectly sufficient.

In terms of how the BBC can use Twitter to support its output, I’d say it only really works when we treat it as a properly conversational tool, not as another place to spew automated feeds. As with blogging, the effective corporate use of Twitter won’t necessarily look very dissimilar to an effective personal use of it. Big Cat Live was done quite well because the team didn’t treat Twitter as a broadcast. They paid attention to people talking back to them and engaged in conversation, answering questions.

This is the year of Twitter going properly mainstream, answering lot of big names have started using it. John Cleese, Jonathan Ross, Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan, Robert Llewellyn and Neil Gaiman are all excellent. Even Britney is on Twitter and her team has done much to improve the transparency of their act since they started.

All of this celebrity interest comes at a cost. The press have started paying attention recently, though (as with blogging a few years ago) they still don’t quite ‘get it’ and there’s plenty of scorn. Matt Sandy and Ian Gallagher at the Mail (‘How boring: Celebrities sign up to Twitter to reveal the most mundane aspect of their lives’), Bryony Gordon at the Telegraph (‘Twittering is for twits with nothing better to do’) and Nick Curtis at the Evening Standard (‘Is Twitter the new Facebook?’) have all missed the point in quite a big way. (Paul Carr, writing at the Guardian, made an amusing and constructive response to that last one). Of course Twitter is full of trivia and inanity but when you’re following people you find interesting, sharing the trivia and small moments in their lives is anything but dull.

17 Comments »

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  1. Really interesting and useful too. I’ve been able to strike something off my to do list as a result. Thanks Roo. ;)

    I’d add Rory Cellan Jones to the list for having established an interesting two way relationship between audience and journalist. He can be found at http://www.twitter.com/ruskin147

    And .. inevitably .. you can find me here http://www.twitter.com/thoroughlygood

    Comment by Thoroughly Good — January 9, 2009 #

  2. Now I’m wondering what I’ve helped you do, Jon.

    Oh yes, there are lots of other good examples of BBC people and programmes on Twitter. Another programme team using it well for the last 3 months is Working Lunch.

    Comment by Roo — January 9, 2009 #

  3. Are you asking how other people use Twitter too, here, Roo? Assuming you’re not, nevertheless, I will reply ;)

    Two things that spring back in to my mind about Twitter with relative regularity are that I am always surprised when explaining the way the venn diagrams work at the awesome simplicity of the model, which nevertheless delivers absolutely and exactly, the right structure to envelope you and your friends, ad infinitum, but keep everyone, individually wrapped in the whole, remaining bubbling away in the background. I know it’s not new, exactly, but it has exploded in to such a vast, shifting sea of burbly updates from around the world, there’s a wonderful feeling of the people within it being those very ‘loosely joined’ entities. Joined by the simplicity of having friends, and musing what’s on your mind. A universal blether! (apart from the spammers, but we’ll ignore them for the purposes of tinking delightful thoughts).

    The other thing is that occasionally I find someone grumping that people shouldn’t use it as an RSS Feed, or shouldn’t use it as a blog. I find that slightly peculiar but interesting. The platform itself has no restrictions, obviously, and different types of users within it are busily gluing together their own social mores about how it should all hang together. Only to discover that everyone else doesn’t quite share your vision. I am subscribed to about 5 news sources one could quizzically suggest would be better coming from an RSS reader. But, you know, I shrug – I look at Twitter more often. It’s more convenient, and the language is friendlier.

    From my usage, NASA has been responsible for one of the most frustratingly bad uses of Twitter, and one of the best. @MarsPhoenix is now a legend, but @NASA has a tendency to post 7 usually clunky press repease burbles at once, thus blitzing half a page, making them individually undesirable and barely readable. It would be relatively easy to shift this in to a readable, brilliant first person news feed. Amusing that 2 accounts emanating from the same organisation are so wildly different.

    On a last note, and particularly relevant to you, Roo – given that @StephenFry is a bit of a bellweather – I can’t imagine his tweets have done anything but good for the show he’s obviously recording right now. For my part, I’m from the “Love ‘em” camp re: his delightfully normal and sometimes slightly rubbish blethers.

    Because slightly rubbish blethers is what it’s all about.

    Comment by Cait — January 12, 2009 #

  4. I should have asked that question, Cait. I actually didn’t want to end yet another post with the cringingly obvious ‘what do you think? / how do you do it?’ question. :-) It was there by implication though, and I’m glad you shared.

    I love the way that it’s not just universal blether but slightly rubbish blether. :-) Marvellous stuff.

    Glad you mentioned @MarsPhoenix too. Your description of it sums up my own feelings precisely. Wonderul and simultaneously frustrating.

    Comment by Roo — January 12, 2009 #

  5. completely agreed to the possibilities of using twitter as a closer-to-realtime-conversation-platform than blogs but w/o the burden of synchronous platforms.

    however I’m still troubled by the enormous burden of trying to actually have a conversation with anyone on twitter. The problem is mostly because of the pure openness of the platform and the fact that you can do pretty much whatever you want on it. It leads to both a good injection of data from anywhere (via phone clients etc), but at the same time leads to the minimalist way of inputting data despite the need to keep topics conversational (everyone @ replies to a response regardless of whether it was the last tweet they are responding to).

    The cultural usage of twitter is ultimately its biggest downfall in really succeeding as a true conversational platform rather than an adhoc’d one built upon a platform that is open enough to be able to somewhat, maybe, sort of support threading. There is a severe tradoff between the simplicity of input and the organization of threading which is yet to be properly balanced (something like plurk can come a bit closer).

    Comment by subdigit — January 13, 2009 #

  6. Interesting points.

    Regarding “everyone @ replies to a response regardless of whether it was the last tweet they are responding to”, I see this a lot, but I think you’re right that it’s down to usage rather than functionality.

    Threading is supported quite nicely, even if the additional magic of hitting ‘reply to’ on a Tweet isn’t as obvious as it could/should be. &in_reply_to_status_id=foo&in_reply_to=bar is there to be used. Client apps can and do help here. I’ve found it helpful to think of Twitter as a (slightly flaky but reasonably open) platform rather than a (very flaky and not even particularly good) website.

    Comment by Roo — January 13, 2009 #

  7. subdigit, I think it’s better to have occasional posts on your blog automatically listing your recent twitters. That way people can have a discussion in the appropriate place for a discussion – blog comments, those who don’t want to use twitter can still keep up with what you’re doing, and you have a nice record under your own control of what you’ve been up to.

    Comment by kyb — January 13, 2009 #

  8. I don’t think it works as a conversation platform. You’re doing the equivalent of shouting your conversation across a crowded room. The platform does clearly echo psychology research on conversation, ie: that people tend to treat conversations as a ping pong of what *they* want to say, rather than listening to the other person’s needs (ie: people will use what someone has said as a lift off point for their own point, rather than embracing the other person’s point wholly).
    What’s interesting is that the premis Twitter itself want the platform to adhere to – basically Status updates, become proto conversations, but these have limits which are imposed by the ego-oriented nature of the ‘statement of self’, regardless of whether it’s represented as a query or not.
    I’m sure recently you noticed the conversation that Clay Shirky and TomC attempted – very much in that mode, but also I would hazard a guess slightly frustrating for everyone else reading. There’s a tipping point prior to which a few replies seem reasonable, but suddenly, it seems intrusive.

    Comment by Cait — January 13, 2009 #

  9. Doh, I just read that middle paragraph. Incomprehensible! That’s what happens when you write in to a tiddly window – you can’t see what you wrote.

    Comment by Cait — January 13, 2009 #

  10. Just for you (and anyone else who writes more than a tiny amount of text), I shall make the comment window bigger tonight. I like long and thoughful comments and it’s very annoying when text fields are too small.

    Comment by Roo — January 13, 2009 #

  11. I thought you were trying to force us to micro-comment :-)

    Comment by kyb — January 13, 2009 #

  12. i heart twitter. The inane blether that streams from my feed is what I find so comforting. Oh and roo I can’t reply to our delightful exchange about the price of crisps just now because twitter thinks that you’re not following me thus I’m forbidden to direct message a non-follower.

    This is of course reflects an awkward twitter social question:
    should you follow someone who follows you? @stephenfry follows me, as does @innocentdrinks and the lovely @dangermain but @russelldavis does not. I think I’ve been booted off of @russelldavis’s followers as a result of his recent cull. Don’t blame him, I only twitter about tea and nonsense. Not even my own creative director @floheiss follows me. Poor me.

    Sometimes I think that twitter is lying – my meatspace friends tell me that they indeed follow me, but twitter claims they don’t. Mmmm. Who’s lying?

    Anyway Roo – my crisps were delicious , credit crunch crisps :-)

    Comment by lydslikestea — January 13, 2009 #

  13. I heard a thing this week: “Facebook is about people you used to know; Twitter is about people you’d like to know better”, Ivor Tossell.

    Following you now Lydia. Why not.

    …and Cait, the comment box is now 500 of Her Majesty’s pixels wide. I think that’s better. Hopefully someone will let me know if it’s stopped working on IE4 or Safari-on-an-iPhone or whatever.

    Comment by Roo — January 13, 2009 #

  14. Surely a use for Twitter within the BBC would be to monitor audience feedback. For example of a programe or news item is broadcast you can catch what people are saying about it using the Twitter search API. For example go to the Search and click on advanced search and type in something BBC’ish errrm like eastenders. Hey presto this is what the audience are saying.

    I heard Apple deploy similar method to find out what customers are saying about their products. They got ahead of the ‘iPod Screen Scratch’ problems in a similar way.

    Ian
    @veilandtrain

    Comment by Ian — January 19, 2009 #

  15. You mean something like this?

    Comment by Roo — February 7, 2009 #

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