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Twitter tips - John C. Kirk

Jun. 9th, 2011

03:10 am - Twitter tips

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Here are some techniques to effectively engage with people via social networking. I'd like to start by saying "Aargh, no, not the face!"

Ok, this is actually supposed to be useful advice rather than mindless buzzwords. In particular, I shall avoid using the C-word in this post. I've been using Twitter for a couple of years; as with Facebook, I mainly signed up so that I can keep up to date with what my friends are doing, so I don't "tweet" very often. Each tweet is limited to 140 characters (like a text message), so I prefer blogging, where I can be more verbose.

Looking at other people's tweets, I think there are some situations that could be handled better. These aren't necessarily mistakes, and I realise that people may be limited by the client application that they use, but it's something to bear in mind. (Personally, I use the website for everything.)

1. Retweeting.

Sometimes I see a tweet and I want to share it with my friends; it might be an interesting link, a funny joke, or a useful announcement. Twitter have an API function for this, and it keeps the original tweet intact. For instance, if you follow me, you'll have seen these tweets recently:


The bottom two are things that I wrote. The top one came from Kurt Busiek, so you might be surprised to see it in your feed, but you can then see that I retweeted it.

Before this new API came along, the older method was to copy/paste and put "RT" at the start. In this case, I'd tweet:
"RT @KurtBusiek: When I was a child I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but now that I am a man I shall dress as a bat and make war on criminals."

Some people still do that now, but there are a few downsides:

a) The new tweet gets longer. In this example, the original tweet had 139 characters, so it was 1 character under the limit. If I tried to post the "RT" version then I'd run out of space.

b) With the API, you know that the quoted bit actually came from the other person. By contrast, I could post "RT @foobar: I like killing kittens" which would unfairly incriminate @foobar.

c) All of my tweets are public, but some people restrict their tweets to their friends. If you use the API, it won't let you retweet a "protected" tweet. If you copy/paste everything, you might not notice the padlock, and then you'd be exposing information that was supposed to be secret.

d) People who follow me may also follow the person who posted the original tweet. That's particularly likely if you have a circle of friends or if it came from a celebrity. If you use the API, people will only see the tweet once, along with a list of anyone who's retweeted it. By contrast, if people put "RT" at the start then you could wind up with a list of tweets like this:

10:02, Baz: "RT @Foo: Mmm, pie."
10:01, Bar: "RT @Foo: Mmm, pie."
10:00, Foo: "Mmm, pie."

This gets a bit tedious, and my friends won't thank me for spamming them.

e) I used to get emails that had been forwarded around the internet by various people (e.g. virus hoaxes), and sometimes I'd have to scroll down 10 pages to actually find the message after all the headers. Similarly, if you put "RT @foo: RT @bar: RT @baz: Mmm, pie" then most of that is overhead.

2. Replying to other people.

If you want to reply to someone else's tweet, you can put their username at the start. E.g.

12:05, Bar - "@Foo I saw it last night, it was good."
12:01, Foo - "Has anyone seen the new Jack Slater film yet?"

If I follow both people, I will see both tweets. If I only follow Bar, I won't see either tweet.

Sometimes people omit that step, so you get messages like this:

12:05, Bar - "I saw it last night, it was good."
12:01, Foo - "Has anyone seen the new Jack Slater film yet?"

From Bar's point of view, that looks fine. However, it may look a bit odd to other people. For instance, suppose that I only follow Bar, and don't follow Foo. I would then just see this tweet in isolation:

12:05, Bar - "I saw it last night, it was good."

That will leave me a bit baffled. What did you see? You may even be replying to my question, but I can't be sure.

Even if I do follow both Foo and Bar, I probably also follow other people, and they may post tweets in between. This can have unfortunate implications, e.g.

12:05, Bar - "I saw it last night, it was good."
12:03, Baz - "This is terrible, I just heard that the orphanage burnt down."
12:01, Foo - "Has anyone seen the new Jack Slater film yet?"

Really, this is the opposite of the retweet issue; it assumes that everyone else sees exactly the same as you.

3. Crossposting to Facebook.

If I tweet something then I'll typically set it as my Facebook status as well. I do this manually (using copy/paste), but other people do it automatically. There are a few drawbacks to the automatic method:

a) No context. As I mentioned above, Twitter hides replies if I don't follow the person that they're addressed to; that way, you don't wind up listening to half a conversation. However, automatic crossposting will copy everything, so you will see someone's Facebook status that says "@Foobar: LOL!" This is pretty useless.

b) If you're replying to someone else's message, they may also be crossposting between Facebook and Twitter. In that case, it would make sense to reply to their status update, i.e. put your comment on their wall rather than yours. However, you should also consider whether you really need to reply to them in both places. I only crosspost because I know people on Twitter who aren't on Facebook and vice-versa, but if someone's on both sites then they'll see my message wherever I post it.

c) Facebook (theoretically) uses real names rather than usernames. So, on Twitter you might say "I had a fun evening at the pub with @Foobar". On Facebook, it would be better to say "I had a fun evening at the pub with Foosworth Barrington". (Tip: if you type @ in the Facebook status when you start typing their name then it will link to their profile.)

d) Twitter uses "hashtags", e.g. the screenshot at the top shows #end2end in my tweets. The idea is that you can click the tag and it will show you other tweets on the same theme. (Sorry for the illiterate spelling, but I wanted to match what other cyclists were using.) However, Facebook doesn't do this, so there's no point copying the hashtag across.

e) Sometimes you need to use multiple tweets, if you exceed the character limit. However, Facebook has a longer limit (420 characters), equivalent to 3 tweets. So, you can merge multiple tweets together into a single status update. That way, you won't be pushing other stuff off the news feed.

4. Long tweets.

Sometimes it's difficult to fit everything into a single tweet. One solution is to use multiple tweets, but it works best if each one stands alone. In particular, each one should be a complete sentence, rather than having a single sentence spread across two separate tweets.

So, this is good:

10:02, Foo: "Tip of the day - if your picnic involves canned food, don't leave the can opener at home."
10:01, Foo: "Today I went out to the countryside and had a picnic with some friends."

This is less good:

10:02, Foo: "the can opener at home."
10:01, Foo: "Today I went out to the countryside and had a picnic with some friends. Tip of the day - if your picnic involves canned food, don't leave"

There are some tweet lengthening services, e.g. Deck.ly. These put the start of the tweet onto Twitter, along with a link to the rest of it. Apparently if you use TweetDeck then it will automatically merge everything back together. However, if you don't use it then you have to click a link to see the end of the message, which is a nuisance, particularly if it happens several times.

If you're only just over the limit, my advice is to use multiple tweets. If it would take more than 3 tweets, it's better to write it elsewhere (e.g. a blog post) and then just post a link on Twitter.

I've tried to avoid singling out anyone for criticism, but here's an example that demonstrates a few of the points I've mentioned:


Townley and Bradby posted a top 10 list, where each item had its own tweet. Magnificent Revolution retweeted this list, but they initially did this by putting "RT" at the start of each line. This meant that they ran out of space, so I had to click a link to read all of item 6 then click another link to read all of item 7. By the time they got to point 8 they used the API instead, which looks a lot neater. In this case, I think it would have been better to put the whole list on a single web page, then do a single tweet that linked to it.

Ultimately, everyone can choose how they want to handle their own feeds, and I'm not going to stop following anyone just because I'd do things differently. Still, hopefully this is useful to someone.