Female Mallard by acrylicartist at Morguefile.com

Twitter is One of My Research Tools

Information is like a river that is always flowing past me. Or perhaps it would be better to describe it as rivulets, many of which I ignore because they don’t interest me or have applicability. I was a late adopter of Twitter, having used it for about a year out the 5 years it has been available. I have finally started to come to grips with how best to use it.

There are a lot of sites that measure the quality of Twitter users, like Klout or Peerindex.  I can’t say that has been very useful to me, which may be as much that I don’t understand their measurements.  There are also plenty of sites that tell you how to use Twitter, the etiquette, and so on.

One approach to it is to follow a large number of people, from the perspective that one you follow will follow you back.  But then you get their lifestreams flowing past you.  I found that even adding people who I know have interesting information to share but also share substantial minutiae made Twitter less useful for me.

My general guidelines are

  • look at the profiles of people who are referenced in the Twitter messages I receive, to determine whether to follow them too.  This has led me to follow lawyers and others in the UK, Australia, and people in other subject areas that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.
  • follow most people who follow me, unless they are high volume tweeters.  If they post heavily, then it drowns out the other posts that I read.
  • follow only people who are sending references to other resources.  If I need pithy or heartfelt quotes, I can typically find them in a book of quotations.  Following people who share what they have found creates a huge web of extra information I can access quickly, leading me to new RSS feeds or just the one-off resource I would not have discovered through my normal filtered reading.
  • In most cases, unfollow people who are at conferences and are live tweeting the sessions.  I will usually note down the hash tags for the conference and follow up later.  One good way that works for me is to immediately do a search in Twitter on the hash tag, then save the search for later.
  • I don’t follow friends or (most) relations.  Twitter for me is a work tool, not a personal tool.  I try not to include personal references either, although occasionally I slip.  I enjoy many of the ones that others share in their streams, in moderation!

There are lots of better tools to use than Twitter (like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck or Seesmic) but social media is verboten in our organization.  So I am unable to access those sites without getting senior manager approval and I haven’t found the pressure to do so yet.

These tools make it much easier to follow keywords and aggregate lists of people.  In fact, you may find that you identify people (or people identify you) who are not in your follower network.  A keyword search, saved, will pull messages from across the Twitter environment.  Outside Twitter, you can keep all of those information streams open simultaneously.

I try to follow my own guidelines, to be the kind of tweeter who I would want to follow.  Most of my posts are references to things I come across.  I use Bit.ly to shorten the URLs, and that gives me a nice measurement tool.  It lets me know whether the items that I share are clicked/read by my followers.  Things that get no clicks are the sorts of things I won’t share in the future.  I don’t want to create unnecessary noise for anyone else either!

As with other social networks, you can’t take it personally when someone does or doesn’t follow you.  Everyone has different criteria – some have no criteria but appear to be spammers – and you should remember to focus on how you benefit from it.  I tend to err on the side of ignoring my followers, and trying to maximize my sources.

There are many, more savvy users of Twitter, who follow thousands of people and are followed by thousands.  There are those who have strict ratios of follower to followed to show quality.  I try to skim all of the posts coming through, focusing more on some than others.  I prune when I see a source changing how they use Twitter.  Someday I will use Tweetdeck or Seesmic to better manage the flow but for now it works fine and I have learned about lots of relevant information I could not have located on my own.