[Originally published at Slaw.ca, February 26, 2015]
Social media is a coursing flow of data and information. Twitter’s own output is known as the firehose for obvious reasons. You can tap into that volume to monitor an event or person, making the flow more manageable. To do so, you need to understand what you are looking for and how to avoid missing it.
There are some basic ways to follow a topic on Twitter. The most common is the hashtag – placing a pound sign # in front of a term – and Twitter converts those into a clickable link. Hashtags have a few drawbacks. First, everyone has to agree on what it is. Then everyone has to use it. You can also search for a keyword and, using the advanced search, narrow it to specific accounts and, if the tweets use location information, the geographic area from which they’re sent.
Watch Twitter Users with Lists
It’s inefficient to run these searches repetitively so you want to save what you’re doing. Take , for example, the 2015 election for the Law Society’s Convocation. If you are interested in seeing what candidates say, you can create a Twitter list, adding each candidate to the list (here’s mine). The nice thing about lists is that you don’t follow the list members. They’re notified when they’re added to a list but you don’t have to have the social awkwardness of unfollowing them when you’re finished with the list.
A list can help you grab what an individual says themselves. It won’t help you see what other people are saying about those individuals. This is because of a nuance in Twitter usage: if you start a tweet with a person’s Twitter name, it only appears in the timeline of that person and people who follow both of you.
In order to capture the discussions of both the election candidates themselves and discussions involving their usernames, you need to fall back to the search box. Just search for @username OR @username OR @username …. You can see that a search where the @username is a keyword returns tweets including other people’s interactions.
You can save the search in Twitter (see the Save link at the top of the search). When you click your mouse pointer on Twitter’s search box the next time, your saved searches are listed.
One benefit of following participants using search instead of lists is that you can supplement the @usernames with regular keywords. What if I wanted to follow general discussions related to the bencher election as well?
@username OR @username… OR bencher
Keywords are tricky. But they can be better than a hashtag because not everyone uses hashtags and a keyword search will unearth both the term with a # in front of it as well as without. Your noise ratio will substantially increase – adding bencher will bring in sports tweets and parliamentary references – but it will improve the likelihood you’ll see what you want.
If there are terms that regularly appear that you know you don’t want to see, you can filter them out. If it is a person, and they appear in your search results, you can click on their username and mute them. Twitter tools like the open source Android app Twidere or iOS/Android app Hootsuite allow you to apply filters to your saved searches to block particular keywords. I use the Larry Filter in my Web browser (Chrome | Firefox ) to filter directly on Twitter’s Web site.
Offload Your Monitors
You’ll probably have noticed already what can be an annoyance: to do the things I’ve described, you can find yourself tied to a single tool or Web site. I used to use Topsy’s free service because it offered RSS feeds of searches, but they only offer free e-mail alerts. Twitter now has widgets that can allow you to convert your searches into re-usable content.
Click on your profile photo at the top of Twitter’s site and go to Settings. At the bottom, click on the Widgets option to create a re-usable element. Once created, you have HTML that can be pasted into a Web site (like a law firm intranet or your public-facing Web site).
That’s not all, though. Once you have a widget created in Twitter, you can re-use it in so many places. There are tutorials on how to send the widget’s output to a Google script to convert it into an RSS feed. You might send the results to your Yahoo! Pipes account and further tweak, filter, and combine multiple searches or feeds into a single output.
You can also send a search to trigger services like If This Then That. When your search matches, it will trigger an action you configure. I often use IFTTT when following a hashtag, shooting the matching tweet into a spreadsheet on Google Drive. That way, I can return to the spreadsheet whenever I want, filter out retweets or other noise, and quickly see what was shared.
If you have a Twitter account, it is easy to convert the firehose into a garden hose when you want to watch a person or topic. Tools like search and lists can help but you can also make sure you direct the hose output to your tool of choice for more efficient research.