Is there a right way to use Twitter? | March 5, 2011

There are a handful of people who follow me on Twitter who continually moan about the way I use the service. Some complain when I tweet about what Iíve eaten, who Iíve met or what Iíve done that day. Others complain when I use Gowalla or Foursquare to announce my location or post a stream of consciousness on a topic that is currently bugging me.

An obvious reaction is to remind those people that nobody is forcing them to follow me and they can easily unfollow if they donít like what Iím saying. In fact, I have done just that on several occasions.

However Twitter is an unusual hybrid of public discussion and private conversation. In fact itís not unlike being at a cocktail party with friends.

At a good cocktail party there is sufficient background buzz for people can feel they are having a semi-private conversation. However the volume is low enough that people can shift easily from one conversation to another. If one person or group is being too loud or courting too much publicity, it can be seen as being rude.

The difference between Twitter and a cocktail party is that a typical party will have a single host. With Twitter everybody is simultaneously both guest and host. As such many people can’t feeling that they have some right to dictate terms or influence the behaviour of others.

As a content creator I sometimes view Twitter as a microblogging tool. On other occasions itís a discussion board, a link sharing tool or location broadcast mechanism. Itís Wordpress, delicious, Foursquare and a raft of other services all rolled into one. In fact I think the very strength of Twitter is its flexibility. So it is defined by its users and its usage, not by its functionality or a strict set of rules and behaviours.

Twitter is also beautifully emergent. So the way I used Twitter 3 years ago is different to the way I use it now. Was my usage right 3 years ago and wrong now? Obviously this is a stupid and reductionist question and one that doesnít deserve an answer.

I think things get more complicated when you view Twitter from the perspective of a follower. By choosing to follow a person you are giving them some kind of patronage. In a time of dwindling attention, this is very flattering and something that shouldít be abused or squandered. I think this is the crux of peoples frustrations with my Twitter usage style.

There are some things I talk about which are of interest to certain people. There are other things which are not. There is an understanding that users will continue to patronise you if the quality of signal is in balance with the level of noise. A high frequency signal and youíre considered a good citizen. Too much noise and people start to get annoyed. Some will leave immediately and thatís fine. However others will become frustrated, thinkingÖ ďI really like some of what this person has to say but the rest is uninteresting or irrelevant to me.Ē

The difficulty is, with several thousand followers itís very difficult to provide value to everybody. Some people follow me because they have read my book, heard me talk or are familiar with my work. Others follow me because weíve met in person and are interested in my personal life.

When Iím conscious of the people following me I tend to split my tweets evenly between people I know and people I donít know. This may feel like a raw deal for each group, but thatís the nature of the beast.

The problem is that most of the time Iím not tweeting for a particular audience. Instead, much like my blogging, Iím tweeting for myself. So a lot of the time I donít mind if 15 or 15,000 people see what Iím saying. Itís personal, itís selfish and Iím fine with that.

As I described earlier, there is an interesting sense of entitlement that comes through following somebody on Twitter. With that comes a level of annoyance if that person is wasting your time with personal, irrelevant nonsense. Howeverówith my early caveats about being a good citizen asideó that really is more your problem than mine.

So dear Twitter followers, I will try to respect your patronage and provide you with useful information and tidbits when I can. However my Twitter account is largely personal and I will use it in the way I see fit. Not to any one person’s timetable, agenda or individual sense of etiquette. I’ll aim to protect the commons without pandering to the gallery.

Similarly I will respect the way that you choose to communicate on Twitter and wonít criticise you publicly or privatly. Iíll reserve to right to unfollow you on occasion. However please donít take that as a personal judgement. I will still love you and will almost certainly refollow you at some later date. What I wonít do is judge you on your use of the medium. After all itís the Internet and its greatest strength is as a mechanism for self expression.

Posted at March 5, 2011 7:29 PM


Dominik said on March 5, 2011 9:22 PM

Talking about twitter - your twitter link in the footer is broken.

Andy Budd said on March 5, 2011 10:04 PM

Thanks Dominik, should be fixed now.

Mel Tajon said on March 6, 2011 2:25 AM

We all have multiple social graphs, e.g. childhood friends, coworkers, local friends, business contacts, etc. These days, there is a different social network to accommodate for each one of these social graphs.

Personal friends? Got ‘em on Facebook.
Colleagues and business contacts? Got ‘em on LinkedIn.
Friends that enjoy my food pics? Instagram.
Local friends that wanna know where the party is at? Foursquare.

Have you ever considered having two separate Twitter accounts? One that is for professional topics and the other for personal tweeting…kinda like having a Facebook Profile for personal friends and a Facebook Page for fans.

It’s something that I started doing because I realized that most of my personal friends don’t have an interest in my professional/geek side. The few friends of mine that are interested? They’ll follow both of my accounts. And the few times that a tweet overlaps both social graphs? I’ll tweet it on one and retweet it on the other.

To me, the same fundamental rules applies to both blogging/microblogging and public speaking — know your audience.

Mark said on March 6, 2011 6:57 PM

“After all itís the Internet and its greatest strength is as a mechanism for self expression.”

Hear Hear!

Andy Budd said on March 7, 2011 11:44 AM

Thanks for the comments folks.

Yes, I have considered having different Twitter accounts. However as somebody who loves their job, there is a big overlap between my work and social life. As such I think I’d have trouble context shifting or deciding which of the two accounts was most appropriate. Also I think that personality matters in this industry. So there are a number of people who follow me as much for my online identity as for the useful links I post. So I wouldn’t want my public profile to lose some of that flavour.

Inigo Villalba said on March 18, 2011 2:40 PM

I’ve actually ended up with two twitter accounts, one for all things web & design related in which I follow related tweets. The other my personal page with just friends where I basically tweet all kind of non sense :D