Are you using Twitter yet? Do come along. I first mentioned Twitter on this blog a couple of years ago, though it has been around since 2006. Not that you would know that from mainstream press coverage in the UK, which has recently jumped on it as ‘The Latest New Thing’. But despite sneering accusations of bandwaggon-jumping from the geek classes, I do think Twitter is worth a look. The fact that user numbers have exploded in the last few months makes this a good place to be. As with any social media tool, if your market is using it, so should you.
Many of you clearly are tweeting already, since we currently have around 2,300 followers of @publishingtalk and 1,300 followers of @publishingjobs. For those who haven’t yet dipped a toe in the collective stream of consciousness that is the Twitterverse, it seems a bit of a mad idea. What IS it exactly?
If you use Facebook, you’ll be familiar with status updates. That’s really all Twitter is – the status update bit of Facebook. You can say what you’re doing in 140 characters or less – the same length as a text message. In fact, you can update your status (or ‘tweet’) from wherever you are by sending a text. People ‘follow’ you on Twitter (as opposed to becoming a ‘friend’ on Facebook or MySpace), and you can follow people who interest you. You can also easily unfollow people, and only make your tweets visible to people who you pre-approve if you wish. You can see all the updates from people you follow in a timeline, as they happen. You can do this on Twitter itself – but about half of users rarely visit the site, instead using a desktop widget – a little window that sits on your desktop and allows you to see a running ticker of your friends’ updates. Several are available. I use Twitterific on my Mac.
The ‘Latest New Thing’
But why has this 3-year old platform taken off in the last few months? I blame Jonathan Ross. Forrester figures estimated 4-5m Twitterers in November 2008, a year in which user numbers multiplied fivefold. But since @wossy (156,886 followers) went into Twitter overload during his 3-month suspension from the BBC, and got all his celeb mates to join in, it has exploded further – helped by the press interest this has generated. The celeb leading the pack, however, with the most followers is @stephenfry (323,351), who famously got stuck in a lift and posted a picture of his predicament to twitpic.
It’s understandable why, in today’s celebrity culture, this influx of the famous has led to a scramble for Twitter: Twitterers suddenly have a direct connection with celebs. It’s not even one step removed – you can have a conversation with many of these people, should you wish. Yes, some accounts are managed by their PRs. But you’d be surprised how many really are tweeting themselves. Many more, I suspect, than maintain their own Facebook pages. I follow quite a few of them myself – particularly comics, such as @alancarr, who tend to post wonderfully witty tweets.
It’s not all laughs though. The news of the Hudson River plane crash first broke on Twitter, when one of the rescuers took a picture and uploaded it to twitpic.
Ways to use Twitter
So how do you use Twitter as an author or publisher? You can use it in the traditional way, to post updates about what you’re doing. For me, Twitter is useful as a news service to keep me current. It’s one of those things that becomes more or less useful depending on who you choose to follow. I follow a lot of social media people, who often tweet from conferences they’re attending, or links to interesting new social media tools or news. I also follow a number of publisher’s Twitter accounts, which keeps me up to date on interesting things they might be doing with social media. Some publishers use it as a news release service to tell followers about latest publications. I think that’s an acceptable use for Twitter (unlike a blog). I also follow my friends – it’s just an efficient way to keep in touch with business, professional and personal news.
Tweets are most useful when they include a relevant link to something useful or interesting. NB they are NOT useful when you end every tweet, on any subject, with a link back to the homepage of your blog or website. People expect your links to be relevant to your tweet. Links are often automatically reduced to a tinyurl, so the source isn’t always apparent. Asking people to visit your site, whether or not it has been updated since your last tweet, and whether or not it is relevant to your tweet, is just crying wolf.
When it comes to tweeting myself, I have several accounts. My personal one, @jonreed, is about whatever I’m up to. It also integrates with Facebook, so that my Twitter updates become my Facebook status updates.
But I confess I use @publishingtalk mostly as an automatic news feed for this blog. Some people think this isn’t a great way to use Twitter. I think it’s fine, since I follow many such Twitter accounts, such as @thedigitalist, and find them a useful news service. I do sometimes add extra updates to it – but most are automatically generated. Whenever a new post publishes, it automatically tweets to @publishingtalk with a link back to the original post. That’s probably how some of you came to read this post. Any comments on blog posts also get tweeted automatically. And job ads from @publishingjobs are automatically re-tweeted to @publishingtalk.
Anyone can do this, by associating your blog with your Twitter account with a free service called twitterfeed. I’ve done very little to promote @publishingtalk, apart from a link on this blog. Most people will have come across it with a keyword search for ‘publishing’ on Twitter. That’s the beauty of social media – provide useful content, make it findable, and you will build an audience. You too can do this. It’s quick, it’s free, it’s effective.
There are other ways authors can make use of Twitter, including Twitter novels – something that some have experimented with, with varying degrees of success. But the most compelling Twitter fiction I’ve come across recently is a couple of spoof accounts: @juliememeson and @jeremypacman. I urge you to have a look, and enjoy their joyous Who Moved My Blackberryness. Are they looking for a book deal? I don’t know, but they’re having a lot of fun.
Your online support group
Writing can be an isolating experience. Any form of social media can provide a virtual watercooler, and workplace social interaction otherwise missing from your office. If you follow other writers, you can also ask your online community for help and advice – and people seem very willing to help out on Twitter. I offer advice where I can, but I also ask for it. Sometimes I ask for geek help such as “do you know of a WordPress plugin that does X?”. But I, too, am writing a book, and recently asked for suggestions for somewhere to get away for a week to focus on some writing. I had a brilliant suggestion from a fellow writer within hours.
Twitter jargon – the only three things you need to know
There’s a whole lexicon of shorthand that has evolved to help you make the most of your 140 characters or less. You’ll soon catch on to the grammar once you start following people. But here are the thee most useful:
@ creates a hyperlink to another Twitterer. When you mention a fellow Twitterer in your tweet, use @ and their Twitter name, such as @jonreed and it becomes a link to their Twitter page. If you start a tweet with, say, @jonreed, it is considered a reply to that person – albeit one that is seen publicly. Replies don’t get fed into Facebook updates, but they may into other services such as FriendFeed. If you want to message someone privately, there is a ‘direct message’ (DM) function.
RT means ‘re-tweet’. If you want to pass on a tweet, for example the one that will be generated from this post, you would start your tweet “RT @publishingtalk:” and then repeat the tweet. Another way of doing this, particularly for passing on links, is to tweet something and end with “(via @publishingtalk)”, or whoever the original link is from, assuming you want to give them credit for it.
# is a hashtag, used to group tweets together by topic. This causes much confusion, and is something people are asking me about a lot at the moment. It’s actually quite simple. Let Mari Smith explain it all for you in this little video:
So there you have it. When Stephen Fry was stuck in a lift, he was stuck with 100,000 people following his every frustration on Twitter. The hashtag #frylift helped people find the conversation. #hudsoncrash helped people follow the news in real time, updated by a mass of Twitterers as the details were pieced together.
Hashtags work well for conferences. #toc was used for Tools of Change in New York recently. If any of you are going to the London Book Fair in a few weeks, and tweeting from seminars on your laptops, Blackberries and iPhones, include a hashtag to help others follow you. This might be #londonbookfair. Maybe #libf. There’s no correct tag, you don’t register it anywhere – you just make it up. But the most popular one will evolve, and maybe even become a ‘trending topic’ on the Twitter Search page.
Now you know all about Twitter, have a go. The best way to learn about any form of social media is to use it. Good luck – and see you in the Twitterverse soon!