Twitter etiquette: reading between the lines

I’ve never been one for the top ten do’s and don’ts of twitter. And there’s been a proliferation of these lists of late. But rather than dismiss them out of hand, as I have been, I decided this morning to look some of them up. What I found was actually kind of interesting, maybe not for the insights, tips, suggestions, and advice given, but for what it all meant.

In addition to practical tips and suggestions for how to use twitter, we might perhaps glean some insights into what twitter is, or has become. Do’s and dont’s are written by users, after all, and as such can tell us a bit about what each user thinks twitter is. We can also learn a bit about how different people believe twitter should be used, and what it’s good for. We can also see some of twitter’s evolution into a mainstream media tool, and in many cases learn about how industries and professions, marketing and branding particularly, suggest twitter be used.

My survey was unscientific and somewhat arbitrary. I googled twitter tips and etiquette, and clicked through to the top results. What I noticed first was an emphasis on writing tweets over reading tweets. Most tips concern writing techniques. This might seem obvious, but it tells us that most tips are written by active twitter users. Perhaps the tips for reading supplied by lurkers are just more difficult to find; perhaps active twitterers are more likely to want to tell others how to tweet. Given the social media industry’s somewhat inconsistent embrace of the “art of listening,” however, I found it somewhat telling that most of the tips involve how to talk.

How to talk is in fact interesting, because many lists of do’s and don’ts include the reminder that twitter is conversational, and that good tweeting is conversational tweeting. This strikes me as a wee bit odd, given that there’s some cognitive dissonance for me in being told that twitter is conversational, alongside nine other suggestions about how to talk. Either twitter is not conversational (and thus we need tips), or we don’t yet know how to conversational, or conversation is something we can control (which would hardly be conversational).

Twitter is, like any social media tool, what you make of it. So it’s illuminating to see what others make of it, by reading their to do’s. Not surprisingly, common perspectives include:

  • Twitter is a branding medium, in which you can control your message by staying on point, avoiding personal tone and content, offering followers value and utility, attending regularly, practicing generosity, and so on.
  • Twitter is for building an audience, through which you can achieve individual or personal brand success, build a following, get retweeted, establish expertise within your niche, drive traffic to your blog, connect with peers, and so on.
  • Twitter is an open social space, in which you can find both interesting content and interesting people, wherein etiquette, reciprocity, mutual recognition and other common social conventions can help to sustain the experience for all, contribute to a common good, and resist commercialization.
  • Twitter is a personal social tool, an extension of blogging and open form of slow chat, a means for staying in touch, coordinating one’s social life, discovering and meeting new people, and maintaining online presence.

Here are a few examples:

Twitter Etiquette: Five Dos and Don’ts

“You should only follow people who you trust, you think are interesting, or that you learn from,” says Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang), a senior Forrester analyst who researches social technologies and keeps a blog on Web strategy.

“It’s like wandering around at a cocktail party,” Boyd says. “You don’t just want to hang out with people you only know well. Pick ten of your friends who are using Twitter, follow them, and then pick ten of their friends and follow them. You can always drop people and add new ones.”

Also, if you’re just getting started, it’s not recommended that you start following the more celebrity accounts or power Twitter users who tweet a lot, says says Laura Fitton (@pistachio), who runs Pistachio Consulting, which advices businesses on how to utilize Twitter. “They’ll dominate your stream,” Fitton says, whose Pistachio account has more than 18,000 followers. “I say follow me on RSS instead, which is an option on Twitter.”

And some of the tips include:

  • Be Up Front About Your Twitter Aspirations
  • Be Personal (to a point)
  • Reciprocate Gracefully

10 Twitter Etiquette Rules

  • Remember, Twitter is a conversation.
  • Ask questions; don’t just pontificate.
  • Transparency is vital — just as with any other social media.

Twitiquette: 10 Twitter Etiquette Tips to Get and Keep Followers

  • Stick to the Topic
  • Be Original
  • Hold Your Tongue
  • Keep It Brief

Digging down a little deeper, we can distinguish between different kinds of suggestions. I think all of these are valid, and mean no disrespect in drawing them out. I merely wish to offer these as observations, as none of us here are fools, and knowing something about an author’s perspective can be useful in placing his or her advice into context.

  • Suggestions based on what twitter is
  • Suggestions based on how twitter works
  • Suggestions based on what to say
  • Suggestions based on how to behave
  • Suggestions based on how to achieve results

In comparing these perspectives, we see that there are of course different ways of measuring the utility, purpose, service, functionality (technically and socially), normative conventions, benefits, and strategies of tweeting. If twitter were youtube, we could imagine these lists as comprising of recommendations for how to create good videos. By analogy, we’d expect recommendations on whether or not to talk into the camera, whether to fix it or use handheld, whether to conduct interviews or shoot first person confessions, whether to edit and produce or keep it real and authentic — and so on.

What I found little of, and which bothers me a little, is advice on how to be creative, and how to communicate with relationships in mind. I don’t know if this is because that kind of advice would be pure speculation and conjecture, or if it’s because most to do lists are pretty simplistic and common-sensical. It would be nice to hear from some folks how twitter can offer more than just a means to personal status and “strategic” results. It would be nice to see ideas around content creation (story telling?), how to be helpful, how to use questions to elicit interesting responses, and how to sustain audience interest over time.

Few of the tips suggest that twitter is a community, for example. Perhaps this says something about twitter, or perhaps it just indicates that we tend to emphasize individual benefits first and foremost. It could easily be that many of the lists seek to help newcomers and to offer guidelines for how best to use twitter in ways that avoid common pitfalls or which address some of its socially uncertain and ambiguous attributes (follow, @reply, auto follow, dm, etc). And few of the suggestions take into account the attention economy on twitter: the emphasis is on getting attention, not giving it, and success is cloaked in personal benefits over communal or social results.

We overlook the simple fact that if all of us just use twitter to talk, then who’s doing the listening? To that end, it seems there might be an opportunity for social media “experts” to make some suggestions as to how to carry on conversation, how to sustain interactions, how to unfold and deepen exchanges and extend twitter through third party applications and feed aggregators to make more of it than is obtained in 140 character message bites. I’d like to see a few tips on how to respond, for example. Where to respond (on twitter, in facebook, on friendfeed?). Or how about debating differences — there’s a lot of affirmation on twitter and little high-quality debate: there’s an obvious element of etiquette at play here, but if the medium is to be truly conversational, then surely it ought to be good for debate. (Somebody start a debate format!)

There’s a lot I haven’t covered here, including search and findability, hashtagging and social conventions (microsyntax? followfriday et al), twitter and analytics, and more. So feel free to comment away if you have thoughts on where to go from here.

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