What is twitter good for? (some reading for the procastinator)

Well, it’s been about four weeks since I signed up for a personal account on twitter (you can follow me here if you’re interested – my handle is @dnghub), and threw out my first “tweet.”


Since then, I’ve found myself fully immersed in the web tool, and feel like I can say a few intelligent things about it, especially if you’re reading this as someone who is resisting signing on, or someone who just wants to know a little more about it.

It might help if I first start off with a bit of context.

For instance, my lab sort of already has a twitter account, listed under @sciencescout. Here is an example of type of tweets this account routinely throws out.


All in good fun, since the “jargon in capitals” usually refers to some interesting thing on the internet that has a link (often tenuous) with the word itself. Plus, it’s meant to spur on a scientific drinking game (to quote, “everytime you say the word whilst glass is hoisted, the table must drink”), although I’ve yet to hear about whether folks actually do this or not. Mind you, with almost 800 followers, I’m more than a bit hopeful.

Still, I wouldn’t say the @sciencescout account is “useful.” Good for a chuckle maybe, and for general camaraderie with the Science Scouts, but it doesn’t set itself up well for proper networking or real viral linkage to things of note.

Which is why, I thought it was a good time to set up the personal account (I used @dnghub because there are a LOT of David Ng’s out there!) Actually, I set it up the night before heading of to the TEDxVancouver conference, thinking that if there was a crowd that would be fully embedded with this technology, it would be the crowd at TEDxVan.

Which all leads to the big question: WHAT IS TWITTER GOOD FOR EXACTLY?

Here are my thoughts, many of which I’m guessing can be found elsewhere on the net and described much more eloquently by people cleverer than me, but here goes nevertheless.

1. It is excellent for informal first query type virtual networking. Especially, if you’re hoping to network with the sort of people who are already fond of the social media tool. It’s a bit like how it’s already easier to talk to someone who happens to read your blog, or talk to someone whose blog you happen to read. Except that it takes way less effort. You can begin casual discussions like the drop of the hat, since twitter facilitates this marvelously with its tags: “@” (directed correspondence) and “#” (crowd source type discussions).

I can’t stress how incredibly useful this has been to me already. For example, I have a project getting ready to launch in late January, early February (it’s this one, finally), which necessitated some initial networking with the local and non-local graphic design community. With twitter this has been surprisingly easy. It’s like you can effortlessly initiate an informal query, and folks on the other end can check you out quickly (you can leave your website on your account for instance) to gauge whether they should reply back or not. Much easier than trying to track down email addresses, or going to gatherings in the hope of making contact.

2. It’s a brilliant ice breaker device for meeting someone in person. Twitter was very useful in this context. For instance, at the TEDxVancouver conference, I was an active tweeter (especially around the whole Patrick Moore debacle). Anyway, because there was an active feed around the hashtag #tedxvan, I inadvertently made myself incredibly accessible for discussion when discovering face to face contacts. I found this really cool – a real nice community feel to it all. Plus, your twitter handle works well as a virtual business card, which is nice for a doddering academic like me, who forgets or refuses to get business cards for himself.

3. It is great for receiving pieces of real time information relevant to you. What I mean here, is that if you pick your twitter friends carefully, you’ll get an information feed that is well suited to your needs and personality. For instance, I’m finding it’s wonderful for staying informed with interesting science news, environmental issues, the arts community in vancouver, interesting graphic design bulletins. And this is on top of just staying in touch with some interesting friends, and having the odd chuckle from that “witty” tweeter. For instance, yesterday I found out about “The Danish Text” pretty quick after it came out in the Guardian because of twitter. Sometimes, I even just take a gander at the “trending topics” column for breaking news. Even though most of it is celebrity orientated, you know it must be big when something non-celebrity is seen there.

This stream of information, of course, is best managed when you follow folks who tweet interesting things, tweet with an interest to write well, but also tweet at a somewhat sparing frequency. i.e. you’re not always receiving an onslaught of stuff from one or two profilic users. Anyway, I remember for a while thinking that I’ll just follow anyone who happened to be following me, but then quickly discovered that such a tactic made the stream of information too distracting and too much like white noise.

I should also note that when using twitter, it is really handy to use some third party software to help organize it all. There’s a number of them out there – currently, I’m using Tweetdeck, which seems to work well.

4. Making contact with individuals of significant influence. This is also kind of interesting. The community that uses twitter has an interesting cultural take on how to interact. I mentioned in the first point, that casual networking is easy, but it also seems to be orders of magnitude easier when dealing with folks you might normally never be able to get a word in at all (i.e. important people). This might be because: (a) you don’t have the contact info to initiate a conversation, (b) even if you do, they’re much too busy to give you the time of day, or (c) in the real world, you’d be corresponding with the “office” and we all know how much fun that can be.

I’m not sure why, but things just seem very friendly in twitter land. I’m guessing this has a lot to do with how easy it is to use and fire off snippets of communication.

Twitter correspondence, for example and just to show that my point is valid, has resulted in a special Science Scout badge – just for Ms. Atwood.


5. You’re kind of also doing it to attract readers, and therefore have some influence over what content they might want to look at. This is where there’s a bit of that vanity thing going on here. Much like a website or a blog, twitter probably represents the easiest way to develop a readership. Plus, the stats or your “online clout” are easily noted because your number of followers can be clearly found. And people do follow a variety of different types of twitter writers. Some write purely from a biographical angle (“I’m pouring my coffee right now”) although this is not the most interesting thing read, nor the most effective way to build a readership. I think a way around this is to put a bit of effort into it and write with a bit of humour. Here is an example of the sort of thing I’ve been writing if it has to do with my day to day activities:


Alternatively, the “venting” tweet is pretty interesting to read.

More important, I suppose, is to also try to highlight things of interest to you. Since I’m all about the science and art angle, with a healthy does of environmental concern, if anything intriguing comes my way, I can quickly “RT” or retweet it. Here, I resist always showcasing the stuff coming out of my lab (was doing that initially with the @sciencescout account, but not anymore), because then it all gets a little promotional for my (and presumably) others’ tastes.

Of course, at the end of the day, I’m guessing the best way to build a readership is to think really carefully about who (not your friend or relative or a celebrity) you would follow. Then with that analysis in mind, sit back and consider offering a similar yet personal take on how you would use your twitter account.

Anyway, I’m at about 130 followers right now. Not a lot by any means, but no longer the void I guess.

(You can follow my twitter account by clicking @dnghub)

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and boingboing.net. He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at popperfont.net.