Twitter—A resource, not a popularity contest

If you live in the MidAtlantic, how did you confirm it was an earthquake that shook the ground on Tuesday, the 23rd[i]?  You probably asked someone in your office if they felt that or picked up the phone to ask another scantily qualified source the same question.  That’s what my wife did, and the phones didn’t work, only further exacerbating her fear.  I looked at my phone and checked Twitter. 

In last week’s post, I referenced a pot-stirring discussion I started within the financial planning community via the no-longer-new-fangled communication medium known as Twitter, and I promised to devote this week’s post to this phenomenon-turned-convention that, after a couple years of stumbling and bumbling through, I’m finally learning how to use effectively.

I am not one of the early adopters, embracing every technological innovation.  For example,  I scoffed at the notion of reading a book on anything other than paper pages, and only became a Kindle convert after my well-read mother showed her own willingness to embrace an e-reader (in her case, a Nook).  I also tried Twitter for the first time about two years ago, prodded by a well-intended arm twister encouraging me, “You’ve gotta be on Twitter!”  The first time, I gave up on it in spirit after about two days.  The Twitter canvas was too broad for me to understand and appeared to lack any depth or genuine import.  I struggled to know why I should care what anyone is doing multiple times throughout the day.  I cancelled my first account after only weeks.

But as the medium started to become more ubiquitous, most of those who I respected as communicators in more traditional veins began to embrace Twitter.  I started to explore the concept more and read how others I respected were using it effectively.  The second time I approached Twitter, then, I came willingly, not out of compulsion.

The result?  Twitter has become my number one source for quality information intake.

For starters, let’s explore what Twitter actually is.  It’s a communication medium in which messages are sent and read—the catch is that these messages are limited to no more than 140 characters.  They’re not captured, like an email, but instead they scroll as they are submitted.  Like me, you might wonder what of much value can be said in little more than a short sentence, but among those 140 characters can (and often is) a link to an external URL—a web address that takes you to a particular article or blog post.  Now, when each of my favorite reporters at institutions like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Money, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance or the New York Times, or online outlets like TheStreet.com, writes an article they send a Twitter notification to all of their followers.

The revelation I had about Twitter was that although it can be a very effective tool for sending a message, it’s an even better mechanism for scanning and receiving information—quality information, not just where B celebrities are having lunch.  So, even if you don’t care to say anything on Twitter, you’re welcome to open an account and just start following the people whose writing and preferences interest you.  And, if they start sharing too much information for your taste, you simply stop following them.

If I’ve tempted you to consider Twitter, let me bring you up to speed on the vital Twitter terminology you’ll want to understand to make yours a beneficial experience:

  • Handle:  A handle is the actual string of letters and numbers preceded by an @ sign, with which you’re identified on Twitter.  You can keep it simple, like me, and use some variant of your name—@TimMaurer—or you might use something more creative and clever, like the personal finance blogger I follow, @feedthepig.  Twitter sign-up is free and can be done at www.twitter.com.
  • Tweets:  Tweets are the 140 character messages you create and read.  (I guess that makes those of us utilizing the medium either a Tweeter or a Twit!)
  • Retweets:  When you read something you like or support (or disagree with), you can retweet the original message, as-is or with your comments.
  • Followers:  Whether you’re on Facebook or not, you’re no doubt familiar with their terminology by now.  On Facebook, you collect “friends.”  On Twitter, they’re called “followers.”  When you search a particular person or information outlet, you are given the option to follow them; if you do so, you become their follower.  If you’re broadcasting information, those you attract will be your followers.  Unlike Facebook, however, you don’t need permission to follow someone; but they’re under no compulsion to follow you back unless they choose to do so.  Initially, I was taught to just start following people for the purpose of attracting followers—and indeed, you’ll see a lot of people out there who have thousands of followers, but who follow almost exactly the same number.  I don’t have the time or desire to follow thousands of people, sorting the wheat from the chaff, so I follow only those whom I want to follow.  I view Twitter not as a popularity contest (a conviction more likely to fall on Facebook), but as a resource.
  • Stream:  Your stream is the running commentary of those you follow viewed on your computer or mobile device.
  • Lists: Lists are the way to make Twitter work for you.  Undoubtedly, you have various interests in life—vocational, financial, recreational, spiritual and beyond—and the creation of lists will help you hone what it is you want to read.  For example, create your own newspaper list; a list with reporters from all of your favorite traditional and online news outlets.  Each morning, wake up and see what they’re reporting. For example, I enjoy the Wall Street Journal reporter, Jason Zweig’s, market commentary, so I’m following @jasonzweigwsj.  (Recognize, though, if you follow an entire media outlet, you’re going to get ALL the news they’re sending and that may clutter your Twitter stream.)  Some of the lists I’ve created are “Best of,” “Personal (and other) Finance,” “Writing & Publishing,” “News,” “Music & Art” and “Life & Faith.”  Your lists can be public or private, and you can subscribe to the lists of those you follow and respect.
  • Twitter Terminology:  There is a lot of Twitter code out there, most of which I probably don’t know or understand, but the most common and powerful is no doubt the hash tag—#.  Hash tags can be created by anyone and they are ways for people to track particular discussion threads or trends.  The best example I can give you is that when I attended a recent financial planning conference, many of the attendees were using a common hash tag tweeting out great quotes from various sessions.  The hash tag was a way for all of the attendees to track the conference, even if we weren’t following each other.  This works for everything from #financialplanning to #mozart to #bacon.

Twitter may not be something in which you’ve been able to find value, so I’m not twisting your arm, telling you you’ve got to get involved with Twitter.  You don’t.  But I do think it could bring value to your pursuit of topics relating to money and life.  Enjoy!

By the way, if you’re new to Twitter and have any difficulty applying any of the above mentioned advice, please use the comments section of this post to ask any questions you have.  And some of you are far more adept in the art of Twitter—if that’s you, please feel free to correct or add to anything I’ve said in the comments section!


[i] A very important note here is that earthquakes are not covered under most homeowner’s insurance policies.  We don’t think about earthquakes much on the east coast, but we were reminded yet again recently that we DO actually live on a fault line.  For more information on the importance of adding earthquake coverage to your homeowner’s policy, read this past blog post: “Would your homeowner’s policy cover an earthquake?”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “Twitter—A resource, not a popularity contest

  1. I can’t tell you how helpful this is! I, too, tried Twitter awhile back and got so confounded that I just gave up on it. Now that I have some advice on how to better use it, I’m inclined to step back into the fray. I never go wrong with your suggestions, Tim. Thanks again!

  2. How do you find time to scan all the tweets? I just subscribed to 20 movers-and-shakers in the tech realm (Tim O’Reilly and others) and the quality of the tweets is high. It’s definitely worth it. But find it’s also a huge torrent, and I’m concerned about missing stuff, because it flies by fast. How do you manage?

    • What a great question–and a difficult one to answer. There are two ways (that I see) that you could ensure you don’t miss the best of any particular tweeters: First, you can go to the stream of a specific person whose insight you highly value and take a few minutes to scan their feed to be sure you don’t miss anything–but none of us really have the time to do too much of this. The path I prefer is to trust that the very best content that you and I miss will be brought back to the surface when it is retweeted. That way we don’t have to worry about it only crossing our path once.