You’d be a twit not to tweet

March’s edition of Total Politics carries the following piece from me about Twitter, and in particular why councillors and would-be councillors should consider using it.

What is Twitter?

When a jet plane crash-landed on the Hudson River in January, one of the first – and the most striking – photographs was taken by Janis Krums. On a passing ferry at the time, he used Twitter to send a quick message and photo. It quickly spread round the world, illustrating Twitter’s power at swiftly distributing short pieces of news.

At heart, Twitter is really very simple. It’s a free blogging service which lets you make posts (tweets) that are no more than 140 characters long. It is growing massively quickly in popularity, with website traffic in the UK up by 874% in 2008 (Hitwise figures).

Twitter’s enforced brevity makes it is well suited to brief updates (“Remember – planning meeting about park development 8pm today”), friendly chit-chat (“Congrats on passing your driving test”) and flagging up snippets of news (“Found a fantastic politics blog – http://www.libdemvoice.org”).

Passing on information, having a friendly chat, sending out updates: doesn’t that sound like what is at the heart of the relationship between councillors (or would-be councillors) and their colleagues and constituents?

Sometimes 140 characters isn’t nearly enough. But think of the occasions you never quite have time to write the website story or blog post or lengthy email – or when by the time you do get to sit at your computer the moment has past. Tweets often fit the bill nicely, particularly as Twitter is designed to be very easy to update from your mobile phone. So anywhere you have a basic signal – and a battery that isn’t flat – you can update.

To read other people’s updates you can either access the Twitter website, or install one of a range of free programs to your computer or phone. (In some countries, principally the US, you can receive other people’s updates by text, but this is no longer available in the UK.) For the more technically savvy, someone’s Twitter updates are also available as an RSS feed; for example, your local party website could display an automatically updated list of your latest tweets.

Twitter can also integrate with Facebook; indeed, for some people their Twitter use is really just a way to update Facebook. Once installed, Facebook’s Twitter application lets you have your Facebook status automatically updated each time you tweet. So one text message updates your presence in both places.

Getting started on Twitter

Convinced? To get started with Twitter, visit https://twitter.com and click on “Get Started – Join!” This takes you through a simple sign-up process, and if you can manage that, then you’ve got the computer skills needed to use Twitter!

Usernames should be picked carefully as this is what you’ll be known as to fellow Twitter users most of the time. For example, mine is markpack, and therefore twitter.com/markpack is the address for my updates. This therefore may not be the time to use your standard username of fluffybunny74. You can also set-up email notifications so that you get told, for example, when someone signs up to get your updates or when someone sends you a direct message (see below).

Once you are on Twitter, you can start sending updates. In Twitter speak, signing up to get someone’s updates means you are “following” them and have become a “follower” of theirs. You can reply to updates from other people by starting your message with @ and their username, e.g. @markpack. And you can read replies sent to you by using the link on the right side of the website once you are logged in. This means they stand out from the flow of overall messages, which can be very helpful.  You can also “direct message” someone, which means only you and they can read it. To send me one, you would start your message d markpack and again there is a link on the right to read these messages.

To get the real value out of Twitter people need to spend some time building up their list of followers, but that is little different for having to build up a website audience, email list or indeed a delivery network. It may be the future, but it needs a little work to help bring it along.

Other Twitter advice

  • Twittering away – how Twitter was used at the Autumn 2008 Lib Dem conference, and how hashtags came in useful
  • How to lurk on Twitter – you don’t have to tweet to find Twitter useful

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