So if you keep up with the news at all in the past year, you’ve probably heard about something called Twitter. It’s supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate or something. I’ve been using Twitter for over a year now and it’s become a regular part of my life. Looking back at some of my older tweets, though, I can definitely see my tweeting and Twitter usage habit change over time. Like Twitter itself, my tweets have adapted to my environment and matured in the past year.
First of all, it’s important to note why people use Twitter. People call it a social network but I really think this is misleading, because people think Facebook when you say “social networks,” and Twitter is very different from Facebook. I would argue Twitter is a mass communication tool for individuals. Unless your name is Shaquille O’Neal (who I follow) or Ashton Kutcher (who I don’t follow), you’re not going to be using this as a tool to carry on a sustained conversation with your followers because, let’s be frank, you don’t have that many followers who are actually your friends. Except for niche groups like the tech community, the majority of your friends and colleagues are on Facebook or Linkedin and even if they are on Twitter, there are much better ways to carry out an extensive dialog.
For ordinary people, Twitter is basically a way to build a customized news feed. You can follow the accounts of your favorite media outlets as well as brands and people to get up to the minute information that is relevant to you. For example, I used to check CNN several times a day to find out what was going on in the world, but now I can get up to the minute updates not only from CNN and the New York Times about current events, but also the Wall Street Journal and CNBC for business news, ESPN for sports news, TechCrunch and Mashable for tech news, plus updates for specific news about Boston College, Wimbledon, or The Office. I can even discover interesting articles or videos by following celebrities and other influential individuals (such as journalists or business leaders).
Of course, there are still some rough edges to sort out. For example, because I follow several mainstream news sources, I often get redundant tweets when news breaks. It would be nice if these news flashes could be collapsed into one single tweet. I only need to hear that the bailout passed once. It doesn’t matter if I get the headline from CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNBC, Boston Globe, or Morning Call. It only matters if I want to read a more in depth analysis. Still, I think news is the greatest value of Twitter for ordinary people.
So why do I tweet? I have around 130 followers, which is solid for a random college student, but by no means influential. Of all those people, the small portion who are my friends can be more effectively reached through Facebook. The rest are typically companies or marketers hoping to gather feedback or data from me. So aside from complaining about customer service, why should I, or any ordinary person tweet?
My answer is brand building. It might sound self absorbed or hyper-commercialized, but I think in this day and age, it’s something everyone should think about doing. It’s very common for friends, colleagues, employers, colleges, and anyone else to Google you and learn more about you based on your web and social media presence. Just like multinational corporations, you can be passive and let others say whatever they want about you (see BPGlobalPR) or you can be proactive and write your own story by crafting your own public image. This is why I take care of my Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter accounts as well as write this blog.
With this in mind, the differences in my tweets over time make sense. At first, it took some time to figure out how to actually use this service. Early on, my followers were a few early adopter friends and a bunch of random, mostly spam accounts. As a result, my tweets were fairly uninspiring, usually commenting on mundane things like the weather, waking up early, and dining hall food. I first became conscious of my Twitter habits when I started using Selective Tweets. This allowed me differentiate my tweets and Facebook status updates. Twitter remained the more frivolous, spontaneous updates while Facebook statuses were more important and thought out.
This setup basically stayed the same until I went abroad. All of a sudden, I was relying much more on social media to communicate with friends and family back home. In a way, this meant a return to the more frivolous postings of my early days on Twitter, but because I was in a different country, it carried more value for my followers. Getting lunch, taking a walk, or even talking about the weather was interesting because I was in doing it all in London. In addition, I began to blog more actively when I went abroad and Twitter was a great way to publicize new posts. While WordPress analytics indicate that Facebook is still my top referrer, it’s always a good idea to push through as many channels as possible to reach more potential readers.
The most recent change has come in the last few months. I’m starting to build up a meaningful follower base (I broke 100 last summer but most of those were spam bots that Twitter later deleted). I have two significant active peer groups from TechTrek and TEC, in addition to various (real and active) marketer and enthusiasts. I’m being followed by organizations like Boston College and True Ventures, as well as a few members of the VC community and controversial personality Jason Calacanis. I doubt they scrutinize my tweets too much, but just knowing my 140 characters could pop up on their Tweetdecks makes me think before I tweet. I do a lot more retweeting now of interesting news stories or websites that I find to project a more mature and professional image. I use more hashtags to make my tweets stand out, join larger conversations, and hopefully get retweeted. Like successful corporate brands out there, I’m building up the value of my personal brand by producing interesting, thoughtful, and curated content.