Tuning and Feeding: My best practices for getting the most out of Twitter
August 8th, 2008

I’m still hooked on Twitter (I’m http://twitter.com/hrheingold), but it’s clear that many of the people I talk to about my enthusiasm just don’t get why anyone wastes their time on it. So I tell them that to me, successful use of Twitter comes down to tuning and feeding. And by "successful," I mean that I gain value — useful information, answers to questions, new friends and colleagues — and that the people who follow me gain value in the form of entertainment, useful information, and some kind of ongoing relationship with me.

To oversimplify, I think successful use of Twitter means knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people who follow you. (I follow about 300 people, and about 3500 people follow me — I didn’t set out to create a 1:10 ratio, but that is how it has ended up.)

You have to tune who you follow. I mix friends who I know IRL and whose whereabouts and doings interest me, people who are amusing (Ana Marie Cox, for example, who I met once but don’t know, or Emily Chang, who I didn’t know before I started following her, but who is now a real-life acquaintaince on the way to being a friend, and who graciously and generously volunteered to design my vlog for me — which got her and her partner a good bottle of champagne, a nice dinner, and a paying gig the next time I had money to spend on web design), people who are knowledgeable about a field that interests me (Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen and David Cohen in regard to the future of journalism), people who regularly produce URLs that prove useful (Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb), extraordinary educators like Michael Wesch and Will Richardson, (and many many more — Twitter is full of great teachers and educational theorists). When I became interested in video, Drupal, and educational uses of technology and student-centric teaching, I looked at who people who know about those subjects follow, and followed them.

When it comes to feeding my network, that comes down to putting out the right mixture of personal tweets (while I don’t really talk about what I had for lunch, the cycles of my garden, the plums falling from my tree, my obsession with compost do feature in my tweetstream), informational tidbits (when I find really great URLs, that’s when Twitter is truly a "microblog" for me to share my find), self promotion (when I post a new video to my vlog, once a week or so, I share the URL — but I do NOT automatically post everything I blog on smartmobs.com), socializing, and answering questions. It’s particularly important to respond to people who follow me and who send @hrheingold messages to my attention. I can’t always respond to every single one, but I try. I also try to be a little entertaining once in a while, when something amuses me and I think it might amuse others. Everyone has a different mix of these elements, which is part of the charm of Twitter. My personal opinion is that I need to keep some personal element going, but not to overdo it. I am careful to not crank up the self-promotion too much. I don’t ask questions often, but when I do, I always get a huge payoff. There was the day I tweeted that I was teaching a class full of journalism students who didn’t see the utility of using Twitter, and asked for suggestions about who they should follow. Within ten minutes of making that request, I received 40 suggestions, and we set up a list of journalists to follow — including @newmediajim, who was reporting at that very moment that he was getting on Air Force One with the White House press corps to accompany the President to Africa.

If it isn’t fun, it won’t be useful. If you don’t put out, you don’t get back. But you have to spend some time tuning and feeding if Twitter is going to be more than an idle amusement to you and your followers (and idle amusement is a perfectly legit use of the medium).

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