How to use twitter?

I was pleased a few months back to see Calvin College sign up for twiter. A small college in the Michigan town where I lived for three years up until last summer, the college is my wife’s former employer, a previous client of mine, and a place that dominated quite a bit of our social life in Grand Rapids. Twitter seemed a simple way to keep up with what was going on without much effort. But within a couple of months I stopped following them, partly out of frustration with some recent political developments on the campus but primarily because their twitter presence felt far too much like an anonymous broadcast, and close to an abuse of the medium.

It’s an example I’ve had on my mind while pondering the possibilities for official twitter usage at Greenbelt. Twitter is easy to use as a broadcast medium, and (recent stability concerns aside) works very well for getting messages out quickly to those who choose to hear them, but to treat it solely that way fails to engage with the realities of how it’s used, or the set of expectations that have emerged within the community of its users.

There are contexts in which a broadcast-only approach can work. The automated twitter feeds for things like Tower Bridge and Low Flying Rocks are quite understandably just broadcasting updates. They represent inanimate objects and are simple prototypes of how a system like twitter can change the way we interact with such objects. At the same time the way that the Mars Phoenix twitter account has been used has been fascinating, making use of the fact that there are human intermediaries involved to engage with its audience and answer questions.

Barack Obama‘s account has been broadcast-only so far. I find that far more understandable as a campaign schedule of the sort he lives within doesn’t make engagement easy, but also a little disappointing as that aspect of politics desparately needs more interaction and transparency. The Downing Street account occasionally offers responses and it’d be good to see that from the Obama team, along with some information on how Obama’s tweets come to be. Are they along the lines of John Edwards‘ which I’m told were approved in communications team meetings but sent by the candidate himself, or is there some other process/person making it happen?

I’ve been enjoying the Channel4News offering lately. That too has yet to respond to any of its followers (so far as I’ve seen), but the slightly irreverent tone of some of the posts really helps give some insight into how their editorial process works, how things shift through the day, and the fact that they don’t take themselves entirely seriously.

The recent Innovation Edge conference and Social Innovation Camp made pretty good use of twitter. In the former case it was entirely focussed on the day of the event, but modelled good interaction between official-tweeter and those in the audience also using twitter. What it was lacking was some transparency: it wasn’t until after the event that it became clear who was posting on behalf of the event. SI Camp has continued to operate, and it’s a good way to keep up with the thinking and projects that have stemmed from the camp. At the event it offered a really good communications channel, identifying different groups’ needs and interesting comments, but since then it’s not been clear if it’s a personal account or entirely focussed on the followup to the event. Some clarity there would be helpful.

Obviously any high profile use of twitter shouldn’t be expected to respond to every message sent its way, but setting expectations and demonstrating some engagement with the conversation is vital for any user whose tweets aren’t entirely automated. Establishing transparency by identifying who is actually doing the posting is very helpful, whether per post (eg. “(from @jystewart)”) or simply in the bio (“with posts of official news, gathered by X, Y and Z”). And it’s probably best to be flexible, and adapt an approach based on how followers respond, just as twitter itself was adapted in response to the community’s use of @replies.

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  1. It would be great to see some Twittering at Greenbelt.

    One of the challenges I’ve found in event-based twittering though it how to introduce it to a mix of existing users and non-users. For non-users giving them instructions to sign-up by texting ‘follow eventname’ to twitter, and then keeping track of the event on their mobiles works fairly well – but then helping them to understand that Twitter is more than just a way to get messages gets tricky…

    And providing instructions to help the existing user who hasn’t yet got to grips with all Twitters features gets a bit more tricky again…

    I’m still working on what the updated version of this guide: looks like for larger events like Innovation Edge / Greebelt…

    If the big screen is back this year – could we be twittering to that?

  2. There’ll definitely be some–we’re just working out the broadcast/interaction plans and whether to do any work beforehand on aggregating GB related content. Trying to get organised before the usual August rush. The past few years I’ve been writing code for the festival’s online presence on the train/plane to the event, and at the event itself, and I’d really like to not be doing that this year!

    Big screen could definitely be interesting. I’m not sure what’s happening with it, but can ask around.

    The instruction thing is interesting, particularly since there’s probably not space in the festival programme for this stuff, and it’s easier for most people to sign up before they arrive at an outdoor event.

    We’ll probably run a story or two on the website, but I suspect it’ll be a little like the flickr adoption we’ve seen the past few years, slow at first but gathering steam as event attendees start helping each other use it and/or see the results when they get home and so learn how to use the tools for themselves before the next event.

    Thanks for the link to the guide. I’d seen it previously, but will definitely spend a bit more time looking at it in the next few days.

  3. I think the big screen idea is interesting, but probably a challenge for a family friendly festival – you’d need some control of what comes up on the screen.

    The broadcast nature of twitter is great for facilitating communication, but does make big (lots of people) conversations challenging – usual broadcast scale issue.

    The use of Twitter as an SMS gateway / broadcast stream for the event sounds very cool!