Twittering with a Purpose: A Starter (or Restarter) Guide

Over the past few months, I’ve been learning and connecting with other educators from around the world using Twitter.  This has become a very valuable collaboration tool for me and I would like to share some more of the things I have learned along the way on how to effectively use Twitter.

According to a Nielsen report, 60% of people who sign up for Twitter fail to return to the website the following month.  There has been much discussion and speculation about the reason behind this.  Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with one simple thing: purpose.

While many of us found ourselves on Twitter out of curiosity, I believe those who stay and are able to find meaning in the chaos do so for a specific reason.  My own reason is the opportunity to connect and collaborate with other educators.  I finally decided it might be worth while to try out Twitter at an Instructional Coaching workshop.  The presenter, Jim Knight, explained the potential of Twitter in the world of collaborative education.  With this purpose in mind, I dove in.

I have many friends and family who have dabbled in Twitter.  Mostly, this was to satisfy curiosity and and to see what all of the hubbub was about.  They made an account and sat back to watch the “Twitter magic” happen…only it didn’t.  The vast majority of my non-professional contacts have tweeted 5 times or less, have never written a bio, and still have the brown and light blue o_O icon as their profile picture.  The other thing they don’t have?  Purpose.

“What are you doing?” I believe this input prompt is misleading.  Honestly, I really don’t care how many cups of coffee you’ve had today, how many times your dog threw up, what you had for lunch, or what you’re watching on TV (Sorry, American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance fans!).  I see why the Twitter guys started out with this question.  But to get anything meaningful out of this service, I believe more meaningful queries would be “What are you wondering?” or “What have you found worth sharing?”  This is where the moniker, “follow ideas, not people” comes into play.  Being on Twitter isn’t about who you follow.  It’s about conversations involving your interests.  It doesn’t have to be professional.  I’ve seen some pretty interesting conversations about family cooking and dogs.  Find an idea that interests you and that you are passionate about.  If it’s worthwhile to you, I’m sure there are more people out there who feel the same and are willing to connect and share ideas.

So once you have a purpose and an idea you would like to follow, how do you go about finding people connected to that idea/purpose?  First, you start with yourself.  If you want to engage people in conversation, you need to let them know who you are and what you’d like to talk about.  Go to the Settings option in the Twitter menu, then look over the information you have entered for your account profile.  Now, I understand the trepidation many may have about putting too much information out on the net, especially on something you are just trying out.  So please stay in your safety comfort zone, but do the following:

  • Name: Please put at least a real first name
  • More Info URL: If you have a public website of any kind (esp. if it is related to your Twitter purpose) please include that here.
  • One Line Bio: This is important!  Please write 1-2 sentences or a list that tells something about you and what your purpose/interests are.  By telling others the ideas you are interested in following, you will be able to easily connect to more like-minded people.  Remember that you can always revise this later.  This also helps people realize that you are not a spam account.
  • Location: How specific you would like to be is up to you.  At the very minimum, I would include your country or state/province.  Twitter is a global community and it’s fun to know how far your conversations can reach.

o_ONow that you have let people know the types of ideas you are interested in, you need to add a picture.  Yes, I said you need to add a picture…   o_O By the way, the symbol on the default picture is an emoticon which  means “bored, annoyed or awkward; concerned; ‘what?’ face.”  Many people out there won’t follow someone who has this symbol because it is seen as a sign that the person isn’t serious about using Twitter to collaborate.  It also helps people determine more easily if you are a spam account.  Are you uncomfortable with putting a real picture out there?  That’s ok.  While some would disagree, I would argue that any picture is better than no picture.  So feel free to use a cartoon likeness, your dog, something that represents your interests, or play with a photo of yourself in Photoshop or iPhoto.  If you are using Twitter for professional purposes, I would highly recommend a real picture of yourself.

Now that you have a basic profile set-up, start writing a few tweets about your interests/purpose.  You can include your thoughts, write about the kind of information or collaboration you are looking for, ask questions, include a few websites that you have found informative and helpful, etc.  How much you tweet is up to you, but you want people to see that you are actively using the site when they take a look at your profile.  This gives them more incentive to interact with you.

Now you are ready to find people who also follow the same ideas.  Please remember that you do not need to follow everyone.  It’s ok to be selective and to stop following someone if they’re not sharing the kind of ideas you are looking for.  There are a few ways to do this.

  • If you know someone who actively uses Twitter for the same purpose, browse through their following list.  Find a few people you think sound interesting and follow them.  Then you can look through their following lists, and repeat the process.  I prefer to use following lists instead of followers because they are less likely to be people who don’t share the same interest/purpose.
  • Use Twitter Search and input keywords related to your interest/purpose.  Click on the profiles of people who have tweets that interest you and decide if they are engaged in the conversation you’re looking for.  If you like the ideas they are discussing, then follow them.  From there you can use the first step to branch out and find more people.
  • Search for related hashtags.  Hashtags are words that are preceded by the “#” symbol.  Their purpose is to make it easier to search posts related to that idea.  For example, I am currently able to follow the protests in Tehran by searching for the hashtag #iranelection.  There are also scheduled chats such as #educhat and a growing number of professional conferences such as #TED, #NECC, &  #GLS09.  Anyone who is talking about this subject can include a designated hashtag in their post so others can see it and be part of the conversation.  You can learn more about hashtags here.
  • Check out services such as WeFollow.  Look up topics that are related to your interest/purpose and find people to follow that interest you.

Once you have a few people you’re following, feel free to jump right in or watch and get a feel for how people use Twitter.  It is still a good idea for you to keep posting questions, resources, etc. to help people decide if they want to follow you.  Feel free to “retweet” good ideas that other people have written.  Just be sure to give them credit by starting the post with “RT” (short for “retweet”) and then writing their @name, followed by their post.  See an example here.  Or you can write “via” and their @name at the end of your post.  See an example hereYou want to be sure you credit the ideas of other people. RTs from others also give you a chance to find more people with the same interests/purpose.  Just click on their @name and it will take you directly to their profile.

Once you feel comfortable, start responding to other people’s posts.  Answer their questions, provide resources, and comment on their ideas.  To reply, you can hit the reply button on their tweet or type their Twitter name into your dialogue box with the “@” symbol in front.  Feel free to include hashtags if they are appropriate.

You can also respond privately by using the Direct Message feature on the right hand side.  Just click on the “Direct Message” link.  Then choose the person you want to communicate with from the drop down menu, type your message, and send.  Please note that you may only send Direct Messages to people you follow and follow you back.

If you have a website you would like to share, but the URL is way too long to include in a 140 character tweet, you can use a service such as to shorten the URL.  Also, many Twitter clients provide a URL shortening service.  I am currently using Tweetie.  All I have to do it type my tweet, and then hit option+command+s to automatically short the URL.  It’s very handy.

A note on spam: If you gain followers who have a limited, non-existent, or general bio, only a few tweets, tweets that are all about advertising (such as how to gain 3,000 followers in a week), or they follow 5,000 people and only 100 follow them back, then they are more than likely a spam account.  It is best to block these by going to your follower page and hitting the “Block” button by their name.

I hope these tips will help you find the “Twitter magic” and put it to good use.  If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to let me know.  I’ve been trying to find the best way to describe this unique service and the best way to help people get started in leveraging its use.  I’d love to hear from you.  Thanks!



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