Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to Twitter - The social rules and tips for gaining 'followers'; why opinionated people win

When I first joined Twitter, I felt like I was in a noisy bar where everyone was shouting and nobody was listening.

Soon, I began to decode its many mysteries: how to find a flock of followers, how to talk to them in a medium that blasts to lots of people at once and how to be witty in very tiny doses.

Twitter is a mass text-messaging service that allows you to send short 140-character updates -- or "tweets" -- to a bunch of people at once. They are your "followers." It was designed to be read on a cellphone, though many people read it online, too.

Suddenly a lot of non-tweeters are starting to feel left out. On "The Daily Show" this week, host Jon Stewart reported on Twitter with a wink (or was it a twink?) at the narcissism of the personal broadcasting system. It has a world-wide audience of six million unique visitors a month, up from 1.2 million a year ago, according to ComScore Media Metrix.

But I have to admit I didn't understand the appeal of Twitter when I joined, at the prodding of friends, in November. One answer that explains its popularity: It's not about chatting with your friends -- it's about promoting yourself.

My name was available, so I set up a profile at twitter.com/JuliaAngwin. On Twitter, however, you do not exist without followers, who subscribe to receive your messages. So I set out to follow some people in the hope that they would follow me.

I had to learn the crucial distinction between a "follower" and a "friend." On Facebook, if I'm your friend, you're my friend, and we can read all about each other. Relationships on Twitter are not reciprocal: People you follow do not have to follow you or give you permission to follow them. You just sign up and start following them. It's a bit like stalking. Heather Gold, a comedian and Twitter devotee, points out that for all its flaws, the term follower "is more honest than friend."

At first, I was the loneliest of social creatures -- a leader without followers. I tried searching for my actual real-world friends using Twitter's "Find People" function, but it was down the day I joined. (Twitter is growing so fast that short outages are not unusual.)

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