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How to win friends and influence people

032010_twitter_prank_bird.pngI've been on Twitter for about two years. It's a part of my life. A small part, but a nice diversion for someone who publicly claimed, "I will never be a twit!"

My purpose today is not to issue generalizations about Twitter, or to persuade you to take part. You may well have better ways to spend your time. What I want to do is make some observations about successful tweeting.

I feel I'm qualified, since I currently have 532,782 followers, and that's not bad for an ordinary mortal not named Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. I don't claim you will have my success. Let's face it; I have the advantage of being, for my sins, a celebrity. But if you offer good value for time, people will retweet you, and gradually you will build up a readership.

I give you as an example my friend of many years, Margo Howard. Margo is Ann Landers' daughter, and an online advice columnist and blogger. She had stuff left over. I would receive frequent emails from her with links, gossip, pithy insights. She had a network of insiders in Boston, New York and Washington. She knew all sorts of people. I told her she was born to tweet. She fought Twitter kicking and screaming. Now she has nearly 5,000 followers--not bad for a short time.

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I was coached on tweeting by my guru Andy Ihnatko, who lectured me on the "signal/noise ratio." A good ratio means that an encouraging percentage of your tweets are not personal minutiae or meaningless babble.

An example of the former: "Having Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappuccino at Starbucks" or "Horny again." Of the latter: "Woo hoo" and "Crunch time." These latter two need not be meaningless, but they need a context. My guess is the first might involve a popular win on "Dancing With the Stars" and the second an observation during a sports event. I wouldn't care in either case, but at least I'd know what it was I didn't care about. Too many Tweeters assume you're watching the same thing on TV they are.

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That leads me with no effort to a category of tweet that can get you dropped from those I follow. That would be play by play or quarter by quarter updates on a game in progress. If I care about the Bears game on Sunday, I can easily watch it on TV. What good does it do me to learn who took the lead in the third quarter, after an indeterminate amount of time has passed? Tweets get obsolete. Final scores are permitted.

Ironically, the founders of Twitter apparently envisioned it as a series of personal updates: "Slept late, on way to class, going to movies, stomach upset." Why would more than a few of your closest friends care, even if you were Lady Gaga? Otherwise, it's noise, not signal. You're wasting space in someone's Twitter stream. Even the Richard Dawkins site is guilty:

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I also dislike obscure spellings or abbreviations. They're fine for chatting, I suppose, but I vowed to tweet in ordinary language, not even using abbreviations, unless essential. Although she began on Twitter with often incomprehensible Netspell, I note that Sarah Palin has switched over to standard English. It's less entertaining than her political acrostics, but more useful. What you're dealing with is a split-second of the attention of someone scrolling through all their tweets. You want to jump in, get it said, and stop.

A few Twitter users still make the mistake of not abbreviating links. With 140 characters you don't have a single one to lose. I use bitly.com, as most people do, despite the startling information that the domain was owned by one of Gaddafi's sons, perhaps no longer with us.

How do I decide what to tweet? Most of my tweets are related to movies, politics, the arts, and writers and blogs I admire. Sometimes I tweet just plain odd stuff. I wish more of my tweets were funny zingers like I read from John Fugelsang or Andy Borowitz, but there you are. Of course I tweet links to my own new reviews and blog entries, because trolling for hits is one of the purposes of Twitter. I also like to tweet my old reviews of good movies that are streaming on Netflix--which, despite its recent troubles, remains very widely used.

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In politics, I tend to tweet or retweet stories reflecting my own liberalism. On Twitter Directory I declare myself as a liberal, and I assume many who don't like that have unfollowed me. I do follow a few conservatives, a Tea Party member I like, and many undeclared.

I surf around to my favorite web sites and newspapers looking for good stuff, I benefit from a great many friends who send me links, so that it must sometimes appear that I spend every waking moment online. My scouts include Larry Kolb, Marie Haws, Jeff Johnson, Ali Arikan, Omer Mozaffar, Michael Mirasol, Mike Jones, Pablo Villaça, Anath White, and many more. I also tweet on the birthdays of people I like, sometimes creating free-standing web pages for them. My overall theory of my twitter stream is that it should act as a selection for congenially-minded people.

And then sometimes I tweet just for fun. I'm uncommonly proud of this one, which comes out to exactly 140 characters:

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I don't make any claims for Twitter. It suits my circumstances. It can occupy way too much time. But there's something seductive about it: The stream, the flow, the chatter, the sudden bursts of news, the snark, the gossip, time itself tweet-tweet-tweeting away.    Some 400 of my special TwitterPages are in an endless column to the right.  

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