The continuing etymology of the word “spam” is of interest to people with an interest in how words can develop, change meanings and take on additional, new ones. Originally used as a brand name for a tinned, processed meat, it was picked up and used in a Monty Python sketch and from there was adopted to refer to e-mail which was unsolicited, unwelcome and used to aggressively drive a message (usually commercial) regardless of audience. As time has passed, it has come to be used in terms of any unwelcome proliferation of information or advice.
Spamming on Twitter does not only refer to commercial promotion, but still includes it. More than that, though, it has come to refer to anyone posting persistently with information that is either incorrect, irrelevant or just plain annoying. If you are accused – justifiably or otherwise – of spamming will inevitably result in you losing followers. For such reasons it is essential that you consider seriously what you are going to post before you post it. If you strongly feel that it is relevant to your followers, then tweet it. If you are not concerned by the prospect of losing followers, then posting things that may be considered irrelevant should not concern you.
Bear in mind too that when it comes to relevance, telling people what they already know constitutes irrelevance. If you constantly posted that grass tends to be green, you would be spamming, and if you post well-worn political arguments in a feed mostly read by political experts, they may well accuse you of doing the same.
The marketing industry is one which depends so greatly on having its finger on the pulse, it came as no surprise when people recognised the benefit of using Twitter as a marketing tool. If you think about it for a moment, the presence on the Internet of a site that allows you to speak to a wide range of people for free and place a link in the text has obvious and extensive marketing benefits. Not least of these is the fact that it cuts your marketing spend right back if used properly.
When it comes to marketing effectively, one of the phrases used most frequently is “we need to speak to the customer”. Although this is in many ways just a metaphor – you really need to catch the customers’ attention as broadly as possible – Twitter does allow you to speak directly to each customer if you have the time to do so. By means of @replies, you can answer a customer’s question. By using the search facility it is possible to see who is talking about the niche in which you are marketing – and whether they might be a qualified lead you can sell to.
Of course, Twitter is not a foolproof marketing tool. This is the Web 2.0 generation, and if you thought Generation X was cynical then you’re in for a surprise. People who feel they are being sold to are likely to react with resistance. Talking like a faceless marketing robot will have disastrous results, and cost you more sales than it will provide. This is why you need to be “web-savvy”.
As Twitter gains popularity, it has also driven the popularity of another recent internet phenomenon, that of the desktop “client”. Not a website, but still connected to the web, a client is a program that draws information from and distributes it to a website without the user needing to visit that site themselves. While this is not always a necessity, it does increase the convenience of the service. One particular reason for using a client is that you may be surfing another site and want to keep as few tabs open as possible – so instead of going back and forth between Twitter and another site, you can use your client to tweet and to read tweets.
Additionally, and this may not be utterly advisable if you are determined to keep your job, a client can be a way of bypassing site-blocking software which prevents you visiting Twitter in the workplace. It also allows you to use Twitter in a much smaller area of the screen, so if you don’t want people to know you are using the web or the site, you can still use Twitter by means of a client.
Another advantage of using a client is that, as the software gets better, they make the use of Twitter’s other features simpler than using the site itself. Buttons exist to re-tweet something without needing to type out the RT prefix and the user’s name, and also to shorten a URL without needing to visit a specific site. For all the features it is still useful to go to the Twitter site, but having a client downloaded does make things easier.
One thing that has emerged over the course of the last decade is a common aversion towards text speak, or a phenomenon to which people have begun to refer as “txt spk”. This is particularly prevalent among people who feel that language should be respected by those who use it and that if you are going to use a word, you should use the full word. While character limits (first identified as a barrier to clear communication with the advent of text messaging) do confer a certain urgency upon not wasting a word or a letter, it is possible to tweet or to text with clarity.
While text messaging may be driven towards “txt spk” by the fact that you pay by the message and you don’t want to waste money, you pay nothing for a tweet and you can easily continue your message in a second post. Although many people are conscious that multiple tweets in a short space of time can look like spamming, when faced with a choice between this and being viewed as a dimwit they tend to accept the spamming charge. It is not exactly a fair charge anyway, when it is simply a run-on tweet.
One outcome of the Twitter character limit has been the increase in sites providing shorter link URLs. If you have tweeted about a news story or with a link to a site, a long URL can take you over the character limit. Step forward sites such as tinyurl.com, snipurl.com and icanhaz.com, which offer an easy way around this.
The Internet may seem to be a behemoth of unconnected sites united simply by the fact that they are all online and accessible by anyone with the correct equipment. But if you look closer it is easy to see that there is a lot of connectivity between certain sites, not least in the use of hyperlinks which allow you to navigate between sites which have a common interest. But where this becomes fascinating is with the rise of the super website, the one which is by far and away the leader in its field. Prime examples of this in recent times are not hard to identify.
We have Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia which is seen as an immediate resource for collated information. Then there is YouTube, a video hosting site which allows one to view footage collected from numerous different places. How hard it would be to find the sites you need if it were not for the ultimate search engine, Google. And recently, Twitter has become a site which everyone knows about, even if they only know that everyone else is talking about it.
One of the things that makes Twitter so popular is that it is an excellent way to spread links. This allows it an instant affinity with other sites. If you find a video on YouTube which you believe that everyone should see, you post a link to it on your Twitter account, and people can view it and then pass on the link. This connectivity is also very useful for bloggers who can install a “widget” on their blog which automatically posts a link on their Twitter feed whenever they put up a new blog post.
One of the things that makes Twitter so vibrant is that it is a very quick and very sure way of spreading information, and if you find a link on the Internet that you want to bring to people’s attention, it is necessary only to tweet that link and sit back as people open and read it, and forward it to others who would be interested. The history of the viral link, although chronologically short, has already got a lot of stories to it, and many of these have been provided by Twitter.
One of the most frequent uses for linking on Twitter is when someone says or does something so incredibly idiotic that it sends the average reader into either a furious rage or gales of laughter. By the medium of Twitter it is possible to pass on a link to this story and share in the derision. It is also possible to bring serious lapses of political, journalistic or moral standards to wider attention.
One of the results of this practice is that the targets of such treatment often respond to the large-scale anger directed at them by insisting that they are the victims of an “orchestrated internet hate campaign”. This misses the point, and is untrue. People pass on the story because they find it distasteful or ridiculous, and it is this that drives the story on, rather than a specific hatred for the person in question. In this cynical world it is not that easy to fabricate outrage, but genuine outrage has a momentum all of its own.
The “trending topic” as used on Twitter has been responsible for generating quite a bit of news over the last year, as Twitter has become a mainstream site like never before. As news media becomes ever more obsessed with “user-generated content”, the major news agencies are using Twitter to see what people are talking about. Where people used to talk about the news, now what people talk about becomes news.
This has become all the more noticeable in the last year. On one notable occasion a minor British politician appeared as a guest on a Fox News show talking about the differences between the American healthcare system being targeted for reform by Barack Obama and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) – describing the British system in quite damning terms. The response from British Twitter users was driven in large part by the Irish comedy writer Graham Linehan who ended a tweet denouncing the politician with the hashtag #welovethenhs – and before too long, there were thousands upon thousands of tweets supporting Linehan.
As the hashtag became a trending topic, the support for the British system became a news story not only in Britain but further afield. Arguments from opponents of healthcare reform that under the NHS, a figure like Professor Stephen Hawking would never have lived to the age he has, were picked up on Twitter and denounced by people pointing out that Professor Hawking was born and had lived most of his life in Britain, and would have died without the NHS. The “trending topic” became the news, and there are other examples of this, too.
Follow enough people on Twitter for long enough, and you will become aware of the use of the hashtag. Another of those words that has become common parlance in the last year or so due to the reach of Twitter, the hashtag is a simple enough concept, perhaps best explained by an example:
Say you have been taking an interest in a news story. For example, the biggest story of 2009 has probably been the death of Michael Jackson. At the time, people who had just heard the news would often finish their tweet with the tag #ripmj or #ripmichaeljackson. By doing this, it flags up the fact that your tweet was about that particular issue.
Your Twitter homepage will have a list on the right hand side titled “Trending Topics”. This is a list of the ten most frequently used phrases or words currently appearing in people’s tweets. By clicking on the topic you can see what people are saying about the story. If you have not directly used the words, adding a hashtag at the end means that your tweet will show up in any search using that hashtag.
The use of hashtags should be approached carefully, however, as many people see it as attention seeking. By using the hashtag, people feel that you are simply trying to get your tweet seen by as many people as possible. Add to this the fact that, if an issue is “trending”, then it will be getting tweeted about possibly hundreds of times in a minute – and the chances are no-one but your followers will see it anyway, so think before you use them.
One of the things that makes Twitter so instant is that it is moderated reactively rather than proactively. As a result, when you post something it goes into the stream of tweets instantly and can be read by anyone with access to the feed. While this is popular because it allows a steady flow of posts and lets you speak freely, it does have its drawbacks, not least of which is the fact that it does allow people to tweet things that others may not want to read.
Among the negative aspects of this is the fact that if someone takes a dislike to you on Twitter, they can bombard you with unpleasant @replies and encourage their followers to do likewise, or drive a wedge between you and friends. They can be reported to Twitter, and anyone abusing an account will be banned from the site, but this does not preclude them from setting up another account and tweeting from another IP address. Neither does it change the fact that they can do it in the first place.
One solution to this, although it is a partial one and not foolproof, is that you can protect your tweets and prevent people from seeing what you post unless they have been approved by you. It does not immediately prevent people from randomly insulting you, but it does lessen the possibility that you will appear on their radar. Aside from this it is difficult to totally prevent such idiots from harassing you, but remember, they’re just a line of text and if they are devoting their time to attacking you, they’re quite the moron anyway.
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Many people who use Twitter check their follower numbers very frequently, and respond with displeasure if they see it going down. The fact is, anyone can choose to unfollow you at any time, and they will have their own reasons for doing so.
Among the major reasons people have for ceasing to follow a Twitter feed is the crime of posting too much. You may have just had a really nice sandwich for lunch, but think before posting about it. Just how good was that sandwich? Sometimes people will only follow those whose tweets are genuinely informative.
Other people will unfollow you if all you ever do is re-tweet what other people have said. If they wanted to know what someone else was saying, they’d follow them. Excessive re-tweeting looks like spamming to many.
The same applies to the at-reply. If every one of your tweets begins with “@”, then although these will only appear to people who have both parties in their feed, they will begin to feel like they are intruding in a two-way conversation – and the only way to get out of it is unfollowing you.
People will also have limited patience with Tweets about your social life. If you are constantly tweeting things like “I’m in a club, drinking cocktails! Having a great time!” they will simply wonder why, if you are having such a great time, you keep busting into Twitter rather than going with the flow. Especially if you use Twitpic to post pictures of the cocktails.
Some of the above, in moderation, is always acceptable and even fun. But if it is all you do, you will get unfollowed.
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