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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When you first sign up to Twitter, things will move very slowly comparatively speaking. The simple truth of the matter is that when you only have a couple of people in your feed and they are not online at the time, you won’t have much to read. There are ways to speed things up. Adding your favorite newspaper – they almost always have a Twitter account, a couple of TV stations, some sports teams and a celeb or two will keep the tweets coming, albeit maybe not as immediately relevant as you would like. You should also find out which of your friends are on Twitter. Following them will give you a chance to swap jokes and chit chat when you’re apart.
After a while, through re-tweets from your friends and people picking up and following your feed, names will become familiar and you can add them if you feel so inclined. Before too long you will be getting more tweets than you want to read – and then comes the decision of who to “unfollow”. This can be a more stressful pursuit than you think, because some people check their followers page frequently and they often do it when they notice their numbers have dropped. You may get an angry or hurt response from someone you unfollowed.
Should you be worried or reluctant to unfollow someone because of this? It depends on how you feel about getting those messages. As long as you are confident in telling someone that your feed went too fast and you had a little cull, you shouldn’t be too worried. Failing that, you can always just ignore their tweets!
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The amazing growth of Twitter would defy all the laws of fast-growing phenomena if it did not have its detractors. And it is unquestionable that Twitter does, very much, have people queuing up to find fault with it. It would be dishonest to suggest, too, that all of these detractors were arguing from a position of ignorance. Many of them know what they are talking about – and many, indeed, do not. But what are the arguments against Twitter?
It is frequently said that Twitter is boring and banal. There is a sliver of truth in this belief, especially if you read tweets from people who are not particularly eloquent or interesting. Yes, a lot of people hate their boss. Some people can be amusing about how they hate their boss, and others can be spectacularly boring about it. By the same token, no-one says that speaking out loud is boring and banal, and we have all had conversations with people who are spectacularly boring to us.
Other detractors say that Twitter distracts people from talking to each other in the old fashioned way, directly face to face. And while this view has its merits, the same is true of e-mail, telephones, letter-writing and semaphore. Others argue that the 140-character limit encourages the use of “text speech”. There is a great deal of truth in this, but one has only to look around at some of the more eloquent feeds to see that even in 140 characters, it is possible to say something interesting and spell it perfectly. In the end, some people like Twitter and some hate it – which describes hundreds of thousands of other things, too.
It is often said that one of the best things about Twitter is that it updates in real time, and that when things are flowing well it is not unlike being at a party, or at least a reasonably lively meeting. But there are two sides to every coin, and it is worth taking account of the fact that immediacy can make things very hard to take back, particularly when the information you have posted is sensitive, and/or is reported quickly by other people in such a way as to make you look stupid or expose something you would rather not have said or done.
If you are in the jaws of a negative mood – be it sad, depressed or angry – then it is possible that you will make the mistake of saying something that you will later wish to take back. If you add alcohol into the situation, as many do, then it lowers the inhibitions which would usually prevent you from saying such things. Sitting in front of the world’s most immediate information exchange, you can easily go over the line and do something idiotic. Posting personal details about an ex, making unwanted advances to another individual, or just saying something that makes you look like a moron – that sounds bad, yes?
Now imagine that what you say is re-tweeted by someone either innocently or maliciously. You can delete your own tweet if you regret it swiftly, but it is still there in another person’s feed. Put simply, if you don’t want it to be common knowledge, don’t Tweet it.
When you have a job that needs to be done and you are not that keen to do it yourself, then you could very well decide to ask someone else to do it. This is known as “outsourcing” the job, and has been a part of business for a very long time. With the increased popularity of social networking it has become possible to get work or information from a greater number of people. This is the age of “crowdsourcing”. It is becoming very popular.
Crowdsourcing is a phenomenon which would be all but impossible without the Internet. There is no more convenient way of getting a message to a wide range of people than placing it on the Internet where it can be read by anyone who happens to stumble across it, or find it buried in the middle of their Twitter feed. Whether you need to know about good restaurants in a city you are visiting for the first time, or the lyrics in the first line of a song, posting your query on Twitter should get you a flood of helpful replies.
If this sounds a lot like placing a question or an advertisement on a bulletin board, it is. But the difference between Twitter and a bulletin board is that Twitter stretches across the world and the replies are automatic. It is bigger, and it is faster and this is just one reason why Twitter has become hugely popular and is relied upon by so many.
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The first time you sign on to Twitter, you will be greeted by a question at the top of the screen which may seem impertinent. The line of text says, in full, “What Are You Doing?”. The literal answer to this may not be anything particularly interesting. Indeed, it may be “Logging on to Twitter”. It may go without saying, but this question need not be answered in full every time you read it. The more basic and banal your Twitter updates are, the less likely people are to follow you. That’s not to say that you can never post basic updates, but if you tell people every time you sneeze, they’re going to lose interest.
People follow Twitter these days by a wide and varied range of means, including via a feed client which posts new updates on their desktop at graduated intervals. If someone sees that they have twenty new tweets to read, and then discovers that fifteen of them are from you talking about how your toaster isn’t working, then they’d better be very funny updates on the toaster situation or you will lose followers. Quality is more important than quantity, or at least as important.
Of course, your tweeting style should reflect the audience you want to read your tweets. Not everybody is Oscar Wilde, and not everybody wants to read Oscar Wilde anyway. Your tweets should, when it comes down to it, reflect your personality more than anything, and if that personality is simple and unassuming, then your tweets don’t need to be about rescuing people from fires or performing at Carnegie Hall.
Every phenomenon that spreads quickly around the world must come complete with its own lexicon of slang. Being a heavily text-based phenomenon, Twitter is perhaps a more complete example of this than any other. Starting with the practice of writing a message on Twitter, or “Tweeting”, this slang refers to a great deal of other topics as well. If you wish to send a message to one specific user, you use the @ symbol followed by their ID, and this is known as an “at-reply”. If they do not wish for this message to show up in their feed for the notice of other users, they may send it as a direct message, or simply “DM”.
Of course one of the most commonly used pieces of slang is “re-tweeting”, which is largely self-explanatory, referring as it does to the practice of copying and crediting the “tweet” of another user. It is not dissimilar to a chain e-mail. Then there is the list of tweets that you read from fellow users. The tweets themselves turn up in what is known as your “feed”. Your feed will be particularly busy if you “follow” a lot of people – which is the fairly obvious slang for reading their tweets.
A piece of slang which is not limited to Twitter but has found its natural home there is “Crowdsourcing”. This refers to asking a question or requesting a favor via Twitter which, when read by your followers, will gain you a lot of information or help from a number of people – or a crowd.