Companies & Industries

Are You Fun to Follow on Twitter?


There's an art to tweeting. And most people just haven't mastered it, says Tamara Erickson

Posted on Harvard Business Review: February 2, 2010 8:50 AM

There's an art to tweeting. And, I'm sorry to say, most people just haven't mastered it.

Twitter, for the few uninitiated out there, is a social networking site that limits your posts to 140 characters. You can sign up to "follow" (receive the Tweets) from just about anyone you choose.

I initially signed up to follow lots of people—colleagues, journalists, academics, politicians, comedians, friends and family. Over the past months, I've been steadily "unfollowing"—if that's the right term—many of the people I originally signed on behind.

Frankly, most people's tweets are neither interesting nor fun to read—certainly not on a daily or hourly basis. Many, not at all. I say this with no condemnation, since I admit mine are pretty lousy, too. And I have a theory about why.

Recently I received one of those random chain emails; it's probably circulated through your in-box, as well. This one described an experiment organized by the Washington Post in 2007. A man played six Bach pieces on a violin for 45 minutes in the Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning. During the time he played, approximately two thousand people passed through the station. Of those, only six people stopped and listened, and then only for a very short while. The greatest levels of enthusiasm were displayed by young children, several of whom tugged on their parents, asking to stop and listen, but without success.

This concert, enjoyed by virtually none of the two thousand in the station that day, was given by the renowned violinist Joshua Bell, playing some of the most intricate pieces ever written. Two days before his concert in a theater in Boston had sold out with ticket prices averaging $100.

The circulating email challenges us to ponder what we each are missing. In a common place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

I would add: Do we take time to reflect on the events of our day—to add our own interpretation? When things strike us as unusual or lovely, do we take time to note them?

These questions, I believe, are at the heart of the successful use of Twitter. Individuals who are most skilled at using this peculiar 140-character medium are those who do notice the small details of life, who capture the moments that others of us miss, who slow down to watch and listen while most race on, and who personalize the events they see.

As an example, my daughter, in her Tweets, often succeeds in capturing her world's details in ways that I find interesting and fun.

Sometimes she shares a Jeopardy-like nugget of trivia: Who knew that Brown and University of Chicago were founded by Baptists?

Or she makes me laugh by adding her own commentary to an overhead quote: The lowest cut Tim Gunn can make: "Its borderline Hilary Clinton."

Some of her tweets are strange and inexplicable—and become the basis for our next phone conversation: "He supported his family by selling wigs by day and teaching drums by night." (This turns out to be a passage from a biography of Phil Lesh, who played bass for the Grateful Dead, describing one of the group's drummers.)

She provides glimpses of how she feels about her life, often cloaked in riddles: "The history of art doesn't work in straight lines; rather it always seems to go in circles."-MM. Why my major is both pointless & relevant. (MM is her art history professor.)

And she observes the smallest actions of those around her, reporting them with her own footnote: When I left lunch today my meter still had 6 min left. I watched as the next person pulled in, got out, and fist pumped. You're welcome.

Based in part on following @k_erickso, here's what I've concluded about the art of the tweet:

1. Don't report banal details. Unless you're observing a true breaking news event (and note: this term does not include what you or your child ate for lunch), skip it.

2. Do interpret your experiences. How do they make you feel? What do they mean to you?

3. Do share the oddities you observe. Look for things that seem unusual, out-of-place, surprising.

4. Do share things you love—quotes, phrases, descriptions of events that brought joy to your day.

Slow down, enjoy. Listen to the world's music. Share the best of your experiences, but remember, 140 characters is a unique format—more like poetry or Haiku than news reporting. Using it well requires our thoughtful attention.

What would you add? What are your favorite Tweets? Whom do you love to follow?

My Twitter handle is @tammyerickson—but, I'm warning you, I'm not very good at it…yet.

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