Twitter for the Casual User — How to Make It Work for You

It's probably not surprising that I view and use Twitter as a business and professional communication tool, based on what I do for a living. It can clearly be advantageous to tweet professionally and/or about your business, as I wrote in a blog post a few months ago.

Recently I've been asked what value Twitter has to the more casual user someone who's not promoting a business or using it professionally. Twitter is one of those experiences in life that is hard to explain (even though I'm going to give it a go here), but becomes amazingly clear once you understand the ground rules and try it out yourself.

At its most basic level, Twitter is a social networking channel. Because there is a 140 character limit, it's ideal for sharing small bites of information and links. Twitter's reputation while not totally undeserved as nothing more than the latest way for the self-absorbed to overshare the mundane details of their lives ignores how well it enables the communication of relevant information quickly and succinctly. Are there people tweeting about what they ate for breakfast and what color shirt they're wearing today? Most likely. A communication channel is only as good as the content filling it. Garbage in, garbage out still applies.

But when you ignore the garbage and focus on the "communication of relevant information quickly and succinctly" then that is when Twitter reveals its value. You can customize Twitter so that it delivers exactly the information you're interested in, and you never have to send a single tweet (40% of Twitter users don’t tweet every month but watch others tweet*). To create a road map through the approximately one billion tweets created every five days*, I've categorized tweets into six groups, with examples, to help new Twitter users navigate their way:
  1. News
    Every media outlet tweets. Follow BBC World News, the New York Times, CNN, CBS News, or your favorite news source. Most magazines also tweet. Usually you'll get the headline and a link to an article if you're interested in finding out more.
  2. Favorite celebrities, authors, actors, photographers, musicians or sports teams
    So many of them tweet. Anderson Cooper, Coldplay, Robert DeNiro, Annie Leibovitz, Maya Angelou or the San Jose Sharks hockey team are just a few examples. You can use the Who to Follow function in Twitter to search for the people or groups who interest you.
  3. Elected representatives
    Members of Congress (Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren in my case), governors (Governor Jerry Brown in California) and even the President of the United States all tweet to communicate with their constituents.
  4. Local businesses
    One of my favorite social networking success stories is about the catering trucks who tweet their locations so that their customers can find them. Mashable covered the trend in an article titled How Social Media Is Fueling the Food Truck Phenomenon. One example cited in the article, Kogi BBQ,  has 87,000 followers who follow five trucks.
    I can follow one of my favorite French restaurants, Left Bank, keep an eye out for sales and new merchandise at Nordstrom, or find out what local events are taking place with tweets from the San Jose Downtown Association.
  5. Favorite causes or hobbies
    Whether it's disability advocacy, organic gardening, nature conservation, micro lending, running, hiking or trumpet playing, you will find someone who is tweeting about topics that interest you. A few examples include the Harvard Art Museums,Yosemite National Park, or Knitting Network where knitters share patterns and information.
  6. Trending topics
    This is a daily Twitter feature that tracks the most frequently used hash tags. Including a hash tag in a tweet makes that tweet appear in topical searches, such as #Egypt, #Occupy or #accessibility.
And here's the amazing thing about Twitter. You choose how you want to use it. You can set it up as a simple feed, where tweets on the topics you're interested in come to you, via your computer, tablet or smart phone, or even as cell phone texts. Or, if you want to connect with others who have the same interests, Twitter can help you do that too. You can respond to that person who has the perfect non-toxic aphid spray and ask for the recipe. Or you can tell the governor that you are opposed to the bill she is poised to sign. (Twitter has a very good Basics page to tell you exactly how.)

With Twitter, you define your experience engage as much or as little as you want, and as frequently or infrequently as you like.

* 11 New Twitter Statistics