Putting Twitter to good use

The other day I was sniffing around for a Portland (Maine) equivalent to the WCAX weather announcer that announces Vermont weather via Twitter. I didn’t find one. I did however find a post that seemed to echo some of the thoughts and confusion I’ve heard elsewhere regarding the utility of Twitter. This got me thinking in a few different directions, and what follows is one of them.

I’ve been outlining examples to people of various uses for tools like Twitter for a while. This is the weaving together of a few of those conversational threads. I’m focusing on team communication (internal), customer/client/audience communication (external), and individual (that’s you!) uses.

Transparency and communication (putting the “T” back in Team)

For teams, something like Twitter can provide a layer of internal transparency between colleagues. A quick tweet of “stuck on Y, switching gears to work on X” can go a long way to grease the wheels of communication. This is especially true if people are in a distributed environment, or just knee-deep in the zone.

An emailed or blogged status report might not be appropriate, or might take too much away from the task at hand. The forced brevity, and almost frivolous nature of a tweet can be a perfect way to communicate to your colleagues without demanding their attention or taking too much of yours.

If the idea of conversing publicly has you feeling a bit exposed, never fear, there are other options. Prologue is a WordPress theme that provides a private twitterverse for your group. That way you can have a healthy dose of internal transparency, and not have to worry about the world seeing what you’re doing. Alternatively, Pownce is a service which has some pretty solid team applications in this area.

Advertising is the message

Twitter is a great example of an opt-in network. You don’t see much spam there, despite it’s immense popularity. The people who follow you, and continue to do so, follow you because you have something to say that interests them. If what you say has no relevance to them, they can simply un-follow you. Don’t have many followers? Maybe your tweets sound too much like advertisements. I’ve said it before, but I really like the way Dave Winer puts it:

Advertising will get more and more targeted until it disappears, because perfectly targeted advertising is just information.

If used right, Twitter can be a valuable means for communicating outside of the organization. As a micro-blogging platform, it can be employed as an informal way to call attention to news and topics related to your field, or provide updates about your service. It’s less than formal nature also lets you to interact with your audience in new ways. Got something to post that’s not quite an email, not quite a newsletter heading? Maybe it’s a tweet.

What’s in it for me?

On an individual level, you might find yourself scooping up juicy tips and bits of news from those you follow, or using Twitter to keep in touch with old friends in the far corners of the interwebs. When I first signed up, I realized I could use it to syndicate my away messages, which is something I had wanted to do for a while. Picking up this service wasn’t too far of a jump from my existing instant messenger workflow. Over time, my use has evolved somewhat, as I’ve found it works well for informal communication, both direct and indirect.

In fact, you can catch all sorts of breaking news there – often from those close to the source. The idea of using Twitter as an information fire hose is an intriguing one.

However, I’m still finding myself wary of following strangers. Much of the value of a social network fades when you cease to actually know most of the people in your immediate network. As your circle of contacts expands, you lose context and the information begins to lose value. It’s a signal-to-noise thing. At least that’s my feeling so far – others have thought more, and written better about this. I wonder if groups of friends would allow you to prioritize the cacophony of voices so that you can retain the context of your circle of friends.

But I digress. Don’t be afraid to try this tool in different contexts – you might be surprised by the results.