Getting Value From Twitter

I have heard a number of people say that the microblogging site Twitter is largely a waste of time and of little practical value, especially for those who’s time is precious. As a Twitterer myself, I’d like to spend a post defending my ‘waste of time’.

The main complaint against the site is that it has what most scientists would see as a low signal-to-noise ratio: in other words, there are lot of people talking but not so many saying anything very important. And in any case, they only have 140 characters, so can’t say much in any detail anyway. The amount going on is overwhelming, where do you even start? Plus there are all these celebrities twittering away, which surely shows what a shallow undertaking it must be?

These points are all valid and yet I still find value. Let me explain.

The signal-to-noise issue is quite simple. There are indeed people tweeting what they had for breakfast, but I quite simply do not follow those people. Excessive inanity is a quick way to get me to unfollow. In short, I look for people to follow that give me what I looking for in my twitter feed. So that is people talking science, about the pharmaceutical industry, about networking – all professionally-related subjects. I also follow people more for my own entertainment – several news people, and rather more than I expected related to soccer (but given the approaching World Cup, perhaps understandable). I have dropped people from my follow list for going off-subject too often (though I am forgiving of the occasional aside, as I hope those that follow me are as well!). I have become a little more picky about new follows too – will they add to what I am already getting?

So to come back to the signal-to-noise ratio, mine has been tuned to the wavelength I like and thus the signal is strengthened.

The 140 character limit is occasionally restricting, but Twitter is not the place for verbose exposition. The ideal tweet contains, essentially, a headline and a link. If the headline told you all you needed, then move on. If you want to know more, the link will take you to a website where a more complete treatment of the subject can take place. The headline/link combination is important, as I don’t tend to click on Twitter links (which are ubiquitously shortened URLs) if I don’t have a good idea of where it is taking me. There is an amount of trust I put in those I follow to give me links that are valuable – I don’t want to click on a link and find myself somewhere …. unsavory.

When I first got a twitter account, I had no idea at all where to start. What you need are a few people to follow, then you can see who they follow, what they re-tweet. So slowly you can build up a portfolio of twitters. It takes time though. A lot of people lose interest or just give up in frustration before they have established themselves. That’s OK. There are other ways to get what you want.

That last point is important. I see blog posts from In the Pipeline, market news, interesting tid bits from various journals. But I could get those things in other ways. I don’t use Twitter to keep up with my ‘main’ journals – I have those in an email feed. RSS feeds and numerous other methods (even *shock* non-electronic ones!) can all get you the information that you are looking for. Twitter works for me and I like it because of the occasional unexpected things that come up, plus you can interact with the senders of those articles much more easily. People have compared Twitter to a noisy cafe where lots of people are talking about all kinds of things and overhearing what the next table are talking about, then throwing their 2 cents in. It is rather like that, but cutting out some of the background makes it rather easier to cope with.

I will follow this post up with one about how I use Twitter, which is probably quite different to how many others use it, plus some interesting people to follow!

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7 comments on “Getting Value From Twitter

  1. As a former chemist, more recent molecular geneticist, now science educator (of a sort), I’m getting on the Twitter wagon for exactly the reasons you outline. Also, I’m grappling with exactly the issues you raise. Here’s to doing the experiment and seeing it through!

  2. You made some great points. For the longest time, I just didn’t see any value in Twitter, because of the character limit. Facebook contains all the functionality of Twitter, in addition to much more.

    However, there is one crucial difference between the two that, depending upon your point of view is a strength or a weakness. Facebook requires parties to connect as “friends,” thereby enabling two-way communication. This feature can be great for staying in touch with people and expanding your personal network, but it also opens up the door to cyber-voyeurism, and not just for you, but for all of your contacts. I’ve started to use FB exclusively for people that I know personally, such as friends and family members.

    On the other hand, I’m finding Twitter to be far more useful for identifying “professional” content that is of interest to me. Also, not requiring two way communication helps balance getting access to useful information from others and being able to transmit useful information without fear of being spammed to death. Like you, I’m quick to unfollow banal people who tell me what they had for breakfast.

    As Twitter is evolving, I’m seeing the Caption+Link convention as the way to go. Ideally, I’d like to see Twitter add capability to 1) put the link in a separate field, thereby saving characters for the caption and 2) allowing me to filter only those tweets that have an associated article. More than 95% of the time, if a tweet doesn’t link to an article, I really don’t care about it.

  3. Coturnix says:

    This is very similar to how I explained Twitter to scientists at AAAS meeting last month, and is related to the concept of Mindcasting (as opposed to Lifecasting) – you may find the links within that post interesting.

    • I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for this talk at AAAS. The session made a social media convert out of me, perhaps especially because I resonated with the idea of Mindcasting (versus Life / Mind-Less-Casting).

  4. David Perrey says:

    Great comments, thanks to all three of you.

    I like the idea of Twitter adopting a separate field for a link, though I rarely have trouble fitting a headline and a link in – it is the source (when I am retweeting/passing along). The characters lost to @xxxxxx can be painful. But I do like to edit down the headline in that case to focus it.

    I did just read the post on Mindcasting and – ha! – that was what I was doing. I wondered what it was called. Nice to see it all laid out there.

    And of course, I tweeted that page. :)

  5. Hm hm.. that’s very interessting but to be honest i have a hard time visualizing it… wonder what others have to say..

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