#HIV – Twitter 101 for people with HIV
(This is Part 2 of a series on social media and HIV. Read the first installment here. Part 3, Twitter 102 – Twitter as an information channel, coming soon.)
If you’ve spent more than a few minutes online – and if you’re reading this, odds are you have – you’ve probably seen it: ‘Follow me on Twitter’, or ’Follow us on Twitter’. Usually, those words link to another web page, one usually hosted on, you guessed it, Twitter.com.
Following in this instance means something different than trailing hot boy/girl X around the bar. What it means is, simply put, that you sign up to receive short text messages – coincidentally limited to 140 characters – whenever that person or organization deems fit to send such a message. Those messages are cutely called ‘tweets’. If you call them ‘twits’, by the way, you’ll be kicked off the Internet.
Tweets are, in the online universe, a haiku next to the Iliad of, say, The New York Times. They are, of necessity, short; there are roughly half a billion users who send a total of one hundred and seventy five million tweets a day. That’s maybe twenty five billion characters a day; by contrast, the Bible has only three and half million. In short, you’re looking at an enormous amount of data, enough to require a biblical lifespan and then some to read them all. That being unlikely, you’ll need to edit and choose what you look for. More on that in a bit.
So how do you use Twitter, especially as a person with HIV or AIDS?
If you already have an account, you can skip this step; if you don’t, click on over to Twitter and create one. You’ll need a valid email address and a good, memorable password. Many people use their full name or a recognizable nickname; if you value your privacy, that’s perhaps not the best idea. Personally, while my main handle (that’s what these accounts are called), @MichaelBouldin – is indeed my real name, for a while, I had a separate handle just for my HIV tweets. You should keep in the back of your mind that tweets are public, unless you affirmatively choose otherwise by deleting them outright or ‘protecting’ them, which simply requires that you approve whomever wants to follow or read you. If you do decide to tweet under your real name, it’s a great idea to have a profile picture of yourself; that will make your virtual presence more real and relatable to other users.
One you have that account, you’ll see several new and interesting things. The first is your very own Twitter page that lets you do nifty things: add custom backgrounds, post a short bio, your web site, and put up that nice head shot. If you take a look at my Twitter page, you’ll get the idea. And remember, none of this is rocket science. Twitter’s audience is, statistically, less well educated and younger than that of Facebook, for example, and the technology reflects that awkward fact. On the plus side of that ledger for advocates, however, is the simple fact that we really do want to be talking to younger people.
For that, Twitter is perfect.
To get started, you might want to look for people you know who are already on Twitter; friends, family, the usual drill. Then you can get more granular and do a subject search, say, for HIV, or gardening, or your hometown, whatever interests you. Odds are, there are quite a few people you’ll find just that way. The Twitter site itself has, at the top of the screen, several options to help you; they’re titled ‘Connect’ and ‘Discover’ respectively, and they help you do exactly that. These are geo-tagged, in part to help users discover one another.
The next step is to follow whomever you’ve found, and presto, your stream – that is, the tweets you’ve signed up to read – will begin to fill up. Pretty soon, you’ll want to wade into the conversation and send your first tweet; to lose your Twitter virginity, as it were. Trust me, it’s not quite as bloody painful as the other kind, and takes less time and effort.
So, now that you have your account, some followers, and are following some folks yourself, it’s time to go pro.
One of the first things you’ll discover is that the Twitter site is not satisfactory for more than extremely casual use. So you’ll want to get what’s called a Twitter client, i.e., a standalone piece of software that you can run off your desktop, your smartphone, laptop, tablet, whatever. Two Twitter clients are Tweetdeck and Twitter’s own stand-alone app; both are free. With Tweetdeck – and many other clients – you can manage your Twitter, Facebook, and God alone knows how many other accounts, all in the same interface. A word of caution: if you maintain different accounts for different purposes and audiences, make sure you send the right content to the right destination.
Another thing you’ll notice is that there are odd number signs – # – attached to a given term. Those are called #hashtags, and are very useful when you want to participate in a very specific discussion – such as on #HIV or #AIDS. To use a hashtag, just type it into the body of your tweet; some clients will even autofill a hashtag or suggest popular content-related tags. A great place to discover popular tags – on a scale from global to neighborhood – is TrendsMap.
Not all tweets are created equal. There are tweets, mentions and the big prize, retweets. The latter are when someone takes one of your tweets and simply rebroadcasts it to their own followers. Bingo, you’ve just reached an entirely new universe of people with your message. The more you yourself retweet, the more other users will notice you, by the way, because Twitter alerts its users whenever that happens.
Speaking of followers, there are several good ways to find them: for example, check out directories like Twitaholic or WeFollow. Get listed; you can even create your own lists. Topically, you’ll want to save searches whenever you can; that’ll spare you some typing and, because all of this moves at the literal speed of light, precious seconds. It also lets you find users interested in the same subjects you are (they can find you in much the same way, of course). A lot of folks, coincidentally, follow back as a matter of routine, so that’s another growth tool. A great idea is Follow Friday – a tweet with the hashtag #FF sent, wait for it, on Fridays– where you simply tweet out new followers, interesting accounts, whatever strikes your fancy. #FF is a nice way to simply acknowledge other people, the equivalent of a friendly nod on the street.
As with tweets themselves, not all followers are created equal either. Social media are in principle very egalitarian; you don’t need a fancy degree or a Swiss bank account to use them. That said, other users will judge you, sometimes rather harshly, based on whom you choose to follow yourself, and who follows you. A good discussion of this concept is here. Simply put, some accounts are spam, for pornography – on the Internet, imagine that – or just dolts who will broadcast their latest bowel movement to an anxious world. In real time. If an account like that follows you, and they will, don’t be shy: just block them.
Standard practice (and my approach as well) is to take a look at the page of whomever you’re thinking of following. Look at who they follow and who follows them. This sounds a bit snobbish, and in some ways it is, but as with all things in life, you’re judged by the company you keep.
When and where do you want to tweet? Anywhere and everywhere, but after work hours and on weekends, volume is lower, so you’ll have a greater chance of being noticed and shaping the conversation. Statistically, your tweet will be seen in a feed for just a few seconds, so you want to make those seconds count. It’s considered good practice to tweet a few times a day, more if you’re at a special event. If that’s the case, ask around if there’s a dedicated hashtag; odds are, there will be, and people will be following it.
What do you want to tweet? There is no one answer to that question, but some basic parameters would be: tweet your blog, if you have one. Tweet interesting news stories, and do include the link (if that link messes up your character count, you can shorten it here). Quotes generally do well, as do pictures. If one of your tweets does exceptionally well, don’t be afraid to re-use it; this repetition is standard practice and not considered bad manners. Unless you do it too often, so use good judgment. Another very sound practice is to check your facts; just because something is on the Internet does not make it true, so do some basic due diligence.
How do you tweet? The first rule to remember is that you only have 140 characters. That’s not a lot (there are services like Twitlonger for the clinically verbose, but tweeting being an art as much as anything else, tweets longer than the norm are frowned on by the cognoscenti). So train yourself to be pithy and incisive. Find your own voice. Be interesting. Be consistent thematically, but leave some room for the unexpected. Use abbreviations where possible. Choose short hashtags. If you can, tweet at other users; for example, to send a tweet to yours truly, put ‘@michaelbouldin’ in your text. I will see that. It’s fantastic if you want to annoy someone.
As do all social spaces, Twitter has its own peculiar etiquette. Some of these rules are just plain common sense. For example, never beg; if you want a retweet, just let your words work their magic. Never beg for followers either (or, God forbid, buy them outright, as some services will let you. It’s a waste of money and looks awful). Don’t tweet under the influence (unless you’re very funny). Make a point of engaging in conversations and acknowledging other people; this is, again, just basic good manners. Many people, and they know who they are, think of social media as megaphones; they’re not. They’re conversations, so act accordingly. One thing you should absolutely never do is set up an auto-responder that sends some generic drivel-tweet to every new follower; that practice, while not entirely uncommon, is considered the Mount Everest of boorishness. When you get a new follower and are sufficiently excited, just tweet directly at them; it may sound like a small thing, but the devil is in the details.
Lastly, boys will be boys, and we compulsively measure everything. A great tool to measure your impact on social media in general is Klout. If you have so much as a Facebook account, and who doesn’t, Klout has already assigned you a score from 0 to 100. This score is based, to simplify it somewhat, on the volume of activity you generate in the social media universe. So you really want to have a high score; the higher your score (and the more followers you have, of course) the more seriously you’ll be taken. Believe me, people watch Klout scores with all the intensity you might expect to find directed at young, unattended children. If you have a score under forty – the average is twenty – you’re not going to make the door in some nightclubs; I shit you not. There are more actually relevant drawbacks, but you get the idea: bigger is indeed better.
So, now you know what to do. Tweet away. Coming up next: using Twitter to find and disseminate information. Stay tuned.