Thursday, August 13, 2009

Don’t Follow; Filter! Sifting Through Twitter's Vast Ocean of Information

Almost every day I see notice that one or more new Twitterers have chosen to “follow” me. The ones that catch my attention, though are those who follow over a thousand others. The first thought that comes to me is, “do they even read those Tweets? How can they possibly make sense out of thousands of 140-character messages every hour!?”

Whether or not you are an experienced Twitterer (or FaceBook user) with hundreds or thousands of followers (or “friends”), you know, of course, that it would be a full time job to do so. But the truly experienced Twitterers (translation: been on Twitter more than 60 days and have posted at least 100 Tweets) knew a few tricks that you may find helpful.

Tip #1: Twitter is incomplete

The simple interface gets you hooked. Yet, beyond sending out a Tweet or two, there is so much more you want to do but cannot find inside Twitter’s web interface. By design or by accident, the basic Twitter screen is one avid users outgrow rapidly.

There are some partial features new to the user interface, but they are themselves incomplete. Case in point: search. Twitter Search was apparently intended for other software developers to use, and until recently, was only available on another web page. Advanced Twitter Search is actually quite useful, but you still have to know where it is to use it.

With the basic search field on your Twitter home page, you can put in terms and phrases—yes, even including those fantastic hashtags—and get a quick list of Tweets with that term or phrase. You can even save your searches. Unfortunately, there is no “logic” feature to allow you to construct queries above exact match searches. Twitter has a simple tutorial for using Search to find people here.

Another feature that is missing is the ability to categorize your “Follows.” If you follow Congress, your favorite news site, product recalls, weather updates, your friends and a few companies who sell products you adore, all their Tweets are blended into one murky river of short messages. Twitter alone does not help you out here. For that, you need to read Tip #2.

Tip #2: Tools!

For a free service, it is astounding how many developers have built equally free software or constructed free-to-use web pages to expand the ways people can use Twitter. These tools are divided into two categories for simplicity: general Twitter usage tools and Twitter Search tools.

The venerable reference guide from way back in 2007, “Twitter Toolbox,” is still available online to give you a summary of over 60 tools to help Twitterers Tweet more effectively. Most of them are actually web developer tools to help others incorporate the power of Twitter in their web pages. A better list for users is OpenJason’s “100 Twitter Tools.”, posted earlier this year.

You can also get ideas for useful tools from those you follow. Each Tweet typically names the service or software the Twitterer used to post the update. Bing or Google the name and test them yourself. That is where I found TweetDeck and Seesmic, among other tools I use.

For searching, there are separate lists of suggested tools that will guide your quest for the perfect way to find needles in the world’s most dynamic information haystack. Ari Herzog did a fine job with his critique, “6 Twitter Search Services Compared” a few months ago. Loren Baker outlined “9 Twitter Search Apps: Better than Twitter & Google” for the Search Engine Journal. There are likely many more lists of suggested tools out there.

Tip #3: Be careful what you wish for!

After you master the Twitter basics and settled on some tools, you are ready to begin sifting through the ocean for tiny plankton. Businesses may want to keep on-going searches for their company and product names. Politicians may want to watch for “mentions” of their opponents’ names and Twitter account names. Students can set up searches to keep track of trending discussions on current events or famous people. Prospective travelers can watch for discussions about their dream destinations.

There really is no limit--which is a problem of its own. You can easily over-do the searching and monitoring to the point where you are overwhelmed once again. In that case, go back to Tip #2 and find a new tool!
UPDATE: After publishing the above article, I found this helpful slideshow, thanks to a post on the "Small Business CEO" site: "Small Business Trends Radio has recently launched a slideshow showing readers 10 Ways To Build Twitter Followers."

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