How to Make The Best Use of Twitter

Twitter hold-outs are missing out on a wealth of news and discussion, writes Claire Cain Miller.  A common reason given by those who have yet to try Twitter: “I have nothing to say.” The truth is, you don’t have to post a message to get the most out of Twitter.

At its best, the social medium is a perpetual, personalised news service about topics of your choosing – whether health-care reform, tech news or the latest episode of Gossip Girl – filtered and served to you by people who care a lot about what you care a lot about.

Even the most prolific users say Twitter has become more useful as a way to tap in to the discussions of the day than to broadcast their own thoughts. And once you get pulled in, you might find you have something to say after all.

Twitter’s co-founder, Biz Stone, suggests naysayers simply log on and search for a topic that interests them, whether it’s their favorite sporting team or a topic in the news. Within a minute, they understand the appeal, he says.

Twitter users write 50 million messages a day. For the hold-outs, here are a few ways to make Twitter work for you.

A custom news feed

By the time Bridget Baker, who works in public relations in Seattle, checks Google Reader while eating lunch at her desk, she has already read most of the articles in her feed because she saw them on Twitter.

In the year since she joined, she has written only 17 posts. “I tend to be a pretty private person and I don’t feel I have anything that needs to be said,” she says. Yet she opens Twitter first thing each morning and follows friends, bloggers and thought leaders who post about politics, religion, fashion and food.

People with shared interests become your editor and Twitter becomes an alternative RSS feed. Find those people by searching Twitter directories, like WeFollow or Just Tweet It and by following people whom others repeat or mention.

One-fifth of posts and 57 per cent of repeat messages contain a link, proving that this is an increasingly popular way to spread news, says Dan Zarrella, a social media scientist who works at a software company called HubSpot. A quick scan reveals the news of the moment as the most important stories of the day bubble up and are reposted.

Check your lists

Twitter is such a fast-moving stream that you may not want to follow everyone who posts about your interests. That’s one reason Twitter invented Lists, which anyone can create. Someone could separate celebrity users or tech pundits, for example, so they get an unadulterated stream of news on only the topic they want at that moment.

If you don’t know who the best users are on a favorite topic, look for Lists on sites such as Listorious or by checking profiles.

Virtually attend a conference

Most conferences these days have a Twitter hashtag. At the exclusive TED conference in Long Beach, California, in February, for example, attendees added #TED to the end of their posts.

By searching #TED on Twitter, people could read the latest updates (and skip the $6000 attendance fee). People wrote quotes from the speakers, like this one: “‘If I had only one wish for the next 50 years, it’d be to invent the thing that halves the cost of CO2’ – Bill Gates #TED.”

What’s around you right now

Twitter is working on ways to deliver news nearby, like alerts about an earthquake or the closing of a bridge, Stone says.

Twitter’s list of trending topics can now be searched by city. Some Twitter apps, such as Tweetie and TwitterLocal, let you search posts near you. Check the website to see the most discussed topics in your area.

Ask questions

You can use Twitter to ask questions when you don’t know whom to ask, such as where to eat dinner in a new city, for example, or how to extend your iPhone’s battery life, and you are sure to get answers.

Some people are even using Twitter for more urgent questions. A medical student at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, Bertalan Mesko, wrote a post about a patient with mysterious symptoms: “Strange case today in internal medicine rotation. 16 years old boy with acute pancreatitis (for the 6th! time). Any ideas?”

Within hours, specialists worldwide had responded. One of the suggestions helped the doctors with a diagnosis.

“It would have been impossible to find that specialist through e-mail, because we had no idea who to contact,” Mesko says.



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