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The Twitter buzz has gone mainstream as news anchors and talk show hosts promote their streams via television and radio waves. But unless you’re using Twitter to build your own brand, it’s just a time-waster that kills productivity. Find out how to use Twitter productively.
How Twitter Works
When you open a Twitter account, you basically sign up for your own homepage. It becomes a feed when you start following other users and their updates populate your page. You get to know what they ate for breakfast, what they think about their neighbor’s cat, or what they plan to wear tomorrow. If you’re following one hundred others, multiply those updates.
Likewise, if someone else on Twitter follows you, they get to see all your updates on their homepage. Your updates, called tweets, are limited to 140 characters. They’re essentially broadcast real-time to all your followers.
Other Basic Twitter Features
You can also use Twitter to send direct messages to other users. Or to direct tweets to them by starting your message with their username. Let’s say you want to tweet directly to @productivegeek for instance. @productivegeek would be able to see your tweet after logging in and clicking on @productive link in the right sidebar — it shows all tweets directed to @productivegeek.
How Twitter Generates Noise
There are two major ways that Twitter generates lots of noise that essentially cuts down on your productivity.
Direct messaging: Direct messaging basically opens up a new inbox. Keeping a lean and clean inbox is a basic tenet of productivity. Having a Twitter inbox causes more work and upkeep. Not only do you have more contacts (Twitter peeps don’t necessarily have to be an email buddy in order to bug you with direct messages), you’re also dealing with many more messages. This is because direct messages, just like tweets, are limited to 140 characters. So it’s natural for a message that would normally fit in one email to stretch out into at least four or five direct messages. Soon enough, direct messaging through Twitter clutters up another inbox.
Tweets: When you log into Twitter, you see everyone’s updates. Updates are basically what an individual deems worth sharing, which may have nothing to do with what you deem worth reading. Someone might want to share how they ordered in their Chipotle burrito, how they’re going into food coma because of the burrito, how they’ll order their next one, and so on. But you might see that as an encroachment on your precious time. Even your favorite blogger will no doubt share things on Twitter that you find a bore. It could be a detail about their personal life, or even a link to an article you’re not interested in.
Twitter clients like TweetDeck help you better manage your homepage, so that you’re only viewing the feed that you’re really interested in on a regular basis. But even then you still have to navigate the noise within a person’s stream. There’s still plenty of distraction.
Why Power Users Are Productive on Twitter
Links are the bread and butter of Twitter. News gets out, memes proliferate, and topics trend all because of tweeted links.
To get your tweets get re-tweeted, you need to have a large following of users that are responsive to you. Or you need to have the right kind of follower, like a power user, who then spreads your message across their networks.
Power users hand-pick their links and tailor them to build their brand. Each Twitter power user has an agenda, and that’s a big part of why they have so many followers. They tweet content that ultimately gives them something in return: more followers, wider reach, more clients, better reputation, better leads, etc. Movie stars link to behind-the-scenes photos to generate anticipation. Musicians link to exclusive content so build a more loyal fanbase. TV personalities link to exclusive giveaways to better hold the attention of their viewers. A-list bloggers link to stellar content to build their authority. Each of these types of link delivers value in the form of knowledge or entertainment.
So when a power user broadcasts a message, they get something valuable in return. That’s productive because their time spent on Twitter is an investment, not a waste. Power users are productive on Twitter because they use it as a tool to build their brand.
So if you want a lot of followers, you need link strategically and offer valuable content on a regular basis. That requires creativity and time. It’s not worth it unless you are getting something in return. It’s not worth it unless you are investing it into your brand.
Twitter is for Brand-Building
Twitter is ideal for conducting real-time market research and finding out what’s on people’s minds regarding a particular topic. If you’re building a brand or running a business, you should be using Twitter for this purpose. It’s invaluable research that would cost a lot of money the old-fashioned way.
Twitter is also ideal, as just discussed, for broadcasting messages far and wide to build your brand.
If you’re not taking advantage of Twitter as a brand-building tool, you’re really just using it as a feed reader. It’s fine to consume Twitter feeds, but there’s a more productive way to do it.
How Twitter Kills Productivity
If you’re only on Twitter to consume the valuable content found in other users’ streams, you’re going to be buried in noise — useless information that will only distract you from actually getting things done. And what’s worse, a lot of that noise is filled with links — to the latest gossip column, op-ed, or YouTube hit. Meaning, you have tons of dead-end links to distract yourself with. Or, if they’re not dead-end, they lead you onto plenty more time-wasting urls.
You may be thinking, “But how am I going to know the latest Productive Geek news if I’m following @productivegeek on Twitter?”
Well, there is an alternative.
Use an RSS Reader Instead of Twitter
Instead of registering for Twitter and following a bunch of users and logging on everyday — throwing hours down the drain — keep a minimalist approach to Twitter:
Step 1: Start out with 5-10 users you’d like to follow and go to their homepages (you can add more later). Only choose the ones who’s tweets provide you value — that somehow relates back to your productivity.
Step 2: Subscribe to those users’ tweets through an RSS reader. You can find that orange RSS icon in the right sidebar when you scroll down on their page (see image below). From there, you can choose how you’d like to view the updates.
Step 3: Consume those updates when you can strategically plan some break time. If one of your favorite websites is doing a special giveaway, you won’t miss out on the messages. And you’ll actually be better able to spot the important updates because the feed won’t be cluttered by noise from other users.
Step 4: Only register and log in to your actual Twitter account when you want to accomplish one of the following:
- Finding out what topics are trending on Twitter (which can be synonymous with time-wasting unless goal-oriented)
- Seeing what users around the globe are saying about particular current events, perhaps using hashtags (like #productivity)
- Researching what people think about a certain product/movie/book/idea by using the search bar
Think About Productivity Before Approaching Twitter
You shouldn’t be on Twitter unless you’re building a brand, or already have a business or cause that you actively promote. That gives you something back in return (money, resources, satisfaction, inspiration).
Twitter is all about reach — how far and wide a tweet can spread. Your reach won’t be much unless you have a lot of followers (or a few power users who happen to re-tweet your content). You won’t have a lot of followers unless you consistently offer valuable content. You can’t afford to consistently create valuable content unless you get something in return. Something that translates into a business or a brand and thus sustains you in a meaningful way.
So if you’re not aiming to use Twitter to get something back in return and improve your productivity, avoid it altogether, or use the RSS feature instead.
What do you think?
Do you think Twitter can be productive even if you’re not building a brand?
Do you use Twitter productively?
Or do you find that Twitter and productivity simply don’t go together?
Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.
- Published 08/16/10