I'm nearly half-way through writing Twitterville and have now talked with over 100 people about Twitter and why they use it in the their lives and for their businesses and causes. In many ways, the book is about the different ways professionals are using Twitter, but what's interesting to me is some of the common threads.
For example, almost no one knows what to do when they first get to Twitter, a problem that is starting to be fixed by the Twitter guys. Second, almost everyone in business comes to Twitter to say something and nearly always they figure out that it is at least equally valuable as a listening tool. The end result is that people use Twitter to have interesting conversations.
And as it happens at social gatherings or even when you are with friends and colleagues you already know, it is really hard to tell in advance when you are going to have interesting conversations. For example, there was a Toronto cab driver who insisted on talking to me when I just wanted to get to the airport. He left me with an understanding of life in Africa that has stayed with me for years. I have gone to many social gatherings where I have had dozens of chats which were not useful or valuable, then someone--out of the blue--will say one sentence and it will change my perceptions.
Twitter is like that. It seems to me that one of the common threads between the millions of people using Twitter is that we are all there for interesting conversations. Not every conversation is interesting--just like in real life. But enough are and I try to tweak how I use Twitter to increase the number of conversations useful or interesting to me.
I pay close attention to who I follow. I used to think that I had to make that a small number so I could really keep track of what everyone I follow had to say all of the time but Twitter does not work like that. I go in to my stream several times a day and see who is saying what. More times than not, I say nothing and leave after a few minutes. But sometimes there's a real gem and I get involved in the conversation and stay for some time.
But the fact that I follow nearly 1700 people is not so overwhelming as you may think. In real life, you probably have more than 1500 people you know, but you never talk to them all at once. It's the same on Twitter. Like real life, having more acquaintances is often very valuable to networking for jobs or sharing information on why the Red Sox are likely to win it all this year. It doesn't matter the topic. What matters is that on Twitter you can engage with more people who share interests with you faster than you can do it in real life.
This week my thin slicing showed me that a lot of people feel angst over the issue of followers. "When someone follows me, am I obliged to follow back," I read once. The answer for you may be different but for me that is a resounding "no." People are free to follow me or not as they choose. While I'd rather see my followers increasing rather than decreasing, it is not a core issue. I choose to follow people because I see them say something that interests me and I hope that by following them, I'll learn something new or have a few seconds to smile on a busy day.
When someone I follow says things that do not interest me, or offend me, I just unfollow them, quietly and unceremoniously. This week, a Tweeter tweeted me to let me know he was unfollowing me and was letting me know "as a courtesy." That was not necessary.
I think it's important not to become a slave to followers. Someone I know with lots more followers than I have, shared with me this week that she is afraid to offend anyone for fear of losing followers. My response was, "screw them." Twitter is a place where you should be free to say what you want in the style that you want.
If you are using Twitter primarily for business, this of course means that you need to react within limits of appropriate behavior, but even if you are in conversations with real customers, there need to be limits to how accommodating you are. If not you will waste your own time and become a pretty bland tweeter for the rest of your followers.
People are constantly coming and going as my followers. I used to write a lot more about technology and marketing than I do now. When I went to China, where I tweeted hundreds of times, the PR & tech center people left me by the dozen. But they were replaced by people who shared my interest in China.
Don't be afraid to change subjects if your interests change. You may end up with smaller numbers, but you will end up talking with people who share your passions and focus.