What to Tweet (and What Not To)

April 21, 2009

What to tweet

So you’ve learned the basics of Twitter symbols (a few strange characters) and have set yourself up with a Twitter client for reading and writing. Now… what should you actually say in Twitter? That is, what to tweet?

If you’ve done any blogging, I want you to consider the following statement. Twitter is more that a “status update” service; Twitter is a blogging service. It just happens that the blog posts are limited to 140 characters — which is why it makes sense to call this “micro-blogging.” So blog away, however you like!

…But If you haven’t done any blogging, that last paragraph was probably less than helpful. Let me try again, giving some more detail on what to tweet:

What to tweet: Don’t answer the standard question

The question that Twitter asks on their web interface is, “What are you doing?” This is unfortunate, because for the most part we lead boring lives! Ever wonder why nobody does a reality TV show about your life? Most of what we do is mundane and uninteresting.

Unfortunately, the “What are you doing?” question perpetuates the myth that Twitter is a stupid time-waster consisting of nothing but “In line at Starbucks,” or “Brushed my teeth.” Are there people who tweet like that? Probably. But you don’t have to read their tweets, and you don’t have to be one of those people.

Instead of “What are you doing,” here are other questions which may lead you to tweet something more interesting:

  • What are you thinking about?
  • What has caught your attention?
  • What are you reading?
  • What happened to break your routine today?

Even Facebook, in their latest redesign, changed the update prompt from “[Your Name] is…” to “What’s on your mind?” which is better than the standard Twitter question. What’s on your mind?

What to tweet: Don’t answer any question!

But even the “improved” questions tend to lean towards something that is a status update. There’s nothing in Twitter that says you need to tweet any kind of personal status. You have a canvas — be creative! Artists often find greater “creative juice” when they limit themselves in some way. Well, here is your constraint: You have 140 characters. Go.

  • Make people laugh.
  • Make people cry.
  • Make people puzzled!

Write poetry. Impersonate a celebrity (identifying yourself as a fake) for comedic purposes. Twitter for your dog. Explore your 140-character canvas!

What to tweet: …But do answer the standard question

With all that said, sometimes “What are you doing?” is a good question to answer (if the answer is not dull), because it lets people catch a slice of your life and get to know you better. Back to that reality TV show about your life: You know if someone were to make such a show, besides putting you in a contrived situation designed to create conflict, the main thing they would do is edit, edit, edit. The dull bits are left on the cutting room floor, while the interesting bits get attention. What are the interesting moments of your life? Even mundane activities are interesting if they show your personality.

“TwiTip” is a blog of Twitter tips, and a recent article really nailed this idea: How to Be an Endearing Narcissist on Twitter.

What not to tweet: Remember, it’s all public

Finally, an important caution: I put that microphone image at the top as a reminder that Twitter is like a big open mic. Whatever you say may be read by anyone. Even if your settings specify “Protect my updates” so that they’re visible only to people you approve, there’s nothing preventing those people from accidentally selecting “retweet” in their Twitter clients and broadcasting what you just wrote to the world, fully attributed to you!

Don’t tweet:

  • Anything you wouldn’t say in person.
  • Anything you wouldn’t want your employer to see.
  • In anger (you may regret it).

Example of this danger zone: I had a phone interview with a manager I thought was completely lacking in people skills. I tweeted a message like, “Phone interview done, but that manager was somewhat less than human.”

Yikes! What if the manager had decided to move forward with face-to-face interviews, but then looked me up on Twitter to learn more about me? A friend with more Twitter experience was kind enough to sent me a direct message, alerting me that the message could have potential negative consequences. I deleted it immediately, but my friend also warned me that Twitter powers its searches with a separate database. Sure enough, even though I’d deleted the message, a search popped it up for some time. Deleting a tweet doesn’t immediately hide it from search results!

Enjoy yourself!

Have I scared you enough? Good. But now let’s relax and get back to the goal, which is to help you to tweet in interesting ways. It’s a new medium, so there will be things you will learn about the rhythms and follies of Twitter as you do them. What to tweet? Be helpful, be funny, be deep… but whatever you aim to do on Twitter, enjoy yourself.

Now it’s your turn to chip in!

  • For tweeting, what questions have you found helpful to ask yourself?
  • Share examples of people who twitter in creative ways.
  • What faux-pas have you committed or seen on Twitter?

Twitter Practical How-to’s series:

  1. Twitter Symbols: What Do @, d, RT, # Mean?
  2. Use a Twitter Client
  3. What to Tweet (and What Not To)
  4. Who to Follow on Twitter
  5. I’m Being Followed on Twitter!

More Twitter resources:

Photo by Hidde de Vries (license)

Jon Reid

Posts Twitter Google+

As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

23 responses to What to Tweet (and What Not To)

  1. Great post Jon,
    I’ve always felt like most of the tweets I see have to do with people’s bad hairday, or what sort of latte they are purchasing at Starbuck’s at the moment. Those don’t really add value. This is a helpful post.

    • Nathan C, if you’re seeing tweets like that, I would do one of two things:
      • Unfollow them. Why waste your time if you don’t care?
      • Point them to this article. 🙂

  2. i think the i’m-getting-something-at-wherever posts are still insightful. these aren’t random moments, these are the specific points in a friend’s life that they decided to share. they felt that that moment was worth a stroke on their twitter canvas. some colors may be bland or ugly, but they serve to bring contrast to the bright points. i’d much rather someone reveal something–anything about themselves, even if it’s boring, than someone try to entertain or inspire me with their posts.
    when someone thinks twitter is a time waster because it’s only about mundane activities, i think they’re missing the point that these are your friends. this isn’t some random person broadcasting to the world that it’s laundry day. this is someone that you have a connection with, sharing their lives. if someone doesn’t see the value in that, then i think twitter isn’t for them.

    • Nathan S, I appreciate what you’re saying seeing “random moments” of your friends. There can certainly be serendipity if someone you know tweets “Going to the mall to see this movie,” and you can reply, “Hey, meet you there.”
      For me, the people I actually know comprise a small fraction of the people I follow on Twitter. Most of them are strangers to me, so I can’t really appreciate something that’s truly mundane if I can’t picture them in my head. …That said, some “mundane” things aren’t really mundane. I think I may start tweeting things that are quite normal in my life like “Story time, reading this-and-such to my kids” because it’ll give even strangers a better glimpse of who I am.

  3. Meh. Tweet and let tweet. It’s highly unlikely that anyone of any import saw your “just finished a hot espresso” tweet, anyway, and those that did don’t care. So tweet whatever you want, whenever you want.
    I’m sure Twitter will give you twice your money back if you don’t like what someone else is tweeting.

    • Mattb4rd, I guess your advice falls under the column, “Ignore advice on how to Twitter.” Heh. And there’s a good point there: Twitter will not be put into a box. What I’m trying to do is break people free of their preconceived boxes.

  4. Loved this post. So many of the small business people I talk to ask this very question, what do I talk about? I’ve told them basically what you are saying, but you’ve really nailed it here. I’ll be referring this article a lot.

    • Thanks, Deborah! And from your tweets I know you know this, but for business folks I would add:
      Business stuff:
      Don’t just share links to your website. Share other links you find genuinely useful. If you are helpful, people will pay attention to what you have to say.
      Non-business stuff:
      Don’t just tweet about your business; share something about yourself. Maybe the standard “What are you doing?” question is pretty good after all!

      • Absolutely, I preach be a person first, business owner second. No one wants a business card pressed in their face on these social platforms. It’s all about networking, getting to know people and they will get to know and trust you. Then the business will come in. That buzz word “transparency” is all over the place right? I’m conducting a Social Media workshop for small business owners in May. I’ll be pointing to your article for sure.

  5. I find reading through favotter every now and then helpful to recalibrate my tweeting habits. It turns up little gems like this insight on how people use twitter versus facebook statuses.
    Favrd is similar but it filters out what they call “webcocks” and what most of us know as “social media experts” or “douchebags.”

    • lance, those are new to me. I see what you mean about how they could recalibrate your tweets; it’s like a specially filtered Twitter stream!
      Favotter (the predecessor) is rough around the edges. I really like Favrd, especially with the prominently featured “webcock” — hilarious!

      • Well, they are specially filtered twitter streams. They show tweets that get the most favorites. 🙂
        It’s an underused feature that people should take more advantage of. For one thing, if I sign off for a while I don’t read the backlog when I come back, but I do subscribe to a RSS feed of a few of my favourite tweetple’s favorites.

  6. This was a very helpful post, especially liked the questions you suggested to answer to use for tweeting.

    • Thanks, Karen! I think part of it is like trying to carry on a conversation with a teenager: You need to get beyond,
      “What did you do today?”
      “Nothing. Stuff.”
      Questions which elicit more interesting responses are a parental art-form. So maybe there is an art in applying those questions to oneself!

  7. Serious question: what, exactly, did you mean by “Deleting a message from Twitter hide it from search results!”. in bokd, no less.

    – a –

    • (meant to type “bold” not “boKd”. sheesh. i really hate computers)

    • Egad. One of my most important points, and it’s had a typo all this time. Thanks for pointing that out! It should be clear now, I hope — let me know if it’s not.

      • Ah! Guess I could have inferred that. Must be a bit brain-foggy, but happy to have contributed something positive.