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intelligence: n. the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge

(this post is a group Twitter experiment – link to similar articles at bottom & share your own experience on Twitter with hashtag #MonTwit)

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can leverage the potential of social networks in order to learn, facilitate innovation and solve problems. I’ve been experimenting with Twitter heavily for the past few months, and would like to share a few basic insights into what I’m discovering.

I started to tackle this a few weeks ago via a comment I posted on @briansolis‘s blog, so I’ll just expand on the main questions I laid out there:

  • What is Twitter?
  • How do you use it strategically?

Let me just start by saying I understand that Twitter is a communication channel that can be used in a variety of ways. Though there’s no ‘right’ way to use it, there may be ‘more effective’ ways, depending on your goal. This post is just intended to be an overview of ideas that have led me to change my own habits on Twitter, which has increased its value as a resource for me.

1. What is Twitter?

Getting started on Twitter is like walking into a crowded room blindfolded: you know there’s somebody out there, but you’re not quite sure who they are, where they are, or why you should care.

My initial Twitter experience was kind of like this: The 46 Stages of Twitter (here’s the educator’s version)

After digging deeper, I started to see patterns in the way information was traveling, and in the connections between the people I was following. Based on those observations, this is my current opinion:

Twitter is a massive Idea & Information Exchange.

Imagine if the resources you wanted in order to build your knowledge base and hone your thinking skills were available in one “place.” Imagine if there were a better way than a Google search to connect with the people, opinions and ideas you’re interested in – whether these are your customers, your colleagues, or the thought leaders you respect most within a field. Then imagine you could assemble these people into a network around yourself or your company’s brand in order to get a pulse on what’s important to you.

This is the potential of Twitter.

Granted, there is a TON of noise. I’m not suggesting that Twitter is a utopia where it’s possible to get 100% pure relevant content to what you want to know all the time. BUT, there is a tremendous wealth of information and human capital out there that is certainly worth exploring. Businesses are finding it’s useful for interacting with customers and gauging public opinion, educators are collaborating with one another and integrating it into their “personal learning networks (PLNs),” and individuals are using it to find out more about specific interest areas.

I read a piece recently by Howard Rheingold titled Twitter Literacy, in which he said:

Twitter is not a community, but its an ecology in which communities can emerge.

I think that’s a good way to look at it. Twitter consists of literally millions of pieces of info that are streaming all day every day, ranging from the profound to the absurd. At first I tried to organize a way to catch the best information, but that seems impossible. You simply can’t keep up with the content flow and catch everything. Then I started to analyze where the ‘best’ information was coming from, who the people were tweeting it, and who their connections were.

This changed everything for me.

Once you know what you’re looking for, you start to notice that certain people keep popping up in relation to certain information; you start to notice the networks of people they talk to, and you realize that there are thousands of loose, informal communities that are existing within this larger ecology of information.

2. How do you use it strategically?

Twitter’s not just about the information, but about the people creating and circulating the information. The key seems to be a combination of figuring out who to follow and how to engage with the people following you.

At first I thought that the more people I followed, the better chance I had of seeing something ‘good’ pass through my stream. Not the case. Instead, it just increased the amount of noise, while making it very difficult to see who was actually bringing me value.

So I decided to do an overhaul. I asked these two questions:

  • Who am I and what information am I trying to get?
  • What information am I bringing to the table?

Me: I am a Masters Candidate researching emerging media technology and its impact on society and culture. I’m particularly interested in how people are interacting on Twitter, and how it’s being implemented in business and education. I’d like to get the perspectives of practitioners, thought leaders in the social media sphere, systems theorists, futurists, and researchers in complexity, knowledge management, neuroscience, and human behavior. All I bring to the table is a hopeless curiosity, an analytical mind, and a desire to share my findings with whoever might be interested.

When I framed my purpose in that way, I feel like I woke up.

I think this is the first step in really benefitting from Twitter. Knowing who you are, and who your intended ‘audience’ is. I think this applies both at a personal level (like in my case) or if you’re a business.

For the better part of two weeks, I went through each and every person I followed, evaluating why we were connected and how we were bringing each other value. I scrolled through their tweets, and I asked myself “Am I compelled to click through on any of these?” If the person’s interested weren’t directly related to my research area, the answer was usually no, so I unfollowed.

For everyone else, I organized them into lists. This had absolutely nothing to do with a popularity contest, but was rather a learning experience. By forcing myself to put people into lists, it really made me focus on who each person was, and what their ‘specialty’ was. I combined some lists when they made sense. (I combined my “Social CRM” & “Community Management Strategy” lists in with the “Social Business Design” list.)

[I have a list titled “metacogs” that some people have asked about, so let me give a quick definition. I’m wordsmithing, so you won’t find it in a dictionary. I’m using it as a derivative of the word “metacognition“,  which means ‘thinking about thinking’ or ‘awareness of the process of learning,’ and combining it with the ideas of ‘design thinking,’ futures thinking,’ and lateral thinking. Generally, it means “process thinkers.”]

Once I got down to following around 850 people, a few amazing things started to happen.

1. I began to see how the people I follow are connected, and also noticed the basic makeup of the various communities that I had been following all along.
2. Because I realized that many people I was connected to were in fact connected to each other, I was able to start making some tweets specifically geared towards them and their community.
3. I actually began engaging MORE with the people I unfollowed!

This last one really surprised me and has changed my entire opinion about following. I remember having read a post by Guy Kawasaki called How I Tweet, where he said he followed everyone back out of common courtesy. That made me feel like maybe I was being mean for not following everyone back, so I originally followed his advice. But now I see things differently and have come up with my own method that works for me.

Now I’m following people who tweet within a specific topic area most of the time, but I’m engaging with EVERYONE who talks to me. I’m finding a lot of people who I don’t follow (but follow me) will send me an @reply in response to something I tweet, whether as a response to a comment or even to share a related link with me. I’ve been loving this. Because I’m researching under a big umbrella of areas, my tweets cover a broad range that isn’t going to be interesting to everyone all the time. But, when something DOES resonate with a particular person, they have the opportunity to respond to me about it, and a conversation begins.

Then someone else might respond to THAT tweet, and the conversation continues. And it literally feels like a temporary community forms around an idea. Input starts coming in from many different people, with various opinions and perspectives. This goes on for a few tweets, and then without any formal ending, we all just kinda move on.

This is starting to become the way I’m experiencing Twitter.

So what?

Well, now that I see Twitter differently, it’s shaping my user habits. I’m trying to fill each tweet with context and value. If I’m replying to a specific person, and don’t have more to say than “thanks” or “lol” or something short like that, I send it via DM. I try to think about how each public tweet appears to others, and how to structure it as an opportunity for a conversation to start.

In this way, I feel like I’m making my personal tweets more valuable to others, and in return, more people are engaging with me. It’s a positive feedback look, and it’s incredible.

Whether you’re using Twitter for personal use or to serve as the gateway to your brand, I think that approaching it with the above ideas in mind might be useful in deciding what to tweet and how to engage your audience.

I have more thoughts on all of this, but I’d like this to be a start, and to see what everyone else thinks! Thank you to everyone out there for helping shape my experience. Now that I’m seeing what is possible, I’ll be curious to see how we can put more intentionality behind our tweets and interactions. Looking forward to the continued journey with you!

- @venessamiemis

Here’s a little blurb of me discussing these concepts for IdeasProject:

And here are the links to everyone else posting on this topic today. I’ll keep this list updated:

@ekolsky - What I’ve Discovered about Twitter

@mauricioswgWhat I’ve discovered about Twitter

@prem_kWhat I’ve discovered about Twitter

@MarkTamisWhat I’ve discovered about Twitter

@mjayliebsWhat I have discovered because of Twitter

@timkastelleWhat I’ve discovered about Twitter

@wimrampenSharing personal discoveries about Twitter