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March, 2011

A Consultant’s Guide to Twitter

Note:  My Twitter ID has changed to @TheJasonNash from @nash_j as listed below so use that if you want to follow me.  I wanted something with my actual name in it and the guy with @JasonNash never Tweets but I can’t get that ID…

Watching me use my Mac can, at times, be like watching someone using that crazy interface in Minority Report.  I’m flying from Spaces desktop to desktop throwing apps around with Expose.  When someone watches me they usually stop and ask me about one desktop in particular, the one I use for my fullscreen Tweetdeck console.  “What do you use Twitter for?”, they ask.

That’s a good question and if you had told me a two years ago that I’d be using Twitter to the extent I do now I’d have said you’re crazy…but here I am.  Joe originally got me using Twitter and walked me through the basics and the rest has come out of necessity.  So, in the spirit of paying things forward I thought I’d do a quick writeup on how I use Twitter and how it helps me about every day.  Twitter isn’t just about following a celebrity or telling people what you had for lunch.  There is an amazing amount of information out there if you know how to filter and use it.

Twitter 101

First, to a new user “What is Twitter?”.  Simply put, Twitter is a realtime communication system.  There are lots of those out there but Twitter does things a bit differently.  First, messages are limited to 140 characters.  While at first this may seem arbitrary (and it is) and limiting, you’ll find that it helps contain thoughts and forces people to be concise in how they communicate.  What’s funny is that after a while I can tell you when I’m about to hit 140 characters while typing even without looking at the counter.  You just learn to communicate in that fashion.

Second, you need to understand followers.  When you sign up for a new Twitter account you are not following anyone.  That means you will not see anything that anyone else puts out there on your “All Friends” or “People I Follow” feed, the name depends on the client you use.  Most likely, no one will be following you either.  That means that by default no one will see anything you say either.  Sounds pretty useless, right?  Yes and no.  There are other ways to find information which we’ll cover in a minute.  But most Twitter users use it simply to “follow” other people.  That means that you tell Twitter that you want to see everything that person tweets out.  You may follow your friends, a celebrity, your kid’s school (if they have a Twitter account), etc.  If someone follows you then they see everything that you tweet.  One word of advice, don’t go crazy and follow everyone.  If you follow 500 people you’ll be flooded with tweets and will probably miss many things you want to see.

Third, and this one confuses many people, there are replies and retweets.  Simply, a reply is just a reply to another person.  Maybe it’s an answer to a question or if you want to add to the discussion.  A retweet is just where you (or someone else) sends out a tweet again.  So I may say something very profound (it can happen!) and Joe may retweet it out so that his followers see it.  Sometimes people will add their own comments to retweets.  Let’s look at some examples:

jdooley_clt:  RT @nash_j By the way, everyone welcome @InternetJohn to the #Varrow team.<- He's a beer snob, but he's alright...

The above line is a retweet.  It was sent by jdooley_clt (Jeramiah Dooley’s name is on the left).  We can tell it’s a retweet because the line starts with RT (ReTweet).  The name after the RT, @nash_j, means that nash_j (that’s me, btw) originally sent the tweet.  In my original tweet I said “By the way, everyone welcome @InternetJohn to the #Varrow team.”  At the end of the tweet Jeramiah added the following “<- He’s a beer snob, but he’s alright…”.  It’s common to see things added to a retweet.  Usually there is some sort of separation given so you can tell what was added.

Replies are easy.  Notice that my name (nash_j) is preceded by the @ symbol?  If you open about any Twitter client you’ll see they usually have a list, or column, or something about “Tweets Mentioning Me” or “Mentions”.  Your client will always search for your name preceded by the @ symbol.  So if I wanted to ask Jeramiah a question I could say “Hey @jdooley_clt, what time are we going to dinner?” and that tweet will automatically show up in his “Mentions” search, even if he isn’t following me.  So usually a reply will have the original persons name with the @.  Earlier I had tweeted that I would be in RTP the next day.  InternetJohn (mentioned above) replies back:

InternetJohn:  @nash_j Guess I'm headed to RTP in a bit for the night. Tomorrow, VPLEX! < See you there unless something comes up!! Excited to see this!!

Notice there is nothing like an RT in a reply.  It just starts with my name (@nash_j).  So there isn’t any real syntax to a reply.  Many clients have a button you can click and bring up a “threaded” view to see a conversation.  That just depends on the client.

Finally, there is the idea of hashtags.  Think of hashtags like keywords.  They are a way to “tag” your tweet so that others can easily find it.  A good example of how this is used is a popular event, such as the Superbowl.  The hashtag for Superbowl 44 was #sb44.  Hashtags are preceded with a hash (#) sign.  So if I was tweeting about the Superbowl I might do something like this:

nash_j:  This half time show is terrible! #sb44

Notice at the end of the tweet I added the hashtag #sb44.  Someone wanting to look for any tweets about the Superbowl would just tell their Twitter client to search for that hashtag.  This way you can find tweets about a subject from those you aren’t following.  These are common for breaking news, celebrities, pop culture, or events.  At Cisco Live 2010 in Las Vegas the hashtag was #cllv.  I kept a running search for that hashtag while at the event and constantly got tweets and information pertaining to the conference.  There is no formal designation of hashtags.  They pop in and out of existence all the time.  Usually one wins out and becomes the “official” hashtag.  For some things, like a conference, the hosting party may designate a hashtag.

Hopefully that all makes sense…as we’ll now build on it.

Do More Than Follow

To me, the power of Twitter isn’t just in the people you follow but also in how you do searches.  Searches allow you to look for words, phrases, or special tags in Tweets from people that you are not following.  What you search for depends on what you want to know.  In my case I search for things like my company (Varrow), products I Work with (Cisco Nexus), and maybe a hashtag for a current event (#vm11 for our recent Varrow Madness event, for example).

Your Twitter Client

How much you use searches and how you want to view the results is a big dictator on which Twitter client you use, or at least it is for me.  This is the main reason that my client of choice is Tweetdeck.  The reason for that is that I like how Tweetdeck puts everything in columns on one page.  Others make me click to change from search query to search query.  With Tweetdeck I can easily flip to that screen, glance at my columns, and then move on.  Here is a screenshot of my Tweetdeck console:

From left to right my columns are:

  • All Friends – This is a constant feed of people I follow.  If you go to the Twitter page and login with your account that’s the same stream you’ll see.
  • Mentions – This column is all tweets where I am mentioned (@nash_j) whether I follow the person or not.
  • #Varrow / #vcdx / #vm11 – These are all searches that I have constantly running.  Anyone that mentions something with the #Varrow hashtag will show up in that column, whether I follow them or not.
  • Direct Messages (Cut off) – These are private messages.  Twitter has the capability to do private messages.  They show up here.  No one else sees these.

Often times I’ll have other searches running for products (1000v or VMware or Nexus) so that I can help answer questions or see new tweets talking about those products.  This is how I pull information out of Twitter.

Making Twitter Valuable

Got all that?  Hope so!  Here is how I put it all together.  On most days I have my standard searches running…Varrow, products, VCDX, etc.  When I go to a conference I’ll add a search for that event’s hashtag.  Throughout the day I’ll scan my All Friends feed for interesting content from the people I follow.  Most of the people I follow are others in my industry or those related to my hobbies (coffee, shooting, Jeeps…etc).  Many times I’ll see interesting blog posts or news articles be tweeted from someone I follow.

Twitter has quickly become a way for me to get questions answered, too.  Other people out there have searches running and/or follow me so now I can throw a question out to the Twitter-verse and often I’ll get a very good answer back.  This usually happens faster than posting on any forum and it’s easy to get a conversation going to work through what I’m asking.  This is a big reason that I also have searches for some technologies.  I write and speak often on Cisco’s Nexus 1000v virtual switch so many times a question will show up in my 1000v search column.  I’m happy to help people out, if I can.

Twitter has become a great way to quickly get an answer from organizations too.  Just today I tweeted a question to EMC Education:

nash_j: @EMCEducation For the EMC Cloud Architect (EMCCA) is it just the E20-001 and E20-018 exams? #EMC

Notice I started the tweet with their name so it would show up in their Mentions column, since I don’t think they follow me.  They responded back to me within a few minutes.  That may not always be the case, but it can be a great way to create relationships and get a question answered.

So that’s it!  My suggestion is you try a few clients and see what you like.  Start following people in your industry or areas of interest.  From there you’ll start seeing them retweet comments from people with similar interests who you may also want to follow.  Over time you’ll find yourself spidering out, finding more people, adding to conversations, and quickly harvesting information from Twitter.  See!  It’s not just there to post what you had for lunch.

6 thoughts on “A Consultant’s Guide to Twitter”

  1. Excellent post Jason. I often have to explain this to friends who are all snobbish about me using Twitter. All they know about Twitter is what they hear on CNN regarding celebrity tweets, etc.

    There is a huge gold mine of information available if you use it right. For me, Twitter has replaced my RSS reader. It’s so much easier just to follow bloggers and see real time when there is new info out there. I have a tough time keeping up with RSS feeds, but I can easily find the articles I want to read on Twitter, as well as have real time discussion about them.

  2. What I love is how a lot of the standard stuff in Twitter (retweets, hashtags, etc.) all came from the community and only later got officially implemented (and hopefully that kind of thing can continue).

  3. Excellent post. Caught this from jdooley_clt 😉

    I’m slowly getting use to TweetDeck and already started to set up a few searches. Good to hear how ‘long time’ users are using the system.

  4. Tweetdeck also has some basic syntax for complex searches as well. For instance, I have a column for all of the general VCE/Vblock discussion, and this is the search string I use:

    #vce OR #vblock OR vblock -#LCV -ViveconEso [email protected]

    The first three set what I’m searching for (#vce, #Vblock, vblock) and the second three filter posts out of that set. In this case, there was someone spamming using the #vce tag, and I filtered them out to clean up the stream.

    You can also filter by the person who is posting a Tweet or by people referenced in a Tweet. I use this generally to create columns of people who are similar, regardless of whether I follow them or not. For example, if you wanted to create a “VCE” filter, you could use this syntax:

    from:treylayton OR from:tchatham OR from:VCEKen OR from:KendrickColeman OR from:qthrul OR from:aarondelp OR from:jdooley_clt OR from:jdonalds

    If you also wanted to see all of the posts where those people were referenced, you could add their handle to the query like this:

    from:treylayton OR from:tchatham OR from:VCEKen OR from:KendrickColeman OR from:qthrul OR from:aarondelp OR from:jdooley_clt OR from:jdonalds OR @treylayton OR @tchatham OR @VCEKen or @KendrickColeman OR @qthrul OR @aarondelp OR @jdooley_clt OR @jdonalds

    And then if you wanted to add in specific hashtags that were relevant to this group, you could do that too:

    from:treylayton OR from:tchatham OR from:VCEKen OR from:KendrickColeman OR from:qthrul OR from:aarondelp OR from:jdooley_clt OR from:jdonalds OR @treylayton OR @tchatham OR @VCEKen or @KendrickColeman OR @qthrul OR @aarondelp OR @jdooley_clt OR @jdonalds OR #Vblock OR #VCE OR #tigerblood

    Finally, if you wanted to filter out anyone who is spamming with multiple vendor hashtags, or just people who annoy you, you’d end up with this:

    from:treylayton OR from:tchatham OR from:VCEKen OR from:KendrickColeman OR from:qthrul OR from:aarondelp OR from:jdooley_clt OR from:jdonalds OR @treylayton OR @tchatham OR @VCEKen or @KendrickColeman OR @qthrul OR @aarondelp OR @jdooley_clt OR @jdonalds OR #Vblock OR #VCE OR #tigerblood -#NetApp -#HP [email protected]

    The filters are very powerful and can be a good way to augment the standard “following” mechanism if you take the time to put them together right. Great post, Jason, thanks for putting this together!

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