Twitter has become hugely popular and is only getting bigger. Some users don’t understand that the formatting and content of their tweets has a huge impact on how well or poorly they are received as individuals, and by extension, how likely they are to be followed.
I have strong opinions about what works well on Twitter, and what doesn’t. I decided I would start writing down these opinions so that I can easily reference them in the future. This advice is as much a memorandum to myself as to any readers who might feel that I am preaching to them. I violate most of these recommendations on a regular basis, but I hope that writing this guide helps me to do so less often.
For such a simple format, there is an incredible complexity to the variety of tweets, and the metadata that go along with them. In this section I will identify all of the standard tweet forms and many conventional metadata forms, and how they should be used.
When referring to any person, product, or company that has an official presence on Twitter, include their @username organically in the content of your tweet. By including their @username, you provide a canonical link to their presence on Twitter, and make it easy for them to take notice of your comments, if they choose to. If it’s important to include the proper name as well, then include the Twitter name in parentheses:
Never start a tweet with a @username, unless that Tweet is a reply to the user. Placing the @username at the beginning of the tweet will mark it as a reply, preventing it from being seen by members of your audience who don’t also follow the user:
@danielpunkass was at the meeting last night, and he told me some juicy gossip about @marsedit.
Twitter claims that this should not show up as a reply, but in practice it seems to happen more often than not. Perhaps it is because Twitter clients set the “reply” flag on tweets that are written this way, even if they shouldn’t. To be safe, edit the format of your tweet so that the @username shows up elsewhere in the content:
I met Daniel Jalkut (@danielpunkass) last night. He told me some juicy gossip about the next release of @marsedit!
Because @username mentions will draw the attention of the user you are tweeting about, don’t overuse a particular user’s name in your tweets. You will irritate them and they may choose to block you.
Replies are a special form of mention that indicates your tweet is addressed specifically to the attention of another user. Reply directly to another tweet by using the reply feature of the web site or your Twitter client. This will ensure that the reply intent, and conversation flow is tracked appropriately inside Twitter.
In general you should not edit the standard formatting for replies, which include the @username of the user you are replying to at the beginning of the tweet. Deviating from this format will cause your reply to be visible to all of your followers, instead of just the ones who follow both you and your recipient.
Some users abuse this fact by adding an arbitrary character before the username, so that all of their followers see the reply:
.@danielpunkass I think you’re full of crap, and everybody knows it.
If it’s imperative to share a reply with your entire audience, be respectful and edit your tweet to adopt the format of a mention, so your audience knows you are not abusing the reply format:
I think @danielpunkass is full of crap, and everybody knows it.
You can address a tweet to more than one person by including multiple space-separated @usernames at the beginning of the tweet. Always list the primary target as the first name in the list.
Acknowledgement is a special form of mention where the @username does not show up organically in the content of the tweet. Use acknowledgements to credit other users as the source of content. Add acknowledgements to the end of your tweet, in parentheses if possible, and include shorthand citation language such as “via” or “thx” to clarify the kind of acknowledgement. Sometimes it is appropriate to use the shorthand “/cc” to indicate that you only mean to ensure these users are aware of the content of your Tweet:
Oops. Turns out I was totally wrong about Macworld’s editorial policy. Check this out: http://example.com/ (thx @danielpunkass, /cc @jsnell)
When you share information with your audience, always acknowledge the source of that information unless the source has explicitly requested to remain anonymous.
Add tags to a tweet by adding a space-separated list of words at the end of the tweet, with a hash character before each word. These units are referred to as hashtags:
I don’t even like hashtags, but I guess I’ll use them just to make a point. #hashtags #twitterstyle #uglytweets
Use tags when you want your tweet, regardless of content, to be locatable as part of a larger trend or standardized category of tweet. For example, some people use the #fb tag to tag tweets that should automatically be copied to Facebook, or #ff to indicate that the tweet is a list of @usernames somebody recommends you follow as part of the “Follow Friday” meme.
When you want to share another user’s tweet with all of your followers, use the retweet feature of the web site or your Twitter client. If your client does not include a retweet feature, adopt standard “organic” retweeting notation:
RT @danielpunkass Everybody should download MarsEdit today.
It’s highly preferable to use standard retweet features where available, because they store intent about the retweet into Twitter, and allow for more advanced filtering and searching by your audience. Using the standard retweet feature also eliminates the need to edit the original tweet to make room for the “RT @username” notation.
If you copy the contents of another user’s tweet without using the retweet feature or standard RT notation, you must put that content into quotation marks, and clearly cite the original author:
“Everybody should download MarsEdit today.” — Whoo hoo, @danielpunkass is right about that.
Failure to do this leads to confusion about whether you, or the person you are citing, is the original author of the content.
When you wish to communicate privately with another Twitter user who follows you, use the direct message feature of the web site or your Twitter client. If your client does not support a direct message feature, or the user in question does not follow you, there is no way to communicate privately with them via Twitter.
You should never use replies to highlight the fact that you can’t direct message a user. This is a rude implication that the other user should be following you, when it’s every user’s prerogative to manage their following list as they see fit.
If you need to get in touch with somebody privately, and you can’t find contact information for them on their personal blog, web site or by other means, request their attention tastefully with a reply tweet:
@danielpunkass I’m trying to get in touch with you privately about something. It’s important. Can you direct-message me your contact info?
Before writing such a tweet, make sure you are following the person so that their gracious attempt to contact you with a direct message will succeed.
Write For The Medium
Twitter’s 140 character limitation beguiles and infuriates its users. At its best, it forces users to come up with the most concise, purest of language expressions for their thoughts. At its worst, it leaves users “just a few characters shy” of pure genius. The advice in this section is intended to clarify how you can best embrace these constraints: work with them and not against them, and your audience will thank you.
Brevity is an art, and Twitter’s 140 character limit encourages it. Don’t compress more than 140 characters worth of thought by using abbreviations, or worse, non-grammatical fragments. If u try 2 hard to fit yr thoughts, it duz not work. You just sound like a moron.
Exceptions: some shorthand notation has become so commonplace on Twitter that you should use it in favor of longer-form words. For example, never spell out “RETWEET” in your efforts to retweet another user. Also, abbreviations are acceptable inside acknowledgements, because this language is not considered part of the language of your tweet.
One Tweet Per Thought
When an expression doesn’t fit in 140 characters, don’t spread it out over multiple tweets. Instead, switch to a longer form medium such as a blog and write as extensively as you wish on the subject. Then, summarize your long-form post in a single tweet and link to the longer-form content.
Using services such as Twitlonger achieves the goal of limiting yourself to one tweet per thought, but it does so in a sloppy way that does not inspire confidence among your audience. They want to hear your thoughts, carefully edited for consumption, not vomited out onto the table.
Identify Linked Content
A tweet should stand on its own, and should not require outside resources to be understood. This problem is exacerbated on Twitter, where the destination of a link is often masked by the use of a URL shortening service.
Never post bare URLs, or URLs with a meaningless description. It’s insulting to your audience and doesn’t fulfill the value of Twitter as a content vehicle:
This is hilarious! http://bit.ly/4Wm7cs
Instead, include a meaningful comment that makes it clear what your audience will find when they click the link, and helps them decide whether they want to or not:
It’s going to be hilarious when you click this link and find out it’s Rick Astley: http://bit.ly/4Wm7cs
Write For Your Audience
Because there are few explicit rules to what you may use Twitter for, there are a variety of interesting uses that don’t map directly to “a person’s identity.” For example, companies, products, even news sources and aggregators use Twitter as a means of publicizing information in short bursts of text.
In any case, every Twitter account publishes content that is directed towards an intended audience. This audience may include your close circle of friends, your customers, professional peers, or a combination of all these and more.
You know your audience best, so speak to them in ways that make sense. The more diverse your audience is, the harder it is to refine content to their taste. The advice in this section is intended to help you limit widely-offensive behavior in your tweets.
Write Every Tweet By Hand
Never let a service automate tweets on your behalf. Unless your audience expects the content of your tweets to be machine-made, make the effort to editorialize everything you share. Users who follow you expect to see original content, not the mechanized ramblings of location-aware services, or the spam-like news of your progress in an online game. Even the seemingly innocuous plugins that tweet about updates to your blog are transparently automated, and take away from the human aspect of your account. Write those tweets by hand, as well.
Avoid Ideological Hotspots
Unless your audience shares you political or religious views, resist the temptation to rant about your ideological beliefs. As satisfying as this can be, it alienates many of your readers and gives the impression that you lack the discipline to avoid obviously provocative topics.
Nobody cares to hear about the subtle inequities of your daily life:
Grr, I wish that newspaper boy would FREAKING learn how to get the paper onto the porch!
It may feel good to get it off your chest, but it’s boring to the rest of us. Even if we happen to commiserate with you, it’s a useless tweet. Instead, channel your frustration into valuable content:
I wrote a blog post: 10 tips for getting the newspaper boy to do his job better.
While it may be meaningless to some of your audience, at least it offers constructive content for those who are interested.
Be Yourself, Only Better
Twitter is your opportunity to show off your best attributes. Some people will defend rude or tactless behavior on Twitter by quipping, “I’m just being myself.” It’s true, but you’re also just being yourself when you’re using the toilet. Don’t share every little facet of your life, only the charming parts.
Don’t Pick Fights
If you disagree with something another user has said, offer thoughtful evidence that they may be wrong, without resorting to snide or sarcastic language. Don’t assume that the only way to attract the attention of another user is to provoke them to angry debate. This kind of personality defect is easy to detect, and if you persist in picking fights, your targets will block you, and your followers will abandon you.
Take It Outside
When Twitter replies start to resemble chat, the interchange can be joyous for the people taking part, but tedious for those followers who are forced to watch. Unless the content of a discussion is of particular interest to a wide audience, it should be taken to a private medium such as direct messages, chat, or email. This is doubly true for any discussion that has the hallmark tones of argument.
Twitter is a powerful vehicle for sharing our thoughts with the world. Used appropriately, we maximize this power and encourage others to respect and applaud us. Used carelessly or with sinister motivations, we simply beg to be ignored.
I hope this collection of advice helps you maximize the power of your tweets. Those of you who also have strong opinions, what did I leave out? What did I get completely wrong? Let me know in the comments so I can consider revising this as a living reference for using Twitter correctly.