In real life, writers like Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt have compiled unwritten social rules into large volumes that remind us, for example, when to write a thank-you note. Often times, these unwritten rules also come up in newspaper advice columns like Dear Abby and Ann Landers. Because people don’t necessarily get taught how to behave by their parents, it is sometimes up to the aforementioned writers or friends of the clueless to make sure they behave correctly. Of course, learning to behave is more complicated than that, but the point is, we have at least some ways to help people do right by others.
Unfortunately, this is not always so on the World Wide Web (WWW), in particular on comment threads in blogs, forums, or YouTube, especially YouTube. Many have written about the free-for-all feeling that arises when people are able to remain anonymous; judging from the filth sometimes filling the interactions on YouTube or Yahoo Answers, some of the commenters have problems that go beyond anonymity. While it is clear that without some moderation – whether it is one person, a group of designated helpers, or just the long-term users – forums may go to shambles, they are a medium with which people are familiar. Since the mid-to-late eighties, internet users have known and gotten used to forums (and comment threads), so if someone misbehaves in these arenas, everyone knows it. This is not so with social media.
Social media sites frequently alter the way people communicate before being left behind. The restlessness of the crowds has meant that there has been little time for sticklers to note and enforce social norms. Yet, social media sites like Facebook and MySpace have outlasted their competitors – and it seems that Twitter, or micro-blogging in general, will do the same. With that in mind, I think it would be useful to start compiling a list of suggestions for micro-bloggers to follow. However, before listing those suggestions, I’ll note by what methods they have made themselves known.
Like the well-known fact that using all capitalized letters in e-mails means that the sender is shouting, many of the following “norms” have arisen because they are pet peeves of mine. As a micro-blogger, I enjoy following other people’s updates as much as posting my own, so if fellow posters irritate me, I take note. Yet it would be silly if this compilation of micro-blogging etiquette arose only from things that annoy me. In actuality, quite a few of them are concepts that should seem obvious but are clearly not – these are meant to improve the quality of communication. By improve, I mean make it more efficient in terms of time and interest-level, as well as economy of screen-space and stickiness of message. Thus, I am offering these pronouncements (read: whispers) regarding Twitter etiquette in order not only to make my time on the service better, but to improve things for others. That said, please post your own Twitter mores and I may incorporate them into the list. Enough introduction, here is my addition to Twitter etiquette:
Don’t spam – Sometimes I get followed by companies or individuals who do not appear to be spammers or bots yet there seems to be no connection between how they portray themselves on Twitter and me; I don’t see why they think I would find them interesting and follow back. Why, for example would I be interested in following a restaurant or coffee shop from another state? Or a mortgage banker who posts about real estate? I didn’t post anything at all related to what you’re putting in your feed. Is it that you just find my feed fascinating? Probably not since it looks like you have they following 1,345 people of who only 202 have reciprocated. If these well-meaning folks are using a program to auto-follow a ton of people, don’t! They’re wasting their effort. You’re also wasting my effort and time. I don’t like receiving an e-mail about a new follower, clicking onto their page and finding subjects totally foreign to me. Spamming is bad bad bad marketing.
Don’t scroll – Anyone who knows about chatrooms knows how irritating it is when someone takes up your whole screen with their own messages, in effect monopolizing that chat space or the conversation that was going on within it. In the chat room world, this example of bad manners is known as scrolling. A similar issue occurs on Twitter when a tweep finds it necessary to submit more than five posts in succession filling your feed with their tweets. The most common breaches of this rule are when poets want to broadcast their whole sonnet in 140-character chunks, organizations like libraries who announce the same event every five minutes, or during the phenomenon known as Follow Friday when some tweeps find the need to retweet all of their followers in a constant stream of posts. Unless you’re posting breaking news, please respect other people’s feeds and wait at least a few minutes before submitting your next three posts.
Participate – Don’t just post links to your website! Twitter is social media not a broadcast-only system. There are five ways to communicate with others on Twitter. Use them! Not doing so encourages me to ignore you because, for one thing, your articles are probably not that useful to me, for another, your being selfish by foisting your information on me while not taking in any yourself. Not participating is probably the biggest problem with Twitter beginners. From personal experience, not participating in the communit(ies) makes micro-blogging rather boring.
Don’t just retweet (RT) – Coming across a feed that has very little other then RTs of posts by popular tweeps tells me that you’re a mindless drone that has nothing to say for yourself. It’s okay to RT posts and links you find interesting, but if that’s all you do here’s the thing: If you think the articles you pass on are worthwhile, I’ll dump your feed and follow the people you constantly RT. Actually, if we’re part of the same community, I would already be following them making you superfluous. Just RTing other’s tweets makes you a slightly more attractive cousin of the person who only broadcasts links to their blog. Don’t just retweet, add your voice to the conversation.
Contextualize communications – Please don’t treat micro-blogging like an instant messenger. If you’re going to have long, private conversations with your followers (especially if I’m following them too), do it elsewhere – like, maybe, an instant messenger! The real-life analogy of this is that annoying lady in the waiting room at the doctor’s office describing her condition to her friend over her cellphone using the walkie-talkie feature. However, since replying to other people’s tweets is part of the fun of micro-blogging it would be ridiculous to tell you not to do it. Instead, simply keep in mind that the audience for your RTs and @replies are all of your followers. The best way to do that is to help them feel included in your conversations by including some clarification or context explaining what your RT or @reply is referring to if it’s not obvious from a previous tweet.
Have something to say – The occasional “hello,” “good morning” or “I’m going to sleep” are okay, but don’t litter my feed with inane messages like “going to eat” or “taking a shower.” People aren’t on Twitter to follow every breath you take; if you have nothing to say, please abstain from tweeting. One way to combat the fall into inanity is to be specific and have opinions. Rather than posting a mere “eating,” write “Stuffing my face with a scrumptious burger.” Keeping your followers entertained by taking them beyond the mundane may only be a matter of word choice. This is a rule that’s useful offline as well.
Represent yourself correctly – A bio should be indicative of what you tweet about. If your bio says poet, tweet mostly about poetry. If your bio says you’re an orange-grower, but you tweet mostly about chickens, it’s weird. This applies less to people with personal accounts than to people selling things; these people make their bio appear as if its for a personal account while their feed is full of “deals” that have nothing to do with their “qualities.” A person should not force himself to tweet on only one topic, but should attempt to make their feed and their bio agree as much as possible.
Avoid compound tweets (thanks @DigitalSalon) – “Say it in less than 140, or don’t say it at all.” A compound tweet is several tweets continuing a message the user could not fit into 140 characters. This is a combination of “Don’t scroll” and “Have something to say.” Generally, if your message is so complex that it can’t be expressed adequately in 140 characters, post it elsewhere and link to it. The reason I used the word “avoid” instead of prohibiting compound tweets outright is that they are useful when making jokes that require some semblance of suspense or employing the implied pause between tweets as a rhetorical devices.
Those are the rules of micro-blogging/Twitter etiquette that I have for now. Please add and explain your own in the comments and if they’re worthwhile, I will add them to the list.