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Negotiating Twitter: a mediator test drives the hot social media craze

Since February, I’ve been test-driving Twitter, the social media tool that everyone these days seems to be talking about.  It’s a social and business networking, instant messaging, and microblogging service, all rolled into one. Twitter invites users to respond to the question “What are you doing?” Every day, thousands of users log in, eager to answer, using cell phones or computers.

Once you set up a Twitter account, you’re ready to begin. You choose others on Twitter that you’d like to “follow” – that is, receive updates from. In turn, like a cult leader or radio talk show host, you gradually build an army of “followers” of your own – i.e., Twitterers interested in getting updates from you. There’s a heady thrill when you discover that Harper’s Magazine, George Stephanopoulos, and The Onion are all following you. Twitter has its constraints: each message that you send – known as a “tweet” – is limited to 140 characters, so each tweet you send demands an economy of thought.

I’d initially been resistant to the notion of Twitter, organized around the premise that your network of contacts actually cares what you’re up to. Twitter conversation at its worst – which you can eavesdrop on here – not surprisingly reflects the banality of daily living, dispatches from the world’s waiting room. When I first signed up and attempted to follow the threads of conversation among those I followed, I was confused by the seemingly disconnected messages popping up on my screen. Twitter at first felt like attending a cocktail party organized by the Mad Hatter. As you survey the room, hoping to catch sight of someone you might know, you overhear random snatches of conversations in progress. The babble of voices rises, each rapidly talking over the other and everyone seemingly talking only to themselves.

Contributing to the sense of disorientation, communications through Twitter often rely upon a shorthand or code incomprehensible to outsiders but recognizable by Twitter habitués. (Twitter lingo — comprised of neologisms like “tweets”, “twitterers” and “tweeps” (slang for your friends on Twitter) — brings to mind critic Dorothy Parker’s immortal review of A.A. Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner: “Tonstant Reader fwowed up.“)

One factor though pushed me to hang in there.  Many of the ADR and legal blogosphere’s most respected contributors had enthusiastically adopted Twitter. I figured if colleagues like Tammy Lenski, Stephanie West Allen, Bob Ambrogi, and Victoria Pynchon had embraced Twitter, there must be something redeeming about it.

So I persisted. Here’s what I learned about Twitter and why I’m a committed (for now) Twitter user.

The natives are friendly.

What won me over in the end was the sociability of Twitter. Twitter regulars like Susan Cartier Liebel and Charon QC patiently answered my questions, tolerated my mistakes, introduced me to their followers, and offered me help and advice. One of them, Amy Derby, a social media enthusiast who publishes Law Firm Blogger, generously shared with me a guide she had created for newcomers to Twitter.

Twitter allows two ways to communicate with others: you can send them a public message, visible to everyone. You can also send a direct (private) message, but only if that user is already following you. (Note that it can be easy to err and send out to the whole world what was supposed to be a private message, so take care before you click.)  Definitely respond to the messages you receive; that’s the point of social media.

For me the rewards in social networking have been great. Twitter has allowed me to get to know other bloggers more informally, outside of their blogs, as well as any number of people outside my profession. Twitter has of course introduced me to mediators and others working or studying in the field of conflict resolution. Located around the globe, they are remarkable individuals whom I would not have connected with otherwise, representing the chance to explore cultural differences and join hands over similarities. This in turn has translated into more readers for my blog. In addition, for those interested in seeing the face of the next generation in dispute resolution, Twitter will connect you with students like Leigh Doyle who represent the future of ADR.

Getting started with Twitter.

Others have already produced superb advice on the topic of Twitter, which I see no point in duplicating. I encourage you to read them:

  • Tools and Tactics to Tweet Well on Twitter, Legal Technology
  • 16 Ways Lawyers Can Use Twitter (not for lawyers only – applies to mediators too), thanks to Bob Ambrogi

However, there are some pointers I thought I’d share:

Use Twitter tools to save time.

To make the most of Twitter and avoid the frustration I experienced at the beginning, waste no time and download one of the third-party apps available to manage and send messages on Twitter. The one I’ve decided to stick with, after testing several, is Tweetdeck, which runs from my desktop and allows me to organize messages by group and by topic, so you can better manage the torrent of information Twitter unleashes. Tweetdeck also includes access to several URL shorteners, so that I can quickly shorten the links I send in my tweets. I really recommend it. Also, what no one ever told me: don’t even try to read every single “tweet” that anyone you follow sends out. It’s impossible. Use Tweetdeck or a similar tool to zero in on content that interests you.

Take your time to ease in.

At first I spent time observing to gain a sense of the rhythms of Twitter.  I gradually selected more people to follow and paid attention to how they used Twitter. Like with blogging, each one had a unique voice and each used Twitter differently. Some used Twitter primarily to post links to content, others for chatting with their network, and some plainly for working the room to make sales (for a me a turn-off and a reason not to follow back). What I would suggest is to spend a few minutes each day, perhaps first thing in the morning and then again toward evening, dropping in on Twitter to see what those you follow are discussing. I also began posting “tweets”, tentatively at first, then with more confidence.  For me, these brief, daily visits gradually built a more complete picture of the Twitter experience.

Follow your instincts.

One of the problems with all forms of social media is what to do when someone wants to connect with you, whether it’s the former co-worker on LinkedIn or the ex prom date attempting to friend you on Facebook.  On Twitter, the question is, do you follow back those who follow you? I’ve heard conflicting advice about following; some suggest following anyone who follows you as a matter of courtesy, others, like Twitter evangelist Kevin O’Keefe, sensibly suggest a more reasoned approach. Obviously building your connections in Twitter is important if you intend to use it for business or social networking; however, Twitter limits to 2,000 the number of people you can follow, so you do need to be selective.

The rule of thumb I developed for following is simple. I follow those a) whose tweets interest me; b) aren’t using Twitter to shamelessly flog goods or services; and c) don’t Twitter while driving. (I’m serious about that last one. I was once almost killed by a cellphone-wielding driver.) Before following someone, I like to look at their Twitter page to get a sense of what they post and check out the web site their profile links to.

Know Twitter’s shortcomings.

Twitter is no magic bullet. Although it can used for microblogging (short messages with links to relevant content), text messaging, and networking, this multi-purpose tool is by no means a perfect, one-stop solution. It is certainly no substitute for publishing a blog of your own, since you do not own the content you create on Twitter and Google does not index the outgoing links, which means the sites you link to from Twitter do not receive the search engine recognition or value they would gain otherwise. These issues have led Small Business Trends to wonder whether Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites are turning us into digital sharecroppers — and to offer this advice:

Use it to drive traffic back to your own websites or the page on Amazon where your book is for sale; to create personal brand visibility online; to develop a reputation as an expert; to expand your network of professional contacts; to create a community of fans and followers; and to spread word of mouth about your business. But don’t use social sites like Facebook, FriendFeed or Twitter as the place where you publish the majority of your intellectual property or devote the majority of your efforts…. Be an owner — not a renter.

For this reason, be sure you have a plan in place before you start using Twitter or any other social media tool. Know what you’re using it for.

Also, remember that your clients are on Twitter, too. I have seen mediators tweeting from the negotiation table, sometimes posting updates I’m not sure they would want their clients to see. Twitter is a public forum; someone can easily overhear you. However, Twitter can also serve as a quality monitoring tool — your clients just may be twittering about you, too. That may be reason enough to get yourself a Twitter account.


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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