It’s almost impossible these days to pick up a newspaper or turn on the nightly TV news or your favorite radio station without reading or hearing something about Twitter.
Twitter is a free (at least for now) communication and social networking utility that allows you to post brief messages, known as “tweets” to others. Twitter invites users to respond to the question “What are you doing?”, using either their computers or cellphones to answer. Brevity is among Twitter’s virtues (and also its drawbacks – it is not the medium for carrying on nuanced conversation) — messages on Twitter are limited to 140 characters.
After long resisting Twitter’s allure, I finally set aside my suspicions and tried it out. I remain today a regular Twitter user. So what have I gotten out of Twitter? There are two chief reasons I have stuck with it — 1) it’s a fun way to connect with smart, interesting people you might not meet otherwise; and 2) it’s a great source of news and information or a good place to spot trends that affect one’s work. (I’ve got two main reasons, but mediator and blogger Steve Mehta has identified 22 reasons that he uses Twitter.) In sum, Twitter serves as my digital town square. To amplify:
Connecting with others. Twitter is part of the web of phenomena known as “social media” – tools that enable people to communicate directly with each other. It has introduced me to people right in my own backyard, as well as those located elsewhere around the globe. It’s also provided another communication channel with folks I already know, since Twitter permits both public and private messaging (use care when you post that you are not telegraphing sensitive information to the whole world). I enjoy these brief how-are-you’s as we pass each other, on our way to work for the day or home at the end of an evening. There’s a distinct pleasure, too, in experiencing the rhythms of the waking or dreaming world, as a colleague in New Zealand winds down with late-night TV while I drink my morning coffee.
Information, news, and trends. My favorite Twitter users do much more than answer the question “What are you doing?” They are also telling followers what they are reading or watching or thinking about. They share links to articles on topics that interest me. They pose questions in turn, asking for advice, recommendations on products or service providers, or solutions for problems at home or at work. Twitter can be a good place to go to get help – or offer it.
I use Tweetdeck, a tool that runs from my desktop, to sort and manage the flood of information Twitter produces, and also to monitor certain keywords or key phrases relevant to my work. This lets me use Twitter to track public attitudes or perceptions about ADR, or to understand how and why people use or choose not to use mediation, or why mediation or other processes for resolving disputes succeed or fail. Twitter can also help me tune in to the problems that people face as they grapple with their own disputes or upcoming negotiations to help me rethink the way I offer or describe services. Twitter gives me an additional source of data as I listen in on the flow of conversation; many people post messages as they wait in the hallway during mediations.
So how can an ADR professional use Twitter well?
Numerous social media experts have already written countless blog posts and print articles dispensing advice, good and bad, about Twitter. Conscientious Twitter citizen Amy Derby, who writes about blogging for lawyers at Law Firm Blogger, recently rounded up the best with a trio of posts with tips and how-to’s on Twitter. While ostensibly for lawyers, the advice in these posts apply equally to ADR professionals. I particularly recommend “Lawyer Twitter Practices: 29 Do’s and Don’ts” and “Figuring out Twitter“.
My own best advice includes these:
Be helpful. When I began using Twitter, a number of good Samaritans introduced me to their followers, offered me tips to make the most of my Twitter experience, and patiently answered my questions or pointed me in the direction of helpful resources to orient me to Twitter. Even those new to Twitter (and that includes you!) can be helpful. If someone asks a question and you have the answer or the know-how, respond. Someone will appreciate hearing from you.
Provide good content. Twitter is about sharing, not self-promotion. That’s advice I’ve heard others offer, and it’s true. Rather than linking repeatedly to your own site, share links to articles you’ve found stimulating, online content that makes you think, or to online tools that simplify tasks for work or home. Share stuff you’ve learned, ideas you’re mulling over, or something that made you laugh out loud. (By the way, before you link, be careful that the site you’re pointing followers to is legitimate and not a spam blog.) Or recommend another Twitter user you admire to your followers.
Tell followers who you are. When you set up a Twitter account, you create a profile that includes your name, location, your web site, and your bio, and you have the ability to customize your Twitter profile image and background. If you’re planning to use Twitter for business, then when you set up your Twitter account, take time to personalize your Twitter profile. Use your real name and not a pseudonym. Prepare a bio that says something about you in 140 characters – who you are, what you do, perhaps your interests or hobbies. Add a link to your web site or, if you don’t have one yet, your LinkedIn profile. Swap out the default Twitter profile image for one of your own and customize your Twitter background. Before you make your official Twitter debut and let people know you’re on Twitter, take time to post several “tweets” as well to give prospective followers a sense of who you are and what you have to say. Also, if you’re planning to use Twitter for business networking, it can be helpful to provide your location so that others in your geographic area can find you. (I’ve temporarily listed my location as “Tehran” in support of Iranian citizens protesting the recent election results, but otherwise mine lists Greater Boston as my geographic base.) Giving your location can serve as a conversation starter, since prospective followers may have visited your town, grown up or studied there, or have family or friends nearby. (One caveat: be careful about “tweeting” that you’re going out of town on vacatiothe criminally minded may be monitoring Twitter.)
Monitor and respond to replies and direct messages. Twitter is a form of social media, so use Twitter to be sociable. If someone mentions you in a “tweet”, reply to them and say thanks. If someone sends you a direct message, be courteous and reply. And don’t stand around waiting for someone to “talk” to you – by all means strike up conversation with people you’d like to get to know better, as well as colleagues or friends you’ve been fortunate to find on Twitter.
Be genuine. Avoid Twitter tools that generate automatic messages to people who follow you. I can spot these canned messages instantly, and they provide me with a reason to “unfollow” someone. If someone follows you, take a moment to reply and thank them; Twitter is about building relationships after all. (One caveat: Twitter is plagued by spam accounts, so be careful who you follow back and reply to. See “Be careful”, just below.)
Be careful out there. Twitter, like any community, has bad parts of town to steer clear of. Some Twitter accounts are created solely for the purpose of wasting your time or taking your money. Before following someone, check them out first. Have they bothered to change the default Twitter image with a photo of their own? Have they provided their location? A link to their web site? What does their bio have to say about them? What kinds of updates do they post to Twitter – do they link to content you find interesting? On principle I avoid following anyone whose bio claims they a) are an SEO expert, b) can help me make money online, c) get me thousands of followers on Twitter, or d) can get me out of debt fast. Twitter experts will tell you to pay attention to the follower/following/updates ratio. If someone is following 1000 people but only has 50 followers and has posted only 2 updates, watch out; there’s something fishy going on.
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