Yes. The worst has happened. My mother has signed up for Twitter and now, now she’s following me. It’s a problem unique to our generation, the equivalent of the mums of previous generations being able to listen in to all their conversations in the pub or at work (yes, mum NO DON’T LOOK AT THAT PICTURE I LINKED TO! Well, at least I don’t have to explain NSFW now). But the fear here isn’t that my mum will discover my hilarious line in pope retiring/horse meat/Richard III in a carpark jokes. To be honest I’d probably tell her those anyway because frankly, I’m hilarious. The problem is that while I am a scuztastic self-employed writer, whose twitter feed is mostly followed by other writers and people I have met in pubs, my mum is an actual respectable head teacher of a primary school. She is an upstanding member of the community who already has at least one bishop following her, and may eventually find the parents of her pupils following her as well.
So, in a vain and desperate attempt to prevent her trying to learn Twitter by watching what I do, here is a beginner’s guide to social media for somebody who still needs the term “retweet” explained to her.
Question One: How Does It Work?
I tried explaining this as “It allows you to post 140 character messages to people who follow you” but my mum’s response was “Why would you want to do that?” closely followed by an alarmed “Who’s following me?”
Okay, let’s go through the absolute basics here. You have 140 characters. 140 characters is the number of letters, symbols, numbers and spaces that appear in the entirety of this sentence you are reading right now. You can include in those 140 characters a link to another website, or use a Twitter hashtag like #this, which people can click on to see all the other people have posted tweets. You can follow other users, which means that you will get to see everything they post to their Twitter account, and they can follow you, which means they can see everything you post. By putting someone’s Twitter name at the beginning of a tweet (@mymum, for instance) you ensure that it is brought to their attention when they click on the “Connect” tab at the top of the page, which shows you only tweets directed at you.
You also have the option to “Retweet”, which means that you can take what someone else has said, and show it to everybody in your timeline.
Question Two: But Why Would I Want To Do Any of That?
So we’re going to have to be a bit more detailed here.
Twitter is the ultimate customisable news feed. The best way to start selecting people to follow is to find people who you know to be well informed and have interesting opinions on subjects you care about. This means you’ll hear their opinions, but it also means they’re going to be passing on the opinions of people who influence them. Hashtags can work in a similar way, allowing you to see the whole conversation going on around a given TV programme, sports event or news story.
At the same time, it’s a good venue for talking to people you wouldn’t have access to normally. As with any other kind of networking, this usually happens through the medium of swapping jokes and asking questions, but occasionally this can turn into an actual conversation and interesting things can happen.
Finally, once you’ve built up a number of followers, it’s a good way to get information to plenty of people all at once. Even on my own, somewhat haphazard use of Twitter, I’ve found it useful for promoting events that I’m taking part in, and directing people to articles that I’ve written (including this one).
Question Three: So What Else Do I Need To Know?
Rule one, whether you’re a respectable teacher interacting with people on a professional basis, or a procrastinating writer making knob gags when he should be working: don’t put anything on Twitter that you wouldn’t be happy to see posted on billboards all around the country. It’s not just your mum who might read it, it’s employers present and future, friends, co-workers and occasionally, the police.
Once you understand that, you need to decide what you want to get out of it. If you’re using it socially, then sign up under a name that isn’t yours, and put your settings to private so that only people who know you can follow you. If you’re posting on behalf of an organisation larger than yourself, then you need to keep that in mind at all times. This doesn’t mean you can’t be humorous or friendly, but if you wouldn’t say it in school assembly, don’t say it here. Also, think about the people following you and what will be useful to them – for a school, for instance, it will mostly be holiday dates, upcoming after school events, and answering short questions.
Hopefully this should be enough information for all of our mums to use Twitter without too much fear of disaster. Now we just have to start swearing less on our own accounts…