How to be polite in 140 characters or less

A recent celebrity case of TWI (tweeting while idiotic) got me thinking that it’s time to dust off my Twitter etiquette tips. Ashton Kutcher, a “prolific” user of social media with 8 million Twitter followers experienced an epic fail when he tweeted his anger at the firing of Penn State University coach Joe Paterno.  Problem is, Ashton dashed off his tweet without having any of the background information (the coach was fired for his role in a child sexual abuse scandal at the university).  Compounding his screw-up is the fact that Ashton and his wife run a charity with a mission of ending sexual slavery among children.  Ouch!

Luckily, most of us ordinary folks are smarter, more responsible and less subject to public scrutiny than Mr. Kutcher and his ilk.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice good Twitter etiquette.  So here are my guidelines to help you prevent your own mini Twitter fails:

1. Post only when you have something to say – and by that I mean something meaningful. Whether it’s your take on a major news story or a retweet (RT) of someone else’s insights, unless it adds to the conversation, leave it out.  I used to follow someone who regularly tweeted “hi world, I’m up” in the morning and “going to bed now” at night.  I try to tweet every day but there are days when I really don’t have anything to add and so I stay silent until I do.

2. Don’t over-promote yourself – Twitter can be a great and subtle way to announce that you finally got your book published, share your latest blog post or express your excitement about your promotion. But constantly selling yourself and your services is a huge turn-off guaranteed to get you unfollowed.  Chris Brogan suggests you follow a 12:1 ratio – for every 12 promotions of someone else, you can promote yourself once.

3. Please stop the auto-DMs – For me, nothing is more annoying than following someone (usually someone who followed me first) and immediately receiving a direct message telling me that if I like them on Twitter, I’ll love them on Facebook or that they can get me 100,000 followers in a week.  Every social media expert on the planet advises against these things and yet people keep using them. They are the telemarketers of the social media world.

4. Value quality over quantity – I’ve been on Twitter for about two-and-a-half years and in that time, I have accumulated about 1100 followers and I’m following the same amount.  This might seem paltry in comparison to many who have been in the game for the same amount of time or a shorter time but it’s fine with me.  Even though I have “Toronto” embedded in my Twitter handle (@TorontoLouise), it’s not unusual for me to be followed by real estate agents in Phoenix or event listings in Dublin.  There’s no point for us to be connected.  Gathering followers should be a positive side effect of your Twitter activity, not an end unto itself.  Besides, many of the people with the most followers have the least to say (e.g. Kim Kardashian)

5. Mix up your content – If you want to be interesting on Twitter, tweet a blend of content.  Mix up your own observations with RTs of others’ tweets, some links to interesting blog posts or news stories, the occasional picture, and just a smidge of self-promotion.

6. Be careful with scheduled tweets – Some Twitter apps like Tweetdeck allow you to schedule tweets throughout the day.  If you know you’ll be away from your computer all day but you’ve come across an interesting article at 6 a.m., you can schedule a tweet to go “live” at 10 a.m., when you know your followers are at their desks.  This is an easy way to keep your voice heard even when you’re not there but watch out for breaking news.  A scheduled tweet about how cute your cat is will look pretty ridiculous if it comes out 30 minutes after an earthquake has struck your town.

7. Don’t RT compliments – In real life, if someone tells you that you’re fabulous, do you go around repeating it to everyone? Why would you do it on Twitter?  It’s a wonderful feeling when someone takes the time to praise you to all their Twitter followers.  In my view, immediately retweeting that praise with no context is too self-serving.  A simple thank you will suffice.

8. Don’t make personal stuff public – Chances are you have have some friends on Twitter and occasionally, it might seem like a good idea to use the medium to make plans or discuss something private.  This is okay once in a while but for the rest of your followers, it can look like they’re stumbled into a whispered discussion.  Use the DM feature to keep it private, or better yet, use another method of conversation like e-mail or even the telephone.

9. Create a profile – It takes just a few minutes to upload a photo and write two sentences about yourself on Twitter and doing so will increase your credibility.  I never follow anyone without a profile for a couple of reasons – first, I don’t know if you are a real person and I don’t want to increase my vulnerability to spam by following a robot and second, if you can’t even be bothered telling me a little about yourself, I assume you have nothing interesting to say. On a personal note, I think the photo should be you and not your adorable toddler or cute puppy but that’s a matter of preference, not etiquette.

10. Think before you tweet – It goes without saying but if you’re angry at a certain person or situation, resist the urge to take to Twitter immediately. People have been firedsued and just plainembarrassed by letting their frustration get the better of them (see intro above).  You can remove the inflammatory tweet later but by that time, others will have retweeted it and linked it to their blogs.  As we all know, nothing is really ever gone from the Internet.

Those are just a few of the Twitter etiquette tips you can follow to make your experience (and those of your followers) more pleasant.  And, I have to say, it’s my personal list.  I’ve heard from some tweeters I trust that some of the things I consider to be faux pas are acceptable in other communities.  What’s your take?  What’s your biggest Twitter etiquette gaffe?  I’d love to hear from you.

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