Six rules to tweet by

Scott Hensley

About Scott Hensley

Scott Hensley runs NPR's online health channel, Shots. Previously he was the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog and covered the drug industry and the Human Genome Project for the Journal. Hensley serves on AHCJ's board of directors. You can follow him at @ScottHensley.

Twitter’s days as a hangout for a geeky few are over. Astronauts, senators and, gasp, journalists are regularly telling the world what they’re doing in 140 or fewer characters.

More people now visit Twitter than the Web sites of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The popularity of Twitter, and other social media, led the Journal (my former employer) to issue some dos and don’ts for its news staff last week that spawned a backlash from the Twitterati over what some say is a recipe for boringness.

Seems to me that Twitter, like the telephone or e-mail, is just another tool for communication. It’s not inherently bad, but it can be used badly. There’s a risk for journalists in tweeting, yet the rewards are ample. Since I joined Twitter last September, I’ve gotten more ideas for stories and blog posts than I can count. I’ve found sources, made new friends and landed leads for jobs. I’ve also had fun.

Here are a few highly subjective tips for a better Twitter experience.

Be Smart: Twitter is a public and searchable place. I think it’s possible, and even beneficial, to tweet about topics you’re reporting on without giving away specific stories, but be conservative if you’re worried about that. If you post a query for help on something, keep it neutral and focused.

Be Interesting: Offer tidbits to the world that you would want to read. File dispatches about meetings or events that capture the mood and highlights. Pass on links to cool material and use a tool like bit.ly to shorten URLs. Don’t bore your followers, or they’ll drop you.twitter_logo

Be Neighborly: Nobody likes a nonstop self-promoter. It’s fine to use Twitter to draw attention to your work, but you’ll soon be tuned out if that’s all you do. Ask questions, and answer those of others when you can. Pass along, or retweet, noteworthy updates from other people.

Be Yourself: Don’t leave out the social element when you’re networking online. You’re a human being — let people know it. Funny slices from your life, insights about your hobbies or offbeat areas of interest can leaven the flow of work items. Don’t go overboard but don’t be a drone.

Count to 10: Don’t post anything you’re not comfortable having the whole world see — forever. Be especially careful when you think you’re sending a message to specific people on Twitter. You might think you’re sending a private direct message and find out later you didn’t.

Be Patient: Twitter skeptics and many beginners ask, “Where’s the beef?” My answer: “Give Twitter a little time and you’ll see.” The most important ingredient for Twitter success is following smart, interesting people. The right network can serve as your personal early warning system and support group all in one. I don’t think I saw the value of Twitter until I was following about 100 people and news feeds. Lately, I’m up to almost 300, which may be my limit. Picking folks is mostly trial and error. Find your friends on Twitter (there’s an e-mail tool to help), see who they follow, and branch out from there. Preview people’s updates before following them and don’t feel bad about dropping folks whose stuff doesn’t keep your attention. There are also some Twitter directories, such as We Follow, that some people find helpful.

For more, check out AHCJ’s handy primer on Twitter for health journalists. You can follow me @scotthensley and you can follow AHCJ @AHCJ_Pia.

(Twitter logo via Wikimedia Commons)

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