May 18, 2010, 05:56AM

It's Not All About You

There are—no lie—real, tangible things to gain from Twitter.

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“So how do you know Bob?”

I stared at the pretty, short blonde girl, who was sipping lazily on her cocktail, and told her the truth.

“Twitter. I met him on Twitter,” I said, and wondered if “met” was the right word, since it was an online connection.

This silent observance was followed by a more shocking one: I knew almost everyone at this party, all because of Twitter. I hadn’t met one of these people organically, not at a bar or at a game or through friends—at least not directly—it was all through online social media.

In fact, the party, which was held in a downtown condo and sponsored by a new energy drink called Hoist, was only put together because a marketing rep followed Bob on Twitter and knew he had a good space for a party.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the girl’s response was, “Me too!” but I was, because Twitter still feels like it’s something trivial, a way for egotistical people to do what they do best.

But Twitter has wormed its way into every part of my life, and I’m better off for it. At this point, even if you’ve never used it, you’ve heard of Twitter. It consumed the media’s attention for a few months in the middle of 2009 and became “the thing” to do. Of course, just because you’ve heard of Twitter, doesn’t mean you’re doing anything with it.

In fact, statistically, you’re not.

Last month, Edison Research released a study saying 87 percent of Americans knew about Twitter, but only seven percent have an account. And out of that seven percent, more than half of them never post any updates.

Now, if you’re like every other non-Twitter user I’ve met, your inner-monologue is running something like this: “Twitter is nonsense. Who cares what I have to say?” I’m always surprised when people tell me this. You constantly share stories with friends and family, interesting tidbits that happened throughout the day, pieces of information you learned, reviews of new films or books or shows. The same things can be shared on Twitter.

Think about it this way: If you find something interesting enough to tell to casual acquaintances, you can say it on Twitter. You wouldn’t talk to them about, say, what you had for lunch unless it was amazing—and then, it’s worth sharing! But let’s just say you absolutely don’t want to talk about yourself. Twitter is still for you—in fact, you might just be the best tweeter ever. The fact is, Twitter works best when you’re not sharing personal information, but simply sharing information. In the last few weeks, these are some of the things I’ve picked up from quality tweets:

—The opening of a new outdoor bar with a giant bocce court.
—A tip about Microsoft Word that saved me hours of frustration at work.
—The first food eaten in space by a U.S. astronaut was applesauce.
—About $100 saved from coupons, deals and specials
—A very strange but enlightening conversation about pandas.

Those are only off the top of my head. In fact, I learn something worthwhile everyday from Twitter, but only because the people I follow have made it a point to talk about subjects other than themselves.

Last June, The Harvard Business Review put out a study saying the top 10 percent of Twitter users made up over 90 percent of tweets. In contrast, on a typical social network, the top 10 percent make up 30 percent of all the content.

“To put Twitter in perspective, consider an unlikely analogue—Wikipedia. There, the top 15% of the most prolific editors account for 90% of Wikipedia's edits,” Harvard researchers Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski wrote on their blog. “In other words, the pattern of contributions on Twitter is more concentrated among the few top users than is the case on Wikipedia, even though Wikipedia is clearly not a communications tool. This implies that Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.”

While written almost a year ago, that problem hasn’t gotten any better. Most people on Twitter still use it to talk about themselves, and with the attention it received from trend-happy media and flaky celebrities, the whole place can often seem like one big narcissistic joke.

Don’t give up: If you can push through this clutter of, “Me me me,” then Twitter becomes a wonderful place to connect with strangers and experience things in your city you would have never know about before. I even met my girlfriend through it, and she’s pretty great.

So how to get the most out of Twitter? Think locally:

1) Start with people in your city: Yes, it’s awesome your old college roommate in New York is going to see your favorite band for free, but it only hurts more you can’t go. Follow people you could actually sometime do things with—meeting them in person is only weird for a second, then it becomes like any other conversation.

Here are a few sites to find Twitter users in your city:

http://www.twellow.com/twellowhood/ — A nice site that groups people by location.
http://nearbytweets.com — A constantly updating list of tweets near a certain location.
http://twitterholic.com/ — The top twitter users in any city.
http://search.twitter.com/ — Twitter’s official search. Type in the name of your town, and you’ll find users from there.

2) Follow a lot of people and then weed out the bad ones: You won’t know who’s going to provide interesting content, and who’s just going to bore you, until you give them a chance. Follow everyone for about a week and you’ll know who needs to go.

3) Don’t worry about how many followers you have versus the number of people following you. A March study by the research firm Barracuda Labs said 66 percent of Tweeters are following more people than they have followers, so go ahead and just enjoy the conversation.

4) Share anything you think is interesting: The beauty of Twitter is it’s a great way to spread new information, and there are a lot of things your new followers want to know about. Read a neat post on a blog? Put it on Twitter. Tried out a new recipe that came out well? Put it on Twitter. Have a question about a pet? Put it on Twitter.

5) Go to Twitter Meet-ups: I refuse to call them “Tweetups” because it sounds like a phrase created to entice bored housewives. And yes, since social media is a buzz phrase, these things can become one long game of “Trade the Business Card”—but if you look around, you’ll find others as annoyed with the people there only to network.

Take those steps and you’ll be tweeting with the best of them in no time—or at least doing more than talking to, and about, yourself.

You can follow Alex Shebar on Twitter here or check out his website where he (and the previously mentioned Twitter-found girlfriend) are watching all of the AFI’s Top 100 Films in one year.


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