How to be a good citizen of Twitter: it’s all about the links, baby (updatedx2)

Having used Twitter now for.. what seems like forever, but is only a few months, I come to realise a few things about it, and using it (and especially what I like in it, and how I use it).

Not heard of Twitter? Think “Facebook status updates on crack”. OK, you’re good to go.

First: what I like is people pointing me to interesting stuff. Which generally means people who include links to interesting stuff in their tweets. When people don’t have those sorts of things in their tweets, and when it really is the unexamined life (“Having cup of coffee” “Eating biscuit”) then I’m afraid I’m not interested. I love ya and all that, but I’d like to get something done. And for me that means finding a fresh perspective, not knowing that you still have a pulse and a functioning brainstem.

The day I realised this I also realised, with something like horror, that I hardly ever do this. So I wrote a little Applescript at once to enable me to do precisely that from Camino. (NetNewsWire already has a function to let you post a feed item’s URL straight to Twitteriffic. It’s been in there since at least January, possibly longer, but I’d never used it.) (If you want the Applescript, it’s below.)

I think that Stephen Fry – who I praised for the quality of his twittering in Andy Murray v Stephen Fry serves up a surprise winner at the Guardian – is a really good example of someone who gets it right away: he posts pictures, links, little things that inform you. OK, so most of us don’t have exciting lives where we’re filming chimps in Africa. But then again, Twitter isn’t write-only (Andy Murray, can you hear me? No, probably not.)

That’s pretty much it, actually: lead the people who follow you to interesting stuff and you make yourself interesting. It’s the idea of the link economy that Jeff Jarvis talks about so much, brought down to the personal level.

Which means that if people start using Qwitter and ask me why I’ve unfollowed them, I’ll point them to this post. It’s simple really. In an attention economy, there’s only so much time I can listen to what colour your curtains are. Then, I’ve got to get on and earn some money. Please, no hurt feelings though. In the meantime, I’ve resolved to try to tweet useful stuff. Though the temptation to put any old rubbish in is huge, I have to admit..

Update: many appear to have taken umbrage. Don’t tell us how to use Twitter! they say, and that’s absolutely fair. Use it the way you like to. But I think that you’ll probably find after a while that you merge towards my thinking.. but as Mike Butcher points out, Twitter isn’t just a link exchange. It’s also about the conversation, which he realised when people (back in January? Earlier?) began using “@” to reference each other, and swap ideas, to argue, to move the conversation on:

It quickly became apparent that this was turning into the best use of Twitter of all. Not for long, winding conversations you might have on instant messaging, but short, to the point wise-cracks between people interspersed with a little status update here, a small observation on life there. Twitter was no longer about ’status’ or ‘what are you doing’. It was about conversation, ‘what are you thinking’, ‘what are we talking about’.

Mike’s right. And to all those (and in the comments) saying “Oh, so is this why you haven’t followed me?” – I don’t automatically follow people. (It’s a setting in Twitter. My setting is “don’t follow if someone follows you.”) I choose to follow people when they @ me with interesting stuff, or when I see them referenced by other people I do follow and find they say interesting stuff. (That’s better value than any damn web link.) So that’s why. I didn’t unfollow you – I never was in the first place. But please, don’t be offended. It’s just my attention deficit – in the attention economy, you simply can’t have a trade imbalance on that one. Happy now? Or at least, less unhappy?

Update 2: Paul Walsh thinks Qwitter will do more harm than good. That could be right. People get too wound up on whether they’re being followed reciprocally. For me, what makes Twitter great is that it’s *not* like Facebook, where you must be “friends” to share information. I can follow people who aren’t at all interested in what I have to say, but who I find interesting.

Oh, yes, that Applescript. Here it is. Possible improvements: use; hide Twitterrific after posting. (Not sure how to do that.) Any more?

(To use it, paste into Script Editor on a Mac (in /Applications/Applescript); press compile, and get ride of spare line endings; enable scripts and save in Library/Scripts/Camino/ – if you’re using Camino, that is. If not, then in Library/Scripts/[your browser]. Warning: Firefox 3 doesn’t understand Applescript to any appreciable degree, and certainly not enough to do this.)

set baseurl to "" -- we'll use this if the tweet we make is too long

tell application "Camino" --you'll have to tweak this depending what your browser is; Safari has a different instruction to get the URL, I think

set theurl to URL of current tab of front window

set theText to text returned of (display dialog "Comment?" default answer "")

end tell

--now we've got a short comment and the URL. Tie them together, but watch that they're not too long..

set thecomment to (theText & ": " & theurl) as string

if (count characters of thecomment) is greater than 140 then set thescript to ("curl " & baseurl & theurl) as string

set thebit to do shell script thescript

set thecomment to theText & ": " & thebit as string

end if

tell application "Twitterrific"

activate --so you can be sure it worked, and see it posting

post update thecomment

end tell


  1. I disagree. I love to see links but only in certain contexts. When I’m out and about using my mobile to read and tweet, links are almost useless. My principle reason for unfollowing would be more like “you are no longer amusing me”. You know the kind of Pooter-like self-importance you get from even otherwise interesting people: “up early, considering porridge”. That’s the stuff that gets me reaching for the unfollow button. On the other hand I really do love the sense that I’m seeing the world through several hundred pairs of eyes all at once. I love these snapshots from distant (and near) places. This is why I think that Twitter, simple as it is, may be the closest thing I’ve seen to Gibson’s vision of cyberspace: switching on Twitter in the morning is like jacking in…

  2. Is this aimed at me Mr. Arthur? I’ve just run Twitter Karma and it appears that you’re not following me; is this new or have you never followed me? Either way I’m quite upset – I gave you my best Mick Hucknall joke and everything…

  3. I have to agree more with Steve – for me Twitter is mostly about sharing a little bit of the lives of people I find interesting. Yes I like it when they post good links and if a twitterer (we need a better noun!) I trust posts a link then I’ll most likely follow, which I’ll admit is how I’m here right now, but to get to BE someone I follow you need to be posting more than links.

    You mention this is an attention economy and I will agree, but the ratio and quality is most important. How you get my attention in the first instance is by being and individual I can relate to. I need the porridge-posts as well to put the links into a personal context.

    Because for me Twitter is more about the people behind the tweets. If I wanted just links I’d stay in my rss reader and subscribe to your delicious feed. Give me the personalities and slight voyeristic pleasure and sharing an element of your life, all be it at one remove.

    And here-in maybe why it is so hard to describe the appeal of Twitter to someone who doesn’t use it: it is a tool everyone can use in there own way to get what THEY want from it.

  4. I enjoy following you on Twitter Charles but hope you’re not following me or you’ll be very disappointed. Twitter for me is for the personal and trivial and domestic. Its a backchannel on life with a group of friends and acquaintances with some others who want to listen in. I certainly don’t use it to find or pass on anything of use. There are lots of other effective ways of doing that. So please unfollow me if you havn’t already. I’d hate to be intimidated by the idea some followers had expectations raised too high…

  5. Oh dear me no, I can’t think of anything worse. I have RSS feeds and lots of other ways of getting the dry ‘what I think you should be looking at’ information, never mind the ‘and here’s yet another blog post I’ve written about the same thing I write about every other time’ information.

    Twitter for me (and everyone I follow, apart from Stephen Fry who will soon be unfollowed for posting lots of links I can’t be arsed to click on) is about snapshots of where people are, what they’re doing and what that is like, neatly boiled down to under 140 characters. If you’re following people who jus say ‘I am eating a sandwich’ then yeah of course you shouldn’t follow them, because they’re witless idiots. But then, I wouldn’t follow someone whose twitter stream was a train of tinyurls – because they’re frankly just as witless (and aren’t using the internet right, frankly)

  6. You could take one ‘frankly’ out of that last sentence and it would probably run better, I think, on reflection.

  7. twitter is an opportunity to “share”. what you share is up to you, who you follow is up to you…if its money on your mind…you won’t get it, dont waste your time. but if you like good humans, twitter will deliver more smiles than frowns. thats worth a small slice of my time.

    i looked at my tweets before posting, I have a healthy mix of everything…balance :)

  8. What I love about Twitter is that it can do all of the things a personal blog can — albeit on a smaller scale — snapshots of life, random thoughts and interesting links — but it feels even more like a conversation. Since installing twhirl, it’s the first time I properly felt connect the web as a community. But I agree that it has be used sparingly and like a blog only when something comparitively interesting is happening; I have indeed unfollowed someone before now because they seemed to be tweeting every five minutes and it was everything they were spending the day doing. Literally just “eating breakfast” “on the bus to work” “going into work” “on the bus home from work”. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

  9. Charles

    Sunday 19 October 2008 at 10:34 pm

    Oh Lordy.
    @Steve, yes, I agree – though in future you’ll find your mobile will be able to handle links.
    @Jed – no, nothing to do with you. I updated the post – my policy on following is that I don’t do it at first.
    @Cas – sure, context is important too; else we’d just follow each others’ delicious links.
    @John N – don’t worry, some people are always interesting.
    @Richard – hey, no pressure.
    @Anna – sure, as above, it’s about context, but eventually unless you’re following your spouse or SO, you need to see what it is they’re seeing – which means links, surely, online.
    @Daren – yup, whatever.
    @Stu – well, that’s why it’s called “microblogging”, innit? Some blogs are more interesting than others..

  10. oh, I see you’re not following me any more. Sorry I was too dull.

  11. ah, that’s why those (what I thought were mildy useful / apposite) DMs have failed – I’m not worthy! Will try harder:)

  12. Respectfully disagree.

    Strikes me that this is just really analogous to blogging. Some people like to read about the unexamined life because, when written well enough or by somebody you are interested in, it is enjoyable and adds to your understanding of them.

    On the other hand, if you’re using it as a professional tool you might need some concrete value to make it worthwhile. Fair enough – but it’s all about your network and how you want to use it. I think the sliding scale’s going to come in at different points for different people and I certainly don’t agree that ‘after a while that you merge towards my thinking’.

    Me? I’ve been using Twitter for two years now, and my approach is kind of opposite to yours. I’m not indiscriminate at all, but I find too many links irritating (it’s like a partial RSS feed, but more annoying); I find high levels of @ing pretty irritating (particularly if several in succession between two people); and I have a bias against people who push RSS feeds into their personal streams (I’ve just blogged this “read me now!”). Sometimes I prefer people who are artful in their messages, who can raise a smile or just paint pictures. Sometimes I like people who tell me stuff I didn’t know before. Sometimes I just want an insight into their lives.

    Sidenote: I think the reaction you got from a few people was because this was all framed as ‘good citizen’ stuff – makes it sound like you’re presuming a set of standards on their behalf.

    The one thing I definitely agree with, though, is the over-emphasis some people put on the idea that you should follow them back. Who cares about that stuff?

  13. To me Twitter is like those forums I visit where people are obsessed with their post counts. I shake my head every time I see someone tweet, “Wow, just five more people and I’ll have a thousand followers!” Big whoop. Where’s the intelligence to something like that?

  14. Charles

    Friday 31 October 2008 at 11:24 pm

    @Doug: yes, it puzzles me too how people obsess over how many people get concerned about who and how many follow them. It’s not about that, is it? It’s about what value you get from the service. If other people get value from you, that’s great. (Thinks: this might seem like it undermines my post above. But my point there is that if you want to be *followed*, it’s about linkage. Or, in the case of a very few people, being extremely funny, without links.)

  15. Charles, I want to thank you for this article, especially the part where you say, “…what I like is people pointing me to interesting stuff.” This made me realize that I need to start sharing back into the community with links to interesting and helpful stuff I have found over the Web.

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