November 16, 2014

Top 10 Tips for Testers on Twitter

As I mentioned in my recent appearance on the Testing In The Pub podcast, I didn't have much interaction with the online testing community until the start of this year, when (after a particularly engaging Rapid Software Testing online course) I got chatting to James Bach, who seemed puzzled by my sudden appearance:

Chat with James Bach

My chat with James was a springboard to exorcising a few of my personal demons (some deeply unpleasant experiences with engaging with online communities in the past), dispelling some of my previous misconceptions about Twitter, and discovering new opportunities which would have otherwise remained hidden to me.

In particular, I had always shied away from Twitter in the past. There were a few reasons for this: Firstly, as a former student of journalism, it saddens me to see how frequently the media sources its news (and especially its quotes) from tweets, driving down the quality of news output. More to the point, the platform didn't appeal to me in the slightest: its public persona is mostly one of abusive trolls and ridiculous #JustinBieberForever hashtags. I figured that, for my own sanity, I should give it a wide berth as it had nothing of real value for me.

However, through talking with others, diving-in, experimentation and learning, I've managed to craft a Twitter experience which is right for me and my career. If you're in a similar position, where you want to get involved on Twitter but the whole process seems daunting, here are my tips on how to turn Twitter into an effective collaboration tool.

Use a dashboard tool, e.g. TweetDeck

I'm beginning with this suggestion, as many of my other tips are based on the supposition that you've discovered TweetDeck, a dashboard for managing your Twitter account(s). There are other similar services - I've not used HootSuite, but I believe it offers much the same experience, and your choice is likely to be one of personal preference.

TweetDeck, to me, offers the sort of experience which I think should be part of Twitter's core offering. (And Twitter is pretty fond of it too, which is why they acquired TweetDeck for themselves in 2011.) Its extra features, such as its ability to display multiple filtered streams of activity within customised columns, are absolutely essential to managing multiple conversational flows without getting drowned by the noise.

Sadly there's not currently a mobile version of TweetDeck (HootSuite earns bonus points on that front), but as a desktop hub for your Twitter activity, TweetDeck is (for me) the key piece of the puzzle.

Hide the noise

Twitter has the potential to be a massive time sink, so it's beneficial to offset this by obscuring content that you know won't interest you. There are a few different ways that you can hide such content.

Browser Hacks: The Twitter homepage is known for its "Trends" section, showing you the most popular topics in your area. If you click into any of those topics, you'll be immediately confronted by spammers (who are trying to get clicks/followers by latching-on to popular topics) or trolls (who are trying to goad people into reacting by posting controversial viewpoints in popular topics). If you're running a browser which has the Adblock Plus extension, you can create a simple filter rule which will hide the trends panel altogether: twitter.com##div.trends-inner

Core Twitter features: Mute and Block are both powerful tools; don't be afraid to use them to hide the voices of people that you don't want to hear from. Personally, I mute a lot of celebrities and organisations who use their accounts primarily for advertising purposes. Generally I don't mute other testers, though it's up to you whether you find it valuable, frustrating or pointless to be bombarded with messages from those who hold opinions contrary to your own.

TweetDeck features: TweetDeck allows you to filter content in (or out) based on key words or phrases of your choice. So if there's a big ongoing discussion on a subject that doesn't interest you, you can hide any tweet that mentions it. Sometimes this is useful during conferences/events (see my next tip), but you can tailor to your personal tastes; personally, for example, my filter includes "MailOnline" so that I don't accidentally see/follow links to the infuriating Daily Mail website!

With this sort of tweaking, you should find that you're only encountering tweets from people or subjects that interest you. There's still a lot of trolling, spam and nonsense out there, but as long as you don't veer too far from the safety of your community, you shouldn't need to encounter it.

Divert the events

When there's a large conference taking place, that conference can overwhelm your main feed, and it can be difficult to hold any non-conference conversations. That's not to say that you particularly want to hide that chat, but it'd be good if you could move it into its own area.

Thankfully, with TweetDeck, you can! For instance, during the recent Agile Testing Days conference, I used the aforementioned filtering to exclude #AgileTD from my main feed, but I also added a new column specifically for showing tweets which are tagged with #AgileTD. If the new column is still too noisy, you can tweak it by using the "Engagement" filter; for instance, only show tweets that have been retweeted 2 or 3 times, so that you only get the most popular content.

Divert events to new TweetDeck columns

Know your audience

Twitter has recently launched a new analytics dashboard, analytics.twitter.com, without much fanfare, but it offers some valuable (and free) data collection. You'll need to visit the URL before it'll start collecting the metrics, so do it now, that way it'll have stats available for you when you need them!

Among the available analytics, you can see which of your tweets have been most popular, and you can drill-down to extremely fine detail, for instance, you can see how many people clicked on the links in your tweet, or how many people went to your user profile after seeing the tweet. The data can be exported in CSV format for your own analysis.

There's also a Followers section, which allows you to see how your follower count has changed over time, and information about the location and interests of your friends, to help you understand to whom you're broadcasting.

Hashtags matter, but use them sparingly

Hashtags (key phrases which begin with a # symbol, e.g. #testing) are a good way of spreading a message to those who follow a particular topic. They can be a particularly efficient way of reaching readers who aren't following you, as an alternative way of getting onto their radar. That also makes it a great way to increase engagement: a wider audience means more chance of a retweet, and more chance of that message going even further. (For some interesting stats on this, check out this Buffer blog article: A Scientific Guide to Hashtags: How Many, Which Ones and Where to Use Them)

And as we've seen, if you're attending an event which has an "official" hashtag, using that hashtag is a nigh-on essential way of getting your message to be seen by the conference attendees.

But because of the power of hashtags, overusing them (many hashtags in one message) can have the appearance of spam. Generally, if you use them sparingly (no more than 2-3 per message) and they are genuinely relevant, you should be OK. For a simple and well-designed guide, see HowToHashtag.com.

Respect conversational etiquette when joining an existing chat

This one is still a challenge to me. If two people are having a conversation (sending messages back-and-forth between each other), and I want to join in, what's the correct etiquette?

For the most part, privacy isn't an issue (unless you suspect the message you're replying to was supposed to be sent as a private Direct Message). However, there's politeness to think of. I try to imagine it's like a conversation at a party: If these two people were chatting, and you wandered up and joined in, would that be OK to them?

There are nuances involved. For instance, if you only want to talk to one of the two people in the conversation, do you drop the name of the other user from your reply? On the one hand, it stops them from being notified of a message that doesn't concern them; on the other hand, it's like whispering in the ear of the person they're talking to!

Personally, I prefer the syntax below where you keep the names of all parties for notification purposes, but if you're not addressing someone, you move their name to the end of the message.

Joe Bloggs (@joebloggs):
@johnsmith Hey John, want to meet for coffee later?

John Smith (@johnsmith):
@joebloggs Sorry, working late today

You (@you):
@joebloggs I'm free this afternoon if you want that coffee! @johnsmith

Note that if you begin a message with an @ symbol, Twitter treats this as a reply, and will hide it by default on your profile (although users can still see it if they switch your profile to "Tweets and replies" mode). That means they're slightly more private, but still very clearly public! For this reason, if you want to send a reply to somebody, but you want everybody to be able to see (and interact) with it, the common parlance is to begin the tweet with a full-stop, so that Twitter doesn't treat it as a reply. If someone's posted a tweet in this manner, you should feel happy to respond at will - they've done this intentionally so that their tweet gets seen.

Angry Joe (@angryjoe):
.@UmbrellaCorp Did you really think you could cover-up the T-Virus? Seriously?

The power of the retweet

In certain contexts, this scales really well. You've probably seen many articles (or tweets) along the lines of "I found {lost item}, can you help find its owner? Please retweet". These ones (when they're not scams) tend to work well, because each person who retweets is exposing the message to a completely new audience, and the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon quickly comes into play.

However, if (like me) you're following a very specific community of users, your retweet may carry less weight. For instance, if somebody like James Bach or Michael Bolton makes a profound tweet, my followers are mostly a subset of their followers, so would I really be introducing the tweet to any new eyeballs? Is there any point in retweeting?

Well, yes. There are a few good reasons to retweet anyway:

As for how you retweet? The easiest way is to just hit the retweet button in your preferred Twitter client, although these will often offer you additional options, such as the ability to edit the text before re-tweeting. This can be useful if you want to add extra meaning to the original tweet, in which case, this is normally added at the beginning of the message (and followed by "RT:" to indicate where the original message begins) -

Guy Fawkes (@guyfawkes):
Remember, remember, the fifth of November.

King James (@HRHJames):
Gunpowder, treason and plot. RT: @guyfawkes Remember, remember, the fifth of November.

If you need to shorten/modify the original message in order to fit all of your message into there, the standard is to change "RT" to "MT" (Modified Tweet), to indicate that you're not including the original message verbatim:

King James (@HRHJames):
Gunpowder, treason and plot. #BonfireNight MT: @guyfawkes Remember, remember the 5th of November

"Favourites" can mean many different things

As well as re-tweeting somebody else's tweet, there's also a "star" option which allows you to mark a tweet as a favourite.

On the surface, this is similar to retweeting, and many people do indeed use it simply to indicate their like for something without expressly retweeting it. However, there are a couple of other popular uses for the favouriting feature, and if you don't know about them, you might think that somebody is being very rude to you!

Personally, I use the Favourite button to temporarily mark a tweet for future follow-up. This is something that I'll commonly do for links to videos, podcasts, etc. So if you get a notification saying that I've favourited your tweet, but then you later notice that I've removed that favourite again - that's why!

If you're using a producivity tool such as Zapier or IFTTT, you can actually take this to the next level. You can create a trigger so that when you favourite a tweet, an action is performed automatically - for instance, it might send you an email as a reminder for follow-up, or it could automatically create a task on your Trello to-do list. You might think that's cool - and if you don't, at least you know that other people might be doing it!

Lists

Lists are user-curated collections of Twitter users. These lists can be public or private. For instance, I created the public EuroSTAR 2014 Speakers list, for those who want to discover more about those who are speaking at EuroSTAR. It's also useful for TweetDeck, allowing you to create a column specifically to showcase that list (for instance, I have a private "Not Testers" list which allows me to see what all of my non-testing friends are doing, without having to filter out the other 95% of people!)

I've seen other people create lists which are filtered by region (e.g. "London Testers") or by areas of expertise/specialism (e.g. "InfoSec Community"). Just bear in mind that if you're making the list public, those people will be notified when you add them to the list; and depending on what the list is, you might not want people to know that you're putting them on it...

Personally I use TwitListManager to keep on top of my lists. It gives you a grid of checkboxes with your most recently-added followers at the top, so I can quickly spot which users I haven't listified yet.

Don't be afraid to turn down or switch off

As I mentioned at the top, and as I've been trying to express throughout, it's all about making Twitter work for you. Don't become a slave to it. For a while, I would find myself obsessively re-reading my feed each morning, to look at every message that had been posted overnight.

If something's important enough, it'll come around again. Or it'll be taken offline - many blog articles are spawned from Twitter conversations, as the 140-character limit tends to be prohibitive to discussing points in detail.

Don't feel compelled to follow people, just because they follow you. Each person that you follow is more potential noise in your stream. The more people you follow, the harder it will be to pluck out the best content. Again, the good stuff will resurface when other people retweet it.

Don't be too precious about your follower count. People will follow and unfollow you, not least for the reason that I just described! There are automated bots which will often cause fluctuations (accounts which mass-follow people, and then get banned). One tool vendor appears to run a weekly script to unfollow and refollow users who aren't following them, in the hope that the "new follower" notification prompts them to reciprocate.

In conclusion

If you're not already on Twitter, hopefully this post has given you some useful tips on how to get the most out of the platform. There's little overhead to getting started, so I recommend just creating an account and taking baby steps - follow a small number of people to begin with, learn the ropes, and then scale things up.

If you're already on Twitter, and you have any further tips (or disagree with any of my list), please drop a message in the comments below!

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