isn't twitter just for idiots?

I hear that question a lot. At faculty meetings, at medical conferences, from my children, my husband, and a wide variety of other folks. Really?


Well, I use Twitter often, and don't consider myself an idiot, at least not for that reason. I welcome other thoughts on the degree of my potential "idiotness" but I hope you have more reasons than because I use Twitter. Feel free to list them in the comments below.


I thought I would share with you what I have learned about using Twitter over the last year-and-a-half, so you could decide for yourself about its potential value for you. I will leave you with instructions on how to get started, in case you decide you would like to try.

Many people go to Twitter, make themselves an account, and then...nothing happens. In fact, MOST of the over 50 million Twitter accounts are inactive, and a high percentage of new users quit after just a couple of months. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how to sign on and use this social media platform, let's talk a little bit about what Twitter is, and most-importantly, isn't.

Twitter is known as a "micro-blogging site." Whereas a "blog" is the shortened form of the word "weblog." And I think we all know that blogs have many uses. Some are very personal, others are written by professionals. Some exist to share information, data or opinions. Others may be a collection of recipes, or the description of someone's life and adventures. Some contain photos, info graphics, quotations. Others may contain sensitive or distasteful materials. The same is true for the "micro-blogs" that are shared by Twitter users. They can be funny or sad; true or false; helpful or not. They can be of great interest to you, or can bore you to tears. They can be real expressions of concern, or they can be spam.

So, why would you want to put yourself in the middle of such a confusing platform?

Think about this scenario:

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You have been invited to a cocktail party that is going to be attended by the leaders in your field. You know that some of the conversations that will be going on in the room will contain information or ideas that you would potentially find interesting, while others will not. If you are on Twitter, and you follow some of these leaders, you just might be able to overhear some of their conversations and learn something. In fact, you might be able to engage with one or more of these creative thinkers, and offer your opinion, your help, express your honest interest in their activities, or ask a question, get help, or just "get to know" someone who might turn out to be important in your life.

"Your field" might be medicine, or parenting, photography or blogging, or some combination of rare interests. What if you are a software engineer interested in enhancing patient engagement with physicians? How likely is it that you will find like-minded individuals in your real-life back yard? Wouldn't it be nice to invite yourself to a cocktail party where you could mingle with, learn from, and interact with others who share your specific interests?

Does this sound too good to be true? I had never considered how useful Twitter could be as a place where I could talk with lots of folks who shared my interests in various aspects of patient care and population health management, until I experienced it.

But, to carry our analogy a bit further, you can't just walk into any old cocktail party and expect to meet someone who shares your interests, or could be helpful to you, or offer you entry into a new field. No, you have to choose your cocktail party participants very carefully. And that is where the strategy of choosing who to follow on Twitter comes in. After all, if you are not rubbing shoulders with someone, it is unlikely that they will ever know you exist, or that you would be able to learn from their wisdom or experience as you start out. And you certainly do NOT want to be seeing only posts from folks who will micro-blog about what they ate for dinner last night (unless they and you are both chefs and this is part of what is important to you).

At this point, I need to tell you what Twitter IS NOT--IT IS NOT FACEBOOK!

In Facebook, in order to see someone else's posts, you need permission (well, some of this is changing, but I am not going to discuss that). Facebook has traditionally been how we share things with our family and friends, distant relatives, old roommates. Increasingly it is a place where we can "like" various brands, and see their content as it is rolled out to us. Theoretically, we can stop stuff coming at us if we dislike it, but that is less easily achieved than the reverse. So, many people who have been active on Facebook believe that Twitter would work the same way. No, very, very different.

Confused yet?

So, although Facebook and Twitter are[[{"fid":"3786","view_mode":"default","type":"media","attributes":{"height":306,"width":340,"style":"float: left;","class":"media-element file-default"}}]] both social media platforms they work quite differently. When you join Twitter, you can choose for yourself any name you like. You do have to provide a functional email address, but you can give yourself any Twitter "handle" that appeals to you. For example, mine is @CloseToHomeMD and I chose that name to correspond to this blog. Makes it easier to figure out what you might see if you follow me there. Likewise, if you had seen some of my content on Twitter before finding the blog itself, you might have some idea what kind of stuff I blog about. Twitter also lists my "real name" on my posts. But I could have made that up as well.

After joining you will be asked to set your settings, write a profile and upload a photo. One thing that ALL social media experts agree on: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE upload some kind of picture (doesn't have to be your actual portrait, but could be a logo, a flower, whatever you wish, as long as you have permission to use it). Also, add something to your profile. It is very short so you can't put much in there. But if you hope to be found by others who share your interests, well, you should list some interests.

You will also have to set your privacy level. Now if you close or lock your account, so that folks have to request permission to follow you, well....they won't. It would be like going to that cocktail party with your mouth taped shut. You could hear and follow others, but they would not be able to communicate with you.

Once done with setup you will proceed to your Twitter feed. This is where you will view the micro-blogs the folks you follow are posting. So initially, you will see NOTHING since you haven't yet followed anyone. Following is not a permanent relationship, and there is no requirement for reciprocity. So, lets say you decide to follow me on twitter. Once your account is set up you can put my name OR my twitter handle in the search box and you should see my profile. Then you can easily click on the FOLLOW button, and you are done (or you can just click on the FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER BUTTON over on the right side of this blog post). I will get notified that I have new follower(s) on twitter, and I can check in whenever I am so inclined to decide on whether or not I want to "follow back."  That means I will go to your profile and read it. If I know you (if you put in your real name I have a chance to know whether I know you) I will likely click on the follow button. If I don't know you, or I can't tell whether I know you, I will look at your profile and then see what kind of tweets you have been putting out, before I decide whether to follow or not. See now why its useful to write that profile and add a photo?

What if you don't know who you want to follow? Well, this is where the fun comes in. I will discuss the next steps in a future post. I have no idea whether anyone reading this blog is interested in reading more of this, however, so let me know in the comments whether this is at all helpful, and whether you would like more. After all this is a bit off topic, but nonetheless important. I would like my physician and other healthcare colleagues to be able to benefit as I have from rubbing shoulders with others I would not have met without Twitter.



Photo credits: Cocktails cayusa via Creative Commons; Confusion doug88888 via Creative Commons