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What Makes Twitter Social?

Advocacy groups, political campaigns, and news media are all trying to sort out the most effective way to use Twitter. Among the questions being wrestled are: Should we follow everyone who follows us? Should we engage in conversation with our audience? Should our staff be allowed to tweet about what they do at work? Who owns the Twitter accounts and followers of staff?

These questions are at the heart of determining your Twitter strategy. They are also at the heart of what makes (and doesn’t make) Twitter social media. Contrary to popular belief, just using Twitter doesn’t guarantee that you are using it as social media. There are many twitter users, especially major news media outlets that use Twitter simply as a newsfeed. They pump out stories, follow no one, respond to no one and are quite successful at amassing large audiences. But is that social? Not really.

Used as most major news media outlets use Twitter, it is for the most part indistinguishable from an RSS feed or a traditional wire service. The only differences, and it is significant, are the feeds are freely available to the public and come with built in sharing tools.

There are essentially four tiers of “how social” a Twitter account can be, in rough parlance:

  1. Follow few or none, RT/reply to none – This is not social. It is a strategy that works best if you are generating or curating news content, especially if you have good name recognition.
  2. Follow many, RT/reply to few or none – This approach takes the first step towards sociability, but promptly drops the ball. In fact, it looks like you follow only to get followers, not to engage. Transparently bad form.
  3. Follow few or non, RT/reply to some (primarily from people you don’t follow) – Some news sources and political campaigns will retweet or reply to tweets by the few they follow (perhaps from their own staff), retweet or reply to @mentions, or retweet or reply to tweets they see via some other means. In these cases the interactions may be rare, but they may be frequent, as well. This provides a sliding degree of sociability, while maintaining only a small number of people followed.
  4. Follow many, RT/reply to many – This is the heart of sociability. You are engaged with your audience, and overtly announcing your willingness to be so. Within your audience, you are cultivating a community of followers who will add much more value to your efforts to organize and mobilize than an audience ever could.

Note that my tiers do not consider the Friend to Follower Ratio (FFR). In my mind, this is less relevant to how social you are. Rather it is more a measure of how popular you are. An FFR well below 1.0 says you are popular, relative to your willingness to follow others. But you may also be popular if you follow lots of people.

In the end, I think it is much more important to assess how social you are and whether you need to be social. News media don’t need to be social because they seek large audiences to inform. Advocacy groups and campaigns want to build communities within their audiences. These communities provide value to them that audiences cannot. Whichever approach you take, be sure it meets your strategic needs. If you only need an audience, then don’t worry about being social. But if you need to mobilize people and get them to report back and mobilize others, being social is key.

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