Twitter is a dynamic communications medium that has exploded in popularity. Its potential for campaigns has been evident ever since Iranian democracy activists used it to successfully publicise the events surrounding the contested election in 2009.
Twitter’s strength is its simplicity: there is very little to get in the way of effective communication. Messages can be posted on the Internet, from a smart phone or even by text from a regular mobile phone: it’s like sending a text message to the world.
Its ability to include links, pictures and hashtags makes it a very powerful way to communicate.
Twitter is more secure than Facebook, and it is much easier to remain anonymous, especially if you use a throwaway email address to register. For more information on using Twitter securely, read this.
Getting started on Twitter
Go to twitter.com and sign up. Twitter is more anonymous than Facebook: you don’t need to use your real name. You will need to choose a twitter handle, like @usilive or @USiNewsUK. Think carefully about this as it can be challenging to change. This is your name on twitter – your “handle” – and people will use it to interact with you.
Upload an image – nothing shouts “beginner” like the default twitter egg – and find an attractive banner.
The best way to build a network and gain followers is to follow other accounts and interact with them. This is a great learning experience, because by watching the way other people interact, you can see what is effective. As you interact with people, some of them will start to follow you back, and you will start to build a following.
Organic versus paid growth
If, for aesthetic reasons, you really need lots of twitter followers, it is possible to buy them. The way this works is that a software package will automatically follow lots of people in the hopes that some will follow back, and then unfollow those who don’t. While this method works, we discourage it. Twitter works best when human interaction builds community, not when machines follow each other.
Hashtags are one of the most powerful features of twitter. By putting a # symbol in front of a word, like this: #solidarity, it becomes a searchable term, that updates in real time.
News events and campaigns quickly generate hashtags, which look like this: #bloodbricks. A hashtag categorises a subject on twitter, to make it easier to follow a conversation. Some hashtags are developed organically by users, while others are chosen beforehand by campaigns. By clicking a hashtag, you can see all the tweets that are talking about that subject.
This is a good way to find and follow interesting twitter accounts: the people tweeting the best content on a subject you’re interested in are probably worth following.
Some hashtags to look out for
Hashtags develop rapidly and change all the time – and you should get into the habit of creating snappy hashtags for your events and campaigns. Share these widely beforehand so that as many people as possible use them.
Here are some being used now:
#1u – “one union” – to express solidarity between unions and campaigns. This is mostly used in the US.
#1uwomen – Women’s issues in the union movement
#vaw – Violence against women
#canlab – the Canadian labour movement
#ausunions – used by unions in Australia
Creating hashtags for your campaign
If you are launching an online campaign, thinking of a good hashtag is really important. Remember, although hashtags are still most associated with twitter, you can use them across social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, Vine and Flickr.
Creating a good hashtag can be challenging: it needs to be short and snappy, but also unique, and easy for people to understand. For instance, when we developed the USi social media course, we considered using #usisocialmedia, #unionsocialmedia and a number of others, but in the end we decided on #UnionTech. Hashtags can only user letters and numbers, and they are not case sensitive.
Using twitter as a news source
Twitter isn’t only about broadcasting – it’s a really good way to learn about the world. And it’s unmediated and uncensored, so you get the stories which don’t make it onto TV news. Once you find the best journalists and activists to follow, it becomes a really useful corrective and balance to the bias in the mainstream media.
Reading a twitter timeline for 10 minutes first thing in the morning can give a much more comprehensive picture of what’s happening in the world than watching breakfast television or reading a free Metro newspaper.
An overview of the syntax
Twitter has a relatively simple syntax, which, once mastered, makes it easy to spread information quickly. The five most important elements are:
- @replies – the symbol ‘@’ identifies a user, and allows you to address them or speak about them (useful for letting politicians know what you think – imagine a hustings with thousands of people contributing). For instance, if you send a tweet to @usilive, we will get it, and know that you’re sharing something with us.
- #hashtags allow you to search for information on a subject – for instance, users use the hash tag ‘#cuts’ to talk about the effect of the #tory spending cuts in #ukpolitics and #unions. Creating a hashtag for a campaign is very useful – for instance, USi uses #BloodBricks to talk about conditions in the brick kilns in India
- RT – means retweet, or forward a message
- DM – Direct Message. To send a private message to a user.
- HT – Hat tip. An acknowledgement for a “heads up”
- MT – modified tweet. If you are retweeting but changing a tweet, for some reason
- URL shorteners – to embed links in tweets, users use URL shortening services like s.coop and bt.ly to create short Internet addresses. Most Twitter applications do this automatically now.
If you decide to create a Twitter account, look for users who have similar interests to you, and follow them – there are already thousands of union and labour activists on Twitter. Interact with them and you will soon create a network that will provide you with relevant, up to date information. Twitter works best if you support each other and reinforce each other’s messages.
Twitter aesthetics and ethics
Every social network has its own look, feel and culture. This is constantly evolving, so there are no hard and fast rules, but there are some general principles.
While images are very popular on Facebook, Twitter is primarily a text-based medium. Effective twitter users pride themselves in their ability to communicate clearly and succinctly within the 140 character limit. Recently, however, there has been some convergence between these media, with Twitter making images more prominent.
All rules are meant to be broken, but here are some general principles:
- Don’t use txtspk. It’s OK to shorten words sometimes, but your messages will be a lot more effective if you communicate in clear English. Rather shorten your message if possible.
- Hashtags are important, but don’t over do it. A message like this is unattractive and difficult to read: “Hi #Comrades support our #solidarity campaign with #unions in #Greece and #Italy”. Choose the most appropriate hashtag and use only one.
- Don’t overdo @replies either – rather send different messages if you want to contact a lot of people
- DON’T USE BLOCK CAPS. It looks like shouting.
- Do Retweet, and comment
- When space allows, separate the main message from the hashtag, so it is easy to read. If you post an article and have space, comment on it too:
Royal Mail nationwide delivery service ‘in peril’ http://t.co/pqCUK3zMQk < private sector efficiency in action!
— Union Solidarity Int (@USILive) November 26, 2014
Trending topics are the most spoken about subjects in the world at any time, usually based on hashtags. Most of the time, discussion of celebrities dominates trending topics, but sometimes activists are able to change this: on 15 May 2014, #FastFoodGlobal was the number one trending topic in the world, as fast food workers in 32 countries took coordinated industrial action for decent wages and conditions. This is the first time a labour dispute has become the most discussed issue on social media.
It is impossible to “make” something trend, but you can certainly help it on its way by choosing a catchy hashtag, and encouraging as many people as possible to use it.
Why not send this tweet now?
Thunderclap (thunderclap.it) is a way to amplify a message on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Create a message – with hashtags, and a link to more information – and invite your followers and supporters to sign up and join your Thunderclap.
Once you reach the required amount of supporters – say 100 or 250 people – you can set a date and time for the same message to be sent from everyone’s social media accounts at once.
An effective campaign will suddenly fill news feeds with the same message, which can be very effective. For instance, recently there were Europe-wide demonstrations against the TTIP trade deal. Just as the demonstrations were peaking – and being reported on the news – a message about TTIP went out on social media to a quarter of a million people.