The 3 official rules of Twitter

by Kristin on June 12, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Image by petesimon

You may have seen a variety of articles and blog posts about how to use Twitter. If you haven’t, you don’t have to look far. Just type “how to use twitter” into Google and you instantly get approximately 170,000,000 results.

In “What Should You Tweet About?”, for example, Michael Martine of Remarkablogger keeps it simple: “Know what your followers want” and “Give your followers what they want.” Um, at least it sounds simple, until you actually try to do it.

Which is actually the theme of these how-to posts: What’s supposed to make it all easier ends up making you feel really confused and full of self-doubt. You can find out what to tweet, what not to tweet, when to tweet, how much to tweet, the proper tweet-to-@reply ratio, whether you should follow someone back…the list of rules goes on and on.

Rule-makers abound, as do contradictions & rebels

The rules also often contradict one another, leaving even more mass confusion in their wake. The question posed on Twitter, after all, is “What are you doing?” Seems simple enough. But then social media guru @chrisbrogan tweeted this the other day: “Talk about your community. It’s not about you. Stop talking about you. Stop. MAKE it about them, dammit.”

Wow. He was serious. Too bad I didn’t really get what he meant, or if he was talking about Twitter specifically or about social media in general. I tried to find out: “@chrisbrogan Sorry, examples please? I tweet about my b-fast then share my pancake recipe. is that about me or my community? I’m confused.” Unfortunately, no response, so I’m still not sure.

As @magpiegirl, one of my favorite Twitter buds, tweeted last week, “reading how 2 twitter posts. don’t self promote. don’t tell us what u ate for brekkies. don’t send out links. what ARE u supposed to tweet?”

It IS confusing. So confusing, that I recently tweeted this: “dear self-appointed twitter rule makers: is the ‘don’t tweet what you had for b-fast’ rule suspended on national doughnut day?” Sadly, another question without a response. I guess no one wants to admit to being a self-appointed Twitter rule-maker.

For all the people who love the rules and want desperately to follow them, there are as many people who despise them, and find delight in breaking them. Oddly enough, I seem to be following many of them. (Take @TrinaMb, another Twitter pal of mine, who tweeted this today: “‘how to use twitter rules’ blow, need I say more?”)

I present to you…the Official Anti-Rule Rules!

Luckily though, after much research, I have uncovered the OFFICIAL rules of Twitter. I hope they’ll clarify matters for people like @magpiegirl. Maybe @TrinaMb will even warm to them. You might want to commit them to memory and pass them along, so we can start reducing the number of people who are going about Twitter ALL WRONG.

1. Be yourself on Twitter, rather than trying to be the person you think your you’re supposed to be. In other words, only tweet about things that matter to YOU. If you don’t really care about the newest iPhone apps, don’t tweet about it just because it’s a top trending topic and you hope it will garner more followers. On the other hand, if you DO care about what you put in your gullet for your first meal of the day, by all means, tweet what you had for breakfast. (Add some detail, if you wish. I, for one, want to know what flavor of jam you’re enjoying.) The point is this: People are not stupid. The right people will gravitate toward authenticity, every time, and your Twitter experience will be better for it in the end (yes, even if you have fewer followers).

2. Only follow people who use Twitter in a way that resonates with you. In other words, STOP COMPLAINING about how other people use Twitter. If you’re following someone who annoys you, that’s your problem. It would be a perfect opportunity for your mom to say “You made your bed, now lie in it.” Or, if you don’t want to lie in it, it would be the perfect opportunity to un-follow or even block those annoying people. Who needs additional annoyance in their lives?

3. Be highly suspicious of anyone who claims to be the King or Queen of Twitter. Each person who uses Twitter has as much authority as anyone else on Twitter, which is why it’s pointless to wield that so-called authority in the first place. It doesn’t matter how many followers they have, or how many updates, or how long they’ve been using Twitter. It doesn’t even matter how popular their blog is (where they have every right to be the King or Queen, by the way). Twitter is a democracy. Everyone who uses it has an equal vote.

But always remember this: When someone who has never used Twitter decides to slam it, we all have a right to gang up on them. There are no rules then.

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  • Mocha Dad

    Very good advice. It took me a while to find my way around Twitter, now I can’t live without it.

  • Trina

    RofL, having a good chuckle Kristen, you see, the ‘Official Anit-Rules Rules’ dont blow, cuz they are really common sense. Common sense never blows.
    OA-RR#1Be authentic, check. Right down to choosing to participate in some trending topics that interest me or are just plain fun. Tweeps who smuggle every single topic in their post, presumably to be seen, – you guessed it – ‘blow’ – should there be a rule for it – er, NO.
    OA-RR#2 To follow or not – check. Complaints are like armpits, there’s more than one, and they can stink. Mind you, those I choose to block are worthy of a complaint, as they may well be offering a service, that, well, just plain blows – double entendre intended.
    OA-RR#3 King or Queen of whaaattt? That just blows too.

    I have yet to see a job posting for ‘twitter-police’, so no one need create it, or act like they have it.

    I find it interesting just how many layers/appllications twitter has been used for. There should be no ‘my way or the highway’, there is even room for those ‘special girls’ I guess, just dont expect me to follow them back.

    Going back to my twitter-ville now…

  • Meredith

    This is great.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of rules in the first place and too many Twitter people get caught up with the #’s – how many following, how many followers, etc. It’s so much better to focus on quality, not quantity. It’s not high school, it’s not a popularity contest. It’s exactly what you want it to be.

    Thanks for the “un-rules”!

  • Rebecca

    Obviously I love this post. Yay anti-rules!!

  • Jen

    Yes and amen. :) It’s not that complicated. When something as simple as Twitter gets a bunch of “expert rules” attached, it just kind of sucks the fun out of it. Sometimes I just want to know what people had for breakfast or what music they’re listening to.

  • Daisy

    Works for me! I’ve blocked so many potential Twitter followers i couldn’t even count them. If we have nothing in common, if the Twitterer is a marketer, forget it. I’m there for the fun.

  • jenx67

    faithful twitter users will love this. i will tweet this on monday when participation is up. i get about 1 new follower a day, but today – 50+ I have no idea why – no doubt some auto follow picked up on some word from some tweet. weird. i miss the old days – you know – six months ago. LOL!!!

    Here are a few of my follow or don’t follow rules:
    1) Three bodily function tweets and you’re out. This can be your’s, your kid’s or your dog’s.
    2) People who write the letters WTF usually get unfollowed. Don’t have time for the unoriginal.
    3) Constant name droppers usually get unfollowed along with people who consistenly kiss up to their bosses in tweets. The tweets go like this: “I JUST LOVE MY JOB!!!!!!!!!”
    4) Cliques having personal conversations all. day. long. get unfollowed.

    On the other hand, I love useless information like what people eat for b-fast. Twitpics of food are great. Blurry twit pics of people dancing in a bar are not great. I love funny stuff. I also love useful information. I’m a link lover myself.

    Terrific post, Kristin. I love the part about be yourself.

  • Lesley

    Bravo– this post is fabulous. I’m tired of Twitter rules too.

  • ed cyzewski

    Thanks for sifting through all of this. Lots of great ideas here.

    I think the rule for stuff like what you had for breakfast or where you’re standing in line has to do with adding a bit of color to your tweets. For example:

    A: “Waiting for my flight at Ronald Reagan airport.”
    could become…
    B: “Ronald Reagan airport has the most comfortable seats by the departure gates. Maybe I’ll skip my flight…”

    Both carry the same idea, but example B invites interaction. A twitter feed of posts like that would be like eating cotton candy for dinner, but in the midst of sharing helpful links, retweeting what you value, and microblogging on your niche topics, a little something like that should be well and good. I think of it as doing unto others what you would have them do unto you.

    Not to drop in some shameless self-promotion, but I also just shared my personal rules for twitter in my monthly e-newsletter… :)

  • Scott

    Amen! Seriously. Amen!

  • The Modern Gal

    YES, YES, YES. Gosh I wish more people got it the way you do. I’m so tired of all the complaining about Twitter and it’s users. Just be yourself. If people want to follow you and interact, they will. If not, so what?

  • Tracy

    I am tired of everything being about building relationships with my transparent community based on the authority of my brand.

    That is all.

  • Kristin T.

    Mocha Dad, you’re right—once Twitter becomes a regular part of your day, it is hard to imagine life without it, isn’t it?. Like all good things, though, it has the potential to rule me, or at least distract me. This post is part of my attempt to have a healthy attitude and balance about all my social media activities. Thanks for stopping by!

    Trina, I love the “complaints are like armpits” comment. Too funny. And there are definitely many different ways to use and enjoy Twitter—to each his/her own. Thanks for being OK with me quoting you in the post!

    Meredith, I had a feeling you weren’t a big fan of “this is how it should be done.” :) The quality-trumps-quantity point that you make is really key, I think, because that’s probably what encourages people to not be themselves in the first place—they’re hoping to get lots of followers really fast. Seems like a recipe for a bland social media experience.

    Rebecca, I’m so glad you love it! Thanks for giving me an added dose of courage.

    Jen, isn’t it amazing how much people can be thrown by the simplest things? It’s as if we’re so accustomed to everything being overwhelming and complicated, that we’ve become addicted to complication and rules over what comes naturally. I’d say the fun has been sucked out of enough of life (and I’m glad others, like you, seem to agree!).

    Daisy, it seems like you’ve definitely figured out what Twitter’s value is for you, and you’re not about to be swayed. Good for you! And good for those of us who follow you on Twitter!

  • Sam

    I am never sure that I twitter correctly, but the only “rule” I’ve seen out there is not take up the whole page with constant tweets. I have to amen that one – that definitely categorizes you for an “unfollow” in my book.

    What mystifies me is people who use Twitter w/out blogging, too. To me, it all goes together, like peanut butter and jelly. For me, Twitter is a way that I get to know a blogger more – that’s all I really care about!

  • mrs chicken

    Love this.

    I try hard to ignore all the Twitter noise about how to and how not to. But when you are straddling a line between personal and professional when tweeting, it can get goofy. I try to tweet what is meaningful to me in that moment.

    And no, I can’t imagine life without it!

  • Kristin T.

    Jenx67, ha! I love your guidelines. I also really enjoy hearing what you like and don’t like to read about/see on Twitter. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a quick survey we could all take, which would help us identify with others who enjoy the same general aspects of Twitter?

    Lesley, I’m glad (and not really surprised) that so many of my Twitter friends are anti-rules. :)

    Ed, I completely agree. That level of detail, surprise and interaction tends to be at the heart of the tweets I enjoy most. I personally also enjoy a good mix and balance in people’s tweets, but I just don’t want to turn my own preference into yet another “rule.” Thanks for letting me know about your newsletter—I’ll definitely check it out!

    Scott, thanks for your comment!

    The Modern Gal, I SO agree (obviously). I guess what this whole problem points to is how fundamentally difficult it is to be ourselves, and how desperate we are for approval and affirmation. It’s sad, but very much a part of human nature. So what’s the best way to counter it in ourselves, our friends, and the kids in our lives? Sounds like a future blog post…

    Tracy, oh, but the authority of your brand is what *makes* me transparent! Or something like that…. :)

    Sam, you use Twitter, therefore you use Twitter correctly. Period. (And I happen to really like how you use Twitter!) Also, I agree—the people I feel most connected to on Twitter (besides the people I know IRL) are people whose blogs I read and/or who read and comment on my blog. Twitter creates a wonderful context and sense of day-to-day awareness that enriches the blogging realm.

    mrs chicken, the personal/professional line is a tricky one, for sure. So is ignoring all the noise! Even when I *know* it’s just noise, there’s still a part of me that wonders, worries and over-thinks it all: “Am I doing it right? Do people like me? Should I be different than who I am?” Ugh! Thinking through it all to write a post like this, and finding other like-minded Twitter pals, helps put it all into perspective again. (Btw, I’m looking forward to getting your tweets!)

  • mother shaffer

    Right on sista. I think the thing with Twitter is that everyone uses Twitter to communicate in different ways, so we each have our own “rules” when managing the followers/the following.

    My Twitter Rules:
    1. Don’t quote famous quotes all day long.
    2. Have something to say. Don’t just RT other people’s original thoughts.
    3. Either make me laugh or inspire me.

    Red flags for me:
    1. You have a zillion followers–a few hundred to a 1,000 shows you’ve spent time weeding out the bad from the good. I’m not impressed that you have 10,000+ followers.
    2. You have glaring spelling/grammatical mistakes in your auto reply.
    3. You don’t have a blog
    4. You don’t have a real picture of yourself

  • Kristin T.

    mother shaffer, you’re absolutely right—we each have our own rules, and we have a right to make them! I could certainly adopt most of your rules as my own, especially the “make me laugh or inspire me” one. I’m just not so sure about the “You don’t have a blog” red flag. I think Twitter can be a great substitute for people who just don’t have time to commit to a “real” blog, but have a lot of interesting things to say and share. (It can also be a great tool to supplement your blog, but I don’t think the two have to go hand-in-hand.)

  • mother shaffer

    Right. That’s why I said, “Red Flag” not “Deal Breaker”…you’ll just have to work harder to get my attention without a blog, but that’s just me. I can be a real bitch that way :)

  • suzigurl

    LOVE your “anti-rules.” I believe in the “what I had for breakfast” tweets too. I like knowing.


  • Kristin T.

    mother shaffer, yes, you did say “red flag,” not “deal breaker.” That’s an important distinction!

    suzigurl, it’s great to “meet” you, here and on Twitter! I’m looking forward to reading your breakfast tweets, and tweets about anything else that really matters to you.

  • Rob O.

    I get especially chapped out by Followers – or those whom I’m Following – who won’t interact with you. There’s little point in Tweeting your heart out if you never get a shred of validation from anyone else that your words were read, much less meant something. Where’s the conversing?

    Be supportive, folks! Doesn’t take much to give other Tweeps a little feedback! Let ‘em know that their shouts aren’t just falling on deaf ears.

  • Kristin T.

    Rob, I agree—validation through interaction is an important part of Twitter. It’s especially disheartening when you try to interact with someone more than once and they just ignore you. (Btw, thanks for supporting my words here with your comment!)