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A late adopter's productivity experiment with Twitter, plus some 140 word humor

OK, I admit that after programming for 20 years and devouring every new idea, tool, library, and methodology out there, I've now become a rather late adopter. Email, for example. What is it? Is it useful? I'll have a special report in a future post. My practice is to try the latest and greatest just long enough to get a sense of it, then drop or keep as needed, with drop being the operative word. (It's an example of "minus" - see Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide: Productivity Lessons From Basic Math.)

In this case I've been playing with Twitter and found it a very mixed bag. If you've not heard of it, it's a simple web-based program that lets you post short text messages ("Tweets" that are limited to 140 characters) that others can subscribe to ("follow"). Your posts, along with those of everyone you follow, are shown chronologically on your main page. More at Wikipedia entry and the Twitter FAQ. Additionally, there are many tools to make entering faster, get updates on your cell phone, share photos, analyze your use, find others, etc.

So how do you use it effectively? There are over a million hits when you Google twitter productivity, with good starting points being Lifehack's Twitter: Use it Productively and the many Lifehacker Twitter articles. You might also enjoy the CNET pro/con articles: The case against Twitter and In defense of Twitter.

Rather than rehashing all this, I'd like to give you the IdeaMatt perspective on how this tool can be used productively, and hopefully get a chuckle out of you too. But the bottom line? My unprincipled exploration determined it to be a massive waste of time, at least for me in the way I used it. It was addictive, fascinating, agitating, and fun. Like any tool, you must be clear about why you're using it, and control its use in accordance with your work. That is, like email, use it to further your goals, and keep control over it. This thing has real potential to suck you in.

Following is what I tried, what I learned, my tips, plus my stab at using it for humor practice. Enjoy!

What I tried

To get to know it I played with Twitter in the following ways (with these results):

  • Accountability tool: Use it to tweet a public commitment, e.g., losing weight, clearing your inbox, or writing. Related: A Daily Planning Experiment: Two Weeks Of Accountable Rigorous Action and Update on the "Twitter Diet" for an example. My assessment: Potentially very helpful.
  • Interpretation: Express your world view and find like-minded people. Great current examples: The election and the economic meltdown. Assessment: You might feel better, you might feel worse, and you might turn off followers. (I've had that happen here, and I've learned some hard lessons as a result.)
  • Micro-blogging: Share helpful tips, ideas, quotes, and links in a very short space. (Staying within the 140 limit is a real challenge, but good writing practice.) More on this use here. Assessment: Potentially valuable if you are reaching the right audience, with the benefits much like a regular blog: help people, establish repute, clarify what you're thinking, and getting practice writing. My current thinking is that using Twitter this way, while possible, might be better done via a more dedicated tool like Tumblr. Tumblr is more structured and allows more characters. I tried it a while back at ideamatt.tumblr.com. It's probably moot at this point - Twitter's popularity makes it a defacto standard. Thoughts?
  • Humor practice: Practice being playful and getting people to laugh. Assessment: Hands down I had the most fun using it this way. That said, I find being genuinely funny (not just sarcastic, say) to be good hard work. And writing funny, esp. in 140 words, is really hard. A good little "Tweet" that makes you laugh is an act of genius. Some of the ones I loved were "real" ones like jdickerson and communicatrix, plus a host of clever fake ones like FakeSarahPalin, fakemerlinmann, and of course fakedavidallen. I've shared some of mine below. So who are your favorites?
  • Being helpful: Share tips, in my case micro-productivity ones (I've listed some below). Assessment: Possibly helpful. Again, like the micro-blogging application, value depends on what your followers hope to get.
  • Inspiration: Share inspiring words and thoughts. In my case I pulled out a few from my idea pickle jar. Assessment: See above. Note: When your words help someone, it really feels good.
  • Connecting: Read the people you want to get to know, examine what their lives are like and how they think. A corellary: Sharing events from my life too. There's a risk here - what do people really care about? There are many absurd examples, e.g., "At the airport." "In the toilet." "Picking up a knife." and "Buttering the bread." Assessment: Possibly very high value, perhaps the most important use?
  • Discovery: Find interesting things that like-minded followees found valuable. In this sense they're acting as collaborative filters. (I talked about them in Why Blogruptcy Is A Great Idea But Doesn't Work, And Why SPAM Is Easy To Fix And Information Overload Isn't.) Some personal favorites: Jon Stewart: John McCain's Big Acceptance Speech and Tina Fey: Couric/Palin Open. Spore and The Official iPhone and iPod Touch Application are cool too.

Note: Much of this revolves around helping others, and so benefits from my guideline for How To Help People - Be curious about others, keep lots of high-quality inputs coming in, and share potentially valuable ones with others.

Conclusion, tips, and The Ultimate Twitter Productivity Tip

Some final points:

  • Like any activity with followers, there's an ego trap involved in getting sucked in to watching how your follower count grows (or not). You can tell who does this by when they Tweet about it!
  • I suggest setting up multiple accounts, each matching the image you want to promote and your goals for each. For example, a business one, a personal one, at least one "secret" account (e.g., a "fake" one - see above - or a "guilt" one such as iluvamericanidol :-)
  • Twitter is a significant information source, and needs managing accordingly. Be purposeful in using it, especially when adding someone or exploring/following up on something. And like any media diet, purge and re-evaluate regularly. Maybe this is a good guide: Drop *everyone* except a) people you want a relationship with (friends, prospective clients), b) people make you laugh or think or learn, and c) people who are *useful* filters, not distractors.

For now I'll drop Twitter until I define exactly how I'll use it, with the focus being establishing business relationships that lead to consulting work. (Note: I would absolutely love to hear your consulting success stories in using it this way, i.e., to get business.)

And the ultimate tip? Like my answer to What is the ultimate productivity tip?, I have a meta-answer: For me it's probably twitter.com/account/delete. The catch? "Temporarily disabled." :-)

What do you think? Any Twitter thinking and stories you'd like to share?

Getting people to laugh. In 140 characters or less.

I don't like to boast, but my entry #227 was voted one of the 10,000 Funniest Tweets of the Millisecond on Aug 21st (millisecond #56,324,112). I humbly submit the following, in hopes that one or two will tickle you.

  • [On cats] "Cat gack, like revenge, is a dish best served cold."
  • [On my nice new office char] "to use: 1 align ass with seat. warning: misalignment could cause injury 2 slowly lower ass to chair 3 stop on contact. 4 work. 5 reverse"
  • [On networking] "3 questions for any social situation: What do you do for a living?, What keeps you up at night?, and Are you done talking yet?"
  • [On living] "'Motorcycles Are Everywhere.' Hey, look up! Psych :-)"
  • [On crisis] "bad news: economy imploding, oil skyrocketing, global warming-era weather, cancer. good news: iPhone!"
  • [On productivity] "never lick envelopes after eating Saltines"
  • [On productivity] "I calculate: if were to re-define ellipsis from "..." to ".." global production would increase by $750 TRILLION dollars. saveaperiod.com :-)"
  • [On productivity] "inbox no-nos: sorting, picking, and putting back. Applies to nose-picking as well."
  • [On music] "Realized our microwave oven is a Major 7th :-) Train, Minor :-("
  • [On inventions] "thought of this just now: What if paper had a sticky back that you could attach to things, but take off without ripping! Crap. Bloody 3M"
  • [On safety] "sawing wood for raised bed. DARN this electricity thing is handy. Also: wondering: what if circular saw blade came loose. early Halloween!"
  • [On chocolate] "Me: 'Hey - Let's try these raw Cacao beans!' One minute later: Rapid uncontrolled salivation."
  • [On health] "Mobility. Sperm: good. Teeth: bad."
  • [On decision-making] "any tips for getting a good verizon deal? it's so confusing and risky. just like teen sex!"

Being helpful to others

  • So you're taking a few blows. That's the price of being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful - Pressfield
  • It is easier to adjust ourselves to the hardships of a poor living than it is to adjust ourselves to the hardships of making a better one
  • wow: We're not comfortable with an unfamiliar way to work, >>even if it's better/more organized<<
  • #1 absolute productivity tip of all time: seat time!
  • idea: YouTube mashup: adds a TruthOMeter to uploaded videos (Fox comes to mind). voters must provide evidence links supporting their rating
  • media diet 101: kill your TV, remove all news (NPR!) from your life. TV=crap, news=unimportant/not durable. test: try 1 wk, notice no impact
  • blogging, and apparently using laptop battery life as a Parkinson's Law enforcer. 11% (20 minutes) from the end!!!
  • How good are you at being new to something? "You can't blame yourself for not knowing what you didn't know."
  • Mac productivity tip: F11: Your single-key "get focused" tool. Now what was I doing?
  • fantastic quotes from "Physics of the impossible" e.g., If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day.
  • I like incremental file purge, not yearly: file 1, pull 2. BUT: resist urge to pull many. Like I just did. Where'd that 1/2 hour go?
  • to yourself: "I should have known": either sucks (I didn't know.) or is useful (I should have listened!)
  • darn I forgot how cool this is. can't wait to show my 8yo daughter: Powers of 10 http://is.gd/jNB
  • sanity tip: if you have a problem in play, take great notes. date, who you talked to, what they promised. not just CYA, but relieves mind
  • you *are* using Firefox smart keywords, right? ex: "is " -> http://is.gd/ . refs: http://is.gd/10SC http://is.gd/C1Z . sweet!
  • try this micro experiment: use hash marks to count how many times you're tempted to "check" email. don't follow through, just count. yours?
  • "Nothing stifles creativity more than fear"
  • 8YO daughter sick today. reducing work expectations & exempting no-tv-during-week rule to practice Cockney accents :-)
  • avid readers: remember the 50 page test: point at which you cut bait. for a movie: 20 minutes. yes, actually walk out! http://is.gd/346a
  • Decision Making: a buddy suggests that if you're really vacillating between two choices, it probably doesn't matter which you choose. agree?
  • Why "I'll do it later" can either kill you or save you save: defer. kill: clutter, procrastinate
  • Ah, the Action Support folder. A temporary place for materials actions need to get done. For when you don't need to make a dedicated folder.
  • tip: try making your meetings 50 minutes, and using the 10 left to process your notes/actions/delegated items from it
  • OK fellow bloggers, contact rules: 1. have a contact page. 2. put your full name on it. 3. list an email, not a contact form. 4. stir & pour

Reader Comments (20)

I retweeted this, Matt. :-)

I find myself getting carried away sometimes and wasting a lot of time there (witness my conversation about pizza...).

And then the other day I was reprimanded by a stranger for not following more of my followers (apparently I'm not "joining" the Twitter community; I'm only "using" Twitter). So I mined my followers for "a) people you want a relationship with (friends, prospective clients), b) people make you laugh or think or learn, and c) people who are *useful* filters, not distractors."

I added a few (not the complainer), but it's not an ego thing for me. I don't follow people just so they'll follow me. And if someone follows me just so I'll follow them -- not gonna happen.

I'm trying to use it to share my own useful information and to retweet others' good stuff, to keep up with people I have some kind of relationship with, and to build my business by learning from others.

So far, so good.

October 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Braithwaite

It's been interesting for me as well -- started when I was traveling as a cheap way to update everyone back home from my mobile. Quickly realized that getting tweets to my mobile would rapidly destroy my monthly SMS quota and my concentration.

I've settled on using "Twidget", an OS X dashboard widget. I check it periodically when I take a break between next actions. For me so far, it has the most value in getting to know internet acquaintances a little better. It's been fun reading your Tweets, I hope you continue even if at lower volume.

October 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

I look forward to seeing you back in Twitterville once you've determined the best way to make it productive for you.

October 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

We'll see!

October 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks, Lisa. I've always wondered about people who, when I follow them, automatically follow *me*. In fact, I get some "spam" that says, "If you like my Tweets, subscribe to my blog!" Maybe not a bad idea, but I didn't ask for it...

Re: Business use, I'd like to hear some (anonymized) examples of how you found those folks (searching for terms, business names, etc) and how Twitter panned out into business.

I always appreciate your comments, Lisa. Much appreciated!

October 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'm endlessly fascinated--and occasionally, annoyed--by Twitter, Twitterers and the ways they intersect.

Take me, for example. I'm glad you find my 140-character stabs at humor funny, and I'd be lying if I said that it wouldn't matter if nobody did. I like attention as much as the next whore!

But after mucking about with Twitter a couple of times (when it first launched, and again, roughly a year later), I finally got that for wordy people like me (you're noticing the length of this comment, right?) (not to mention the parentheticals?), Twitter offered an unprecedented opportunity to work on my pithiness. Because of the limit and because people are watching. (Yes, and following, but trust me, that came much later--after Adam Lisagor, aka @lonelysandwich, started following me.)

So it is, on the one hand, a real time suck. It takes my time, and pays me nothing. Kinda like my blog, which I've spent far, far more time on.

I didn't start the blog to make money, either, though. I started it to learn my way, and later, to share what I'd learned as I learned my way. (Oh, lordy be--look how fabulous and zen I am!)

The hardest thing for me my whole life--well, one of them, anyway--has been to keep my eyes on my own paper. I.e., do my own thing, and resist the temptation to copy what other people do or compare my progress with theirs. Since I've started blogging in earnest--four years, this November--I've seen all kinds of people lap me. On rough days, it's discouraging.

On good days (which, thankfully, are most days), it's just testament to me that if you do what you do well, you will be able to enjoy the fruits of it, one way or another.

I am delighted that you like my silly Twitter stream. But I need to keep doing it because *I* need to keep doing it. Money be damned!

October 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercommunicatrix

Some people I've added because I already read their blog or newsletter, and when they provided a Twitter link, I clicked. Some people I've added because someone retweeted an interesting post or article and I went and looked up the originator.

I've done a couple of searches for "public speaking" to see what others are talking about and to occasionally offer a piece of advice. Sometimes I find fellow speakers or coaches that way and add them (if they have something interesting or helpful to say).

I'm also sending an auto-reply to people who follow me that thanks them and offers a free e-book as an additional way of building my list. Not everyone takes me up on it, but about 30% of new followers (25 of 84 since I started offering the e-book) have signed up.

Just yesterday I had a phone conversation with someone who might turn out to be a good referral partner for my business. So there's not a lot going on yet in terms of new business, but like everything else, it requires patience and time.

October 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Braithwaite

Hi Brock. I hadn't thought of the quick-update-while-traveling angle. Makes sense. (Call me a *very* late adopter, but I disabled SMS - didn't see the need, but I'm sure I'm missing something...) I like your keep-it-in-perspective control too.

> For me so far, it has the most value in getting to know internet acquaintances a little better.

This goes to my point about being principled in who we follow. I've noticed I usually start something new in a divergent fashion, where I'm in rapid-explore mode (apparently this is a hyphen-rich reply :-) Once I get my head around it I move into a convergent stage in which I get clearer how I want to use the thing (or not). Of course there's a back and forth - it's not one-way. Examples:

o consulting: my marketing approach (I'm on major version 3 or 4)
o networking: who I like/want/need in my network (I'm on major version 3)
o Twitter: (I'm thinking about v2.0)

I guess those are examples of reinventing myself. A blog post?

> It's been fun reading your Tweets, I hope you continue even if at lower volume.

Thanks, Brock.

October 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

This is the first time I have ever commented on a blog and I follow about 30. I have been pondering exploring Twitter for awhile but thanks to your excellent post I don't need to. Thank you for such a thorough post explaining the pros/cons of Twitter. I liked the links to your research combined with your own personal opinion.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScott V

Hey, Scott - thanks for commenting. I'm happy you found this helpful. It's one of the main reasons I write. Much appreciated!

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

> an unprecedented opportunity to work on my pithiness. Because of the limit and because people are watching

Yes! It was one of the best things about using it, and probably the main challenge that will draw me back.

> It takes my time, and pays me nothing. Kinda like my blog

Hear hear - I mean, here here. It's like that artist who struggles on in spite of everything, except it's not art and I'm not struggling. OK, it's not art. OK, it's exactly the same.

> do my own thing, and resist the temptation to copy what other people do or compare my progress with theirs

Thank you for saying this. Taking this path is a pure act of faith. There's a lot of pressure to "go conventional," which I've been avoiding for the most part. When I give in and try the common wisdom, there's pain and I'm unhappy. "This should be working for me - everyone else does it, and they seem to be successful." Great examples in my business: Newsletters, articles, public speaking, passive streams of income, cold calls, ebooks, free telecoaching events, ... And of course, if you're going to blog, WRITE FOR YOUR PROSPECTIVE CLIENTS! I'm doing none of this, and sometimes I think I'm a damn fool. "This is my only chance, and I don't want to blow it" argues for doing it my way, even if I fail. But if I go the conventional route, I *might* not fail, but I'll be miserably comfortable in the knowledge that I didn't try something different. :-)

> blogging ... I've seen all kinds of people lap me. On rough days, it's discouraging.

Another Yes! I have fellow bloggers with 68,000 readers who started a year ago. Damn! Then again, there aren't many other blogs like mine, and I'm still getting something out of doing it.

> if you do what you do well, you will be able to enjoy the fruits of it, one way or another

It's the "another" that scares me ;-)

I'm really glad you stopped by, Colleen. A great reinforcement for why I do this.

October 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Much appreciated.

October 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell


Great blog posting - very thorough and entertaining. I've been a late adopter of Twitter myself, but finding it quite interesting. Enjoying the humor side of it too, as it is a way to let a little of that side of me bleed out in all the more formal networking I do.



November 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrent Haeseker

I like the humor side a lot. I still haven't got my head around the business use, except - as you point out - trust and conversation. (For my other readers: You might enjoy reading the fine answers to my LinkedIn question [ Are blogs dead? Should they be replaced by Twitter, Flickr, & Facebook? | http://www.linkedin.com/answers?viewQuestion=&\1questionID=352133&\1askerID=3653507 ].)

Thanks for your comment.

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

The thing about Twitter is it can be useful in different ways. Regardless of whether you use it for entertainment or business, the key is being disciplined, otherwise it can be a huge anti-productivity tool. Of course, that's easier said than done. :)

November 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMark Evans

Hear hear! Thanks, Mark.

November 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks for your comments on my blog post about twitter: http://tinyurl.com/5lbxms

My own jury is still out on twitter. I should add to your article that both those for and against twitter links are from last year, and last year I thought twitter was a dumb, random other way to waste one's time. But I think I'm starting to "get it".

I've seen some down sides: i.e. serious lack of sleep, too many "interesting links" I really want to read on over 20 windows, creepy behaviour, too many follows leading to an increase in entropy in my stream (I've begun to defollow at this point).

I've seen some positive sides: inspiration for online social media, inspiration and updates on blogging, keeping up an international expert panel of experts that can keep me up to date on news, making new friends and contacts...

Unlike with facebook (which I barely maintain), my own twitter group is largely people I haven't known before. But I'm getting to know them, and that's part of the plusses. It's NOT just about business for me. It's not about using people as a utilitarian tool to drive "traffic" (i.e. money) to my site. I'm just not wired that way I guess. I just can't go for the golden eggs when there is such a lovely goose there to hang out with. I've selected my own follows because of personal/professional synchronicities, and I'm finding it provides a level of interaction and dialogue that may be hard to find within my own group/city.

As they say, "It ain't over until the fat lady sings," but I'm starting to think this just might be a Wagner opera, so I may be in for a long show before the grand finale of whether I'm pro or con.

For now though, tick me off as "pro".

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaria Lavis

I'd like more advice about how you choose your followers. "largely people I haven't known before" makes sense, and "personal/professional synchronicities" is tantalizing. Mixing personal and professional is something I still struggle with.

Thanks for your comment.

December 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Multiple accounts are a hassle.

I suggest two Twitter streams: humor/frivolity/leisure (straight feed), and serious (filterable by context), with stricter access controls for the second.

December 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGH

What do you mean by access controls? Oh, who can sign up? I agree that two feeds is a pain, but it's similar to the blog problem - which identity do we present?

December 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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