"Are you on Twitter?"
If your answer is "No," then this is for you. And if you're over 45, chances are that's your answer. But before you write off Twitter as a time suck, or a toy for kids, you should know that most Twitter users are between 26 and 44. Grownups like it, and for good reason.
For quite a while now, reading my Twitter timeline has been one of the most gratifying and important activities of my day. But back in 2008, this was what I had to say about it:
You know those sci-fi movies where some guy suddenly has the ability to read the minds of everyone around him and his eyes roll up in his head and he collapses in a heap, frothing at the ears and utterly insane because he can't handle the flood of inanities? That's why I've been avoiding Twitter.
At the time I wrote that, Twitter was still young, and the prompt its founders had come up with to get people to use it was "What are you doing?" In response to this we got a lot of sandwich eating and jogging in the early days. This drove many people
Near the end of that article, I acknowledged that Twitter hadn't reached its full potential, and it has, indeed, grown up since then. Now, instead of asking what you're doing, the Twitter homepage says "Follow your interests. Instant updates from your friends, industry experts, favorite celebrities, and what's happening around the world." Not terribly sexy, but it accurately describes what Twitter has evolved into for the most part.
Back in 2005, and for years before that, I'd get up in the morning, drink my tea and read the LA Times with CNN on in the background. Then for a couple of years I drank my tea and read my RSS feed reader (a topic for another day, perhaps). Now I drink my tea and read my Twitter timeline instead.
What does that mean? Well, first of all, I "follow" friends and industry experts (web, business, tech), as well as publications of all kinds (online and offline), organizations, politicians, and interesting (funny, brilliant, militant, creative, good-hearted... ) strangers. I get a much more well-rounded and current view of what's happening in the world and in my areas of interest than I ever got from my old newspaper/CNN combo (I don't follow CNN on Twitter because this is their idea of news, nor do I follow the LA Times. I don't live in SoCal anymore, and I have bigger fish at my fingertips with Twitter. Sorry.) And -- bonus! -- I have my faith in humanity renewed almost daily. Do you get that from your local paper?
Then, in the morning and a couple of times a day, I read my timeline; the things the people/organizations I follow have tweeted. This morning, for example, I was cracking up reading the blow-by-blow "coverage" of yesterday's Republican debate by comedian Andy Borowitz. I learned that Senator Sanders of Vermont introduced the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. (He rocks!) Steve Silberman, an erudite geek and writer tweeted that the Monty Python cast would be reuniting to make a sci-fi spoof. (Can't wait!) I clicked a link to see a piece an artist friend (online variety) made with some Android phone apps. I read an article, thanks to io9 (a delicious blend of science and sci-fi), on a couple of primate studies that were trying to help determine whether girls naturally prefer dolls to toy trucks. Charles Bukowski (or, rather, BukQuotes) said "The shortest distance between two points is often unbearable," and I had to agree. I learned Putin wants to institute a national reading list. (Sounds pretty sovietsky to me.) OpenCulture tweeted a link to free downloadable courses by great philosophers from Bertrand Russell to Foucault, which I marked to check out later. And, sadly, I learned that Twitter is going to start allowing censorship of tweets in some countries. (And this news so soon after they announced that $300M investment they got from a Saudi prince. Hmmm...)
Now, you may think being on Twitter would just add to your information overload. But it's quite the contrary, actually. With Twitter you have the power to separate the wheat from the chaff. Think about it. Somebody at your preferred newspapers/magazines/TV news stations decides what info to put in front of your face. Those people are making decisions about what you see (and don't see), and you have nothing to say about it. With Twitter, you choose to follow people/organizations you trust, and you depend on them to share meaningful info. I feel I'm in better hands with the people I follow on Twitter than with mainstream media. And I often hear news before traditional news channels make it public, or news somebody doesn't want to be public at all...
(Until a few weeks ago, I was following more publications and blogs on Twitter, but many of them have recently gotten into the nasty habit of tweeting the same thing over and over in order to reach more eyeballs, which can really take up a lot of space in your timeline and your brain if too many people are doing it. So I have demoted most of them back to my RSS feed reader. And I read my feeds after I've read Twitter. Maybe.)
Now, you can't expect Twitter to instantly meet all of your information needs. (I actually have two separate accounts, one for professional interests and one for personal interests.) It took me about a year to get timelines that were satisfying, and I still tweak them regularly (adding and removing people). My advice is to start by following a few people and publications you respect and the rest should come naturally.
Also, I rarely use Twitter on the Twitter site itself. It's not user friendly enough. I most often use an iPhone app (Tweetbot), and occasionally the official Twitter desktop app (only because there's no Tweetbot desktop app). You'll find lots of articles out there that talk about the tools you can use to tweet and strategies for finding people to follow.
Plus, I haven't even touched on the topic of being a meaningful (non-sandwich-describing -- unless of course you're a foodie and have foodie followers who want to hear about your arugula) tweeter yourself, or what a "mention" is, or the basics of twittiquette... But, again, there are all kinds of articles about these things out there.
And this post is only about using Twitter to consume information. It's a natural place to start. But it is so much more than a personalized, 24-hour news channel. As you may have heard, Twitter has been used for everything from helping revolutionaries communicate to bashing McDonald's. It has infinite potential to connect and unite people, shine light into dark corners, open and enlighten minds, call people to action, call the powerful to task, make you smile... It is much bigger than its 140-character limit would suggest.