Twitter for Boomers, Lesson 2

A couple of weeks ago, when nature was wreaking havoc on the Northeast in the form of earthquakes and hurricanes, I wrote a post about the importance of Twitter and outlined the basics for opening an account. Now that you’ve had a couple of weeks to play around, it’s time for a few more tips.

First of all, you’ve probably been making lots of mistakes. But that’s OK because I’m pretty sure almost no one saw them. The most difficult thing about Twitter–and really, it’s not hard once you catch on–is figuring out how to talk to people, how to use the @ address (or mention), how to tweet and retweet, and what tone you should take. As I’ve said, Twitter is only as good an experience as you make it, and the Twitter experience completely depends on who you are following and who is following you back. So to review:

  • Following people. You should start out by following about 100 people/organizations, unless you’re Yoko Ono, who follows everyone who follows her, nearly 700,000 people at the moment. First find out if anyone you know is on Twitter. Easiest way is to ask. Or put up a Facebook status asking. Or try the tips in this article from, “10 Ways to Find People on Twitter.” Next choose a few news organizations you like–your local paper, the Associated Press, Gawker, whatever. If you like fashion, then follow fashionistas. If you like tech, well, you won’t be reading this, but follow Tech Crunch. There are organizations you can follow for dog lovers or knitters or whatever. See the Search box next to the blue Twitter bird on the top black bar? Type anything into it and you’ll get results. Fiddle around a bit by clicking on this and that and you’ll find the ASPCA, who along with the Huffington Post, will provide you with pictures of adorable kittens.
  • Getting followers. You see, in Twitter, you can follow almost anyone–unless that person has a protected account (will explain at a later date, but forget it) or has blocked you. People get blocked for being obnoxious (being a “troll”), sending spam, and stuff like that. Otherwise, people don’t bother to block their followers, generally. (I suppose there are some picky people and, actually, even I do a filter thing to get rid of people I’m following who might be dicey. More on that at another time.) But getting followers is hard, unless you’re famous. A good method is to take a social media class at your local Y or community college. That way you’ll start out with a group you can learn with. So to get followers, you have to have some to begin with. Then you have to tweet interesting things–but in the right way. It’s a “if you build it, they will come” kind of thing.
  • About famous people you follow. Know they will not follow you back or even read your tweets. Most famous people have someone who tweets for them. At most they look at their @ mentions, that is, tweets addressed to them. They won’t bother to read these tweets unless they know the sender–or unless you catch their attention.
  • Catching their attention. Well, you do this by commenting on something they’ve said. Using the retweet button at the bottom of a tweet is nice for the person you’re retweeting because for people who count these things, the number of retweets increases a person’s influence online. But look at this: I tweeted the publisher WWNorton this evening:I was being silly. Sort of Tweeting into the stratosphere. Sort of telling my Twitter friends who might be reading through their stream at that moment that I was tired. But, then, this appeared:Somebody at WW Norton read it and was amused. The more you tweet, the more likely things like this will happen. I tweet about Baby Boomers–the AARP follows me. It kind of begins to work like that.
  • Remember, Twitter isn’t about you. Sure, if you’re the star in your local drama club’s production this weekend, tweet about it. But people don’t want to hear about how wonderful you are. They want to interact. Twitter is really social–people make friends. The other night I witnessed the first face-to-face meeting of two women who had been Twitter friends for years. I mean, they really know each other well. Then they finally met. It was kind of awesome. (Yeah, @AmyVernon and @TheWordIsBerry.) If you’re being too obvious about how clever you are, well, any followers you may have will be bored by the tweet. If they even see it.
  • The trick of the retweet. This is how you’ll get noticed–with the manual retweet. That means copying a tweet and pasting it into the “what’s happening” box. You begin by saying something short. Then you type RT (meaning retweet) @ (wherever it came from). Here’s an example: No way I  think Slate magazine was going to read this. But some of my Twitter friends did. And that was what mattered. I’m talking to people I know. Notice that I’m also passing on information, an article from Slate.
  • Tweet essentials. So what does a good tweet have? To quote Sree Sreenivasan, who practically invented social media (follow him at @Sree or @SreeTips), you need to be succinct and give information. A tweet, he says, should be useful or funny. You’ve got to keep it under 140 characters; Sree advises 120, which gives room for retweets.
  • Sending Tweets. So this is where it gets a little complicated. If you start a tweet with @goodfriend, the only person who is going to see that tweet is goodfriend and someone who follows you and goodfriend. Now, when a whole bunch of you are following a famous person, you’ll see the tweets. Remember, the famous person probably won’t bother (though, as I said, people check their @ mentions; you might really hear back). So what you do is put a “character”–a period or anything before the @ mention, like this: Everyone who follows me could see this, although I was really sending it to my friend. But people saw it and retweeted it–kind of like dropping a stone into a lake. It ripples. Sometimes, though, I don’t bother with the .@ and just use @. I do this when I’m being dumb and not thinking, when I’m really talking to one person, or when I don’t really care. Like this:MarcIsGod is my daughter’s friend. This was a conversation between the two of us. Probably we should have been Direct Messaging.
  • Direct Message. Did you know that all Tweets are going into the Library of Congress–except for private ones, called direct messages. You send a Direct Message by putting D before the @, like d @goodfriend. Thing is, you can only direct message someone who is following you. So it really is a friend-to-friend thing.
  • About links. A good Tweet often contains a link to an article or website that gives more information. I’ll talk about link shorteners and stuff in another post, but you can copy the URL of whatever you want to send out and paste it into your link. (Don’t just send links, however. That’s what spammers do. If someone is sending you only links, block him. I’ll get to that later, too.) Also, never click on ANY link unless you know where it is coming from. There’s a lot of bad spamming stuff going on in Twitter. So be careful. Also, if you are manually retweeting and there’s a link you’re including, you’ll also probably have to manually add http://–the magic characters that make a link clickable. This has been a problem in Twitter for a while now.

So, in general, find good people to follow and just play around. Have fun. I’ll recommend this wonderful article on the basics of Twitter by @TweetSmarter. I’ll give the link in full so you can see the title: Follow @TweetSmarter. He’s the smartest. But Twitter is only hard in the beginning, and only if you don’t take advice from people like @TweetSmarter.

Let me know how you’re doing with Twitter. As long as I don’t get too many questions, like under 100, I’ll answer them personally. I love hearing from everyone by email, Twitter, and Facebook, but there is that comment box too. In case you forgot, I’m @wordwhacker.


Real story. In college and for several years after I had a good friend named Jeff who was the boyfriend and then husband of someone who had lived on my freshman dorm floor. We were really close. After they got married it was often Jeff, Iris and me. I dated guys just because they were friends with Jeff, and wouldn’t that have been perfect—Jeff and Iris, Linda and X. Well, that never happened. After college Jeff went to medical school (and I was in graduate school and Iris was basically doing nothing). For someone who wasn’t a spouse, I spent an unreasonable amount of time sneaking into the emergency rooms of various hospitals with pizza and beer nights when Jeff was “on call.”

At some point, after Jeff was already a psychiatrist with a practice (I remember going to purchase the couch for his office with him), Iris had a psychotic break, and my husband really didn’t want a completely crazy person sleeping in our living room. Besides, it’s pretty hard being friends with someone who thinks she’s being following by little Japanese boys wearing baseball caps. Then Iris and Jeff got divorced. (Cutting Iris off isn’t something I’m proud of.) Jeff remarried a really nice woman, and for a while they lived on the same block as my kids’ elementary school. But we fell out of touch.

And yet, I always kind of figured that Jeff was there and that someday I’d just give him a call and we’d simply pick up where we left off.

Then, about two months ago, I was writing a short story with a character addicted to drugs. Doing some research on the internet, I came across some medical papers Jeff had written—drug addiction was his specialty. Then I came across something else: an obituary. Jeff had died of cancer. In 2008. In other words, this guy that I expected to call up someday had been dead for nearly three years.

I was bereft. It was unimaginable. I still can’t quite absorb that he’s dead.

However, this blog is about something else entirely, and the story about Jeff segues into my argument. I’m not being heartless. It’s just that the story illustrates what I want to say:


OK. Another story. For the past many years, every May 12th I have an email exchange (or now a LinkedIn message exchange) with my friend Roy Rosenstein, a professor at the American University in Paris with whom I was close, close friends in graduate school. Roy was probably among the most brilliant people I have ever met. He also hated children. Nevertheless, he was tolerant of the fact that I had them—but that was pretty easy considering he started living in Paris even before he got his Ph.D. (Roy knows about 10 languages, including Russian and Chinese. He also is a collector of books. No, more than that. A true bibliomaniac whose bookshelves proved too heavy for the ceiling below his library.) Eventually, with me all caught up with little-kid things and Roy buying books and speaking French, we lost touch. Then he showed up on LinkedIn. And today I had the bright idea that he might be on Facebook. So I “friended” him, and this just appeared in my profile wall: “Linda and Roy Rosenstein are now friends.”

Roy mentioned in his LinkedIn mail that he’s promoting his newest book, and I have no idea what it is about. When I think of Roy, I see in my mind a pixie-ish guy with brown hair and beard. Last time I saw him, five years or so ago, he was graying. I don’t know what he’s thinking, what he’s doing. But I know he’s there. He’s someone who is deep in my heart, and now I can reach out to him anytime. Through Facebook. (And, yeah, LinkedIn.) He’s not about to go missing.

I do have a lot of friends my age on Facebook, but I’m just as likely to hear, “oh, don’t talk to me about that stuff.” A woman I know who went on Facebook just before her daughter got married—“for the pictures,” she said—whined that she really means to get off of it, because what does someone like her want with Facebook? What good does it do, she says, except to give people access to pictures?

Well, she’s right about the pictures part. I got to see my great-nephew’s smile five minutes after he lost his first tooth! My daughter shared pictures of a new dress she was about to buy. But there’s other stuff too. I know what news articles my son is reading. Beyond stalking my family: Facebook is a wonderful door to the amazing world of children’s book illustrators I know. On Facebook I am “friends” with some literary greats who post interesting articles and insights into their craft. There’s the fun stuff, too: yesterday a friend posted a photo collage of side-by-side images from Disney’s Cinderella and the recent “royal wedding.” The 30-year-old next door puts up pictures of her food whenever she goes out to eat. Through Facebook I have become treasuredly close to my husband’s cousin’s wife because we write back and forth. We see each other, too, and make phone calls, but Facebook is there, and we’re there, and it’s like opening your window in a small town, and shouting “hello” to your neighbor across the street.

Baby Boomers who decry Facebook as silly and unnecessary need to realize that they are cutting themselves off from a tool that promotes community and connectivity in a world where people move away and lose touch. I will be the first to say that to be on Facebook, one has to be a bit savvy because there are privacy issues and one does have to protect oneself against identify theft. But you know what: Facebook provides pretty simple instructions. They used to be arcane, but no more. (Just know that the default settings are for Facebook’s marketing’s benefit, not yours, so you do have to spend ten minutes or so changing them all. Type into Google “How do I make my Facebook settings private?” and you’ll get links to many step-by-step guides, as well as YouTube videos if you prefer visuals.) It’s also a given that Facebook changes its rules every couple of months. So you have to keep on top of things. But you can “like” (subscribe to, in other words) various groups that will keep you informed about changes by sending you messages. Finally, you have to know that if you receive a message from a friend promising to show you something gross (“Look what this woman found in her Happy Meal”) or salacious (“real naked pictures of Meghan McCain!”), promise to tell you who has been looking at your Facebook profile (Facebook says this is impossible), or telling you to click on a link to watch yourself age—it’s all spam. The “app” will go into your “friends” list and put the phony link on their pages. Mostly these things are nuisance. Some may contain code that will infect your computer. So don’t click on anything that seems strange or whose source you can’t trace.

In my next blog, or the one after, I’m going to give a real “Getting on Facebook” lesson for Baby Boomers. Because we can stay in touch. Because we need to stay in touch.

And by the way: You can comment at the end of the post instead of emailing me or commenting on my Facebook. For those of you out there whose comments  I managed to delete, sorry. I do appreciate your words and insights.