Whether you're an avid Twitter user or not, chances are if you're online, you're social.
We like to think of social media as a very modern phenomenon, but the truth is that humans have been exploiting new technologies to satisfy our deep-seated social urges since the dawn of time.
Whether through smoke signals, morse code or likes, we've always sought out new ways to communicate with one another, and have pushed at the boundaries of geographic connection to the point that we can now tweet to our fellow kind even when they're floating in orbit . Although the means through which we communicate continue to change, there are certain elements that appear to remain constant - such as the fact that we're more likely to share content with others if it's novel or emotionally arousing .
That said, these new platforms bring with them an unprecedented (and, for the time being, still rather crude) way in which to quantify our social reach.
They've taken us beyond the RSVPs, birthday cards and other social indicators of our youth, providing us with new, public ways in which to measure the influence index of our relationships. I for one can attest to the sense of delight that each new Twitter follower brings, and the pang of disappointment that comes when one is lost.
Given that for many of us these platforms (and our performance within them) have become key contributors to our sense of self-esteem , it’s hardly surprising that we’re hungry for ways in which to do it better. Well, the findings from the first ever longitudinal Twitter study can help us do just that.
Over a 15 month period, researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgia Institute of Technology studied over half a million tweets sent by 507 users, to explore whether the message content, social behaviour and network structure could predict link formations on Twitter.
Here’s what they found.
1. Share positive sentiments
Unlike other, more closely-knit networks, Twitter is a platform that excels at bringing together loose ties in a smorgasbord of intellectual sharing. As such, twitter users who share positive content with their compadres tend to get more re-tweets and attract higher numbers of followers. If you want to benefit from this, simply include a positive spin in the content you share. It doesn’t all have to be happy-clappy, but by making the majority of your contributions positive, you can help boost your chances of gaining new followers.
2. Create re-tweetable (interesting) content
Tweets containing interesting information tend to attract 30 times more followers than tweets containing ‘me, you, I, us, we’ content (which actually deters growth). Twitter is a platform based around sharing information, so if you do this in an open, collaborative way, chances are you’ll boost your reputation and follower numbers in the process.
3. Use hashtags sparingly
When it comes to hashtag use, the key is considered moderation. Over-use (abuse) of hashtags tends to put people off, so only include them when they’re relevant to the topic being discussed. As a rule of thumb, you should use hashtags when you want to join a specific conversation around a particular subject, and only rarely when you want to set up your own (for instance if you’re running a seminar or conference).
4. Be eloquent
Since Twitter doesn’t provide us with the traditional contextual cues of a face-to-face interaction (such as body language and facial expressions), we rely instead on linguistic cues such as spelling and vocabulary to help us judge the attributes of other users . When deciding whether or not to follow another Twitter user, we tend to seek out well-written content over poorly written content. So the next time you’re about to hit the ‘Tweet’ button, make sure your tweet is grammatically correct, spell-checked for errors, and beautifully crafted. It’s quality, not quantity that matters here.
5. Go on tweeting sprees
I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I always seem to gain new followers when I’m on a tweeting spree at a conference. The researchers describe this as ‘burstiness’ (tweets per hour), and in general if you go on these occasionally (i.e. don’t clog up people’s twitter streams day-in, day-out) you’ll be able to benefit from the interaction and exposure.
6. Re-tweet other people’s content
By re-tweeting (RT) other people’s content, you’re not only showing that you share the collaborative values of the Twitter community (thus increasing your likeability), but by attributing that content to its user, you’re also boosting their motivation to engage with you and RT your content back (reciprocity, social proof).
For the un-initiated, there are several ways you can re-tweet other people’s content on Twitter:
- create a straight-forward re-tweet (‘RT’)
- send a modified tweet (‘MT’) which includes your opinion
- cite that you’ve heard the tweet through someone else (‘HT’, ‘via’, or ‘by’)
In my experience the most effective and rewarding way to re-tweet content is to use the following format (see example here):
Your personal comment/opinion. Link. Positive attribution to the original author @name.
7. Pick a topic
The researchers also found that people who tweeted about a specific topic (such as #psychology) were also more likely to attract like-minded followers with shared interests (homophily). So if you’re passionate about skydiving, it might pay to join the conversation and start tweeting about it.
8. Complete your profile
Simple, but effective. According to the researchers, signaling theory suggests that choosing to complete your user profile can help persuade other users that you’re authentic and trustworthy, making them more likely to follow you. To make the most of this tip, use your profile to emphasize your natural, desirable, authentic characteristics, include a link to your website or blog, and list your general location – a little personal info can go a long way here  (see example here).
9. Don’t broadcast
Twitter is a two-way street. If you want to broadcast, use a radio. It should go without saying that sending directed, targeted tweets that are interesting and useful will make you more attractive to potential followers. Indiscriminate broadcasting can actually damage your chances of gaining new followers, so if you absolutely must broadcast, make sure you always include your personal take on the content you’re sharing. Social media isn’t social if you don’t show your personality.
10. Reply and follow
Although this effect wasn’t very strong, the researchers found that people who followed users who followed them back, and used @mentions and @replies to connect with others tended to have more followers. However they also found that users with a high follower-to-following ratio (you follow 150 people, and 3000 people follow you) attracted more users, possibly due to the effect of social proof (everyone else follows this user, so I’ll follow them too)
 MIKE MASSIMINO sent the first Tweet from space | Twitter http://stories.twitter.com/en/mike_massimino.html
 5 tips to make your content go viral | The Web Psychologist
 Facebook, Happiness and Self-esteem | Psych Central
 Tidwell, L.C. and Walther, J.B. Computer-Mediated Communication Effects on Disclosure, Impressions, and Inter-personal Evaluations: Getting to Know One Another a Bit at a Time. Human Communication Research 28, 3 (2002).
 Goffman, E. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor, 1959.