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Use Twitter as a tool for your advantage

Dan Costa isn't one of them.

As executive editor for, he's well-versed in social networking technology. He's also a devoted Twitter head.

But he doesn't proselytize. Instead, he wants people who decide to try out services like Twitter to appreciate their power — for both good and bad.

Costa warned that many people don't understand that sharing too much personal information can lead to serious consequences, perhaps even cost them their jobs. That goes for all of the services, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, he said.

Take Brian Quinn, for instance. The Marion County sheriff's deputy was fired in 2006 for inappropriate content on his MySpace profile and his Web page, including posts about female breasts, swimming naked and drinking heavily and often.

"His statement about putting people in jail, his statement of swimming without his clothes on, things like that are totally inappropriate," Sheriff Ed Dean told Orlando television station WESH. "Even if they were in jest, even if he didn't even mean it, it still is not representative of the Sheriff's Office."

Networking site openness

"The rules have changed, and it's not just about social networking either," Dan Costa said. "Right now, online, anything you do is being recorded. That's the default position you have to take. . . . Whether you're blogging or using Twitter or even sending an e-mail, you have to assume that it will live forever. That's a fundamental shift in how we view our privacy."

What's more, social networking sites might be the least dangerous, he said. By their very nature, users can share their complaints and push those who control the sites to make changes.

The social networking services tend to be more open than many other online enterprises, he said. Any time you make a purchase over the Internet, for example, someone is probably compiling information about you.

"The information is moving whether you know it or not," Costa said. "The thing about social networking is it tends to be more public, more out in the open. But people who aren't used to using instant messaging, or using Twitter, or Web pages and blogs still think of it as a little like letter writing or talking to friends.

"It's very different when you publish something and it's out there for all the world to see. Many times you can't really take it back."

Change in how we communicate

Setting aside its dangers, Costa thinks social networking is here to stay. He cites a statistic from a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey that said 11 percent of online American adults use Twitter or some other service that allows users to share short updates about themselves — called "tweets" in the Twitter universe.

"That's a pretty remarkable number," Costa said, noting that the figure includes both Twitter and Facebook users. "I think Twitter's audience is a little smaller than that full 11 percent. But certainly, it's really picking up now, it's growing pretty quickly.

"The interesting thing about Twitter is it's really just a tool like any other medium, like e-mail or chats, or instant messaging," Costa said. "You can use it for whatever you want to use it for."

While one woman in his office uses it to exchange witty banter with friends, another co-worker uses it as a business tool for connecting with sources, sharing information, seeking answers to questions.

Social networking services like Twitter and Facebook represent an important change in how Americans communicate, Costa said.

"We've never been in the place we are right now," he said. "There's usually nothing proprietary about the technologies, and if there is, there's always the chance that something else could rise up and replace it. The difference now is that there is huge scale. There are more people than ever who are actually using them."

Learn how to make Twitter useful

Here are tips offered by Nick Douglas of He said the steps will transform Twitter from "a time sink into an indispensable tool."

Follow the news. Twitter is for keeping track of one news niche you care about. Useful Twitter members are CNN, cnnbrk, 8NYTimes, BreakingNewsOn and nprnews. Naturally, PCMag also has a Twitter presence.

Get better customer service. You may get more attention from companies through Twitter than through normal customer service channels. Examples include Zappos, Starbucks and JetBlue. "Next time you have a customer complaint, just Google the search string '(Company name) Twitter' to see if you can make your case in 140 characters," wrote Douglas.

Ask for help. Twitter is useful in getting answers to questions and asking for favors. Examples: "Can anyone help me move on Friday?" or "How much RAM should I get for my new MacBook?" "The flip side is that Twitter communication is meant to be two-way," Douglas wrote. "Build your network of followers and your Twitter karma by jumping in with answers and help of your own."

Promote your work or company. Douglas warns that too much promotion can backfire. He recommends limiting your promotional tweets to three links a week. "Any more and you'll alienate followers who already know about your work or couldn't care less."

Keep up with friends. "One message at a time, knowing who has a cold or who got in a fender bender is dull. But in aggregate, skimming your Twitter feed gives you a sixth sense about what your social circle is up to, what moods they're in, whether they're free for a drink that night," Douglas wrote.

Use Twitter as a tool for your advantage 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 4:31am]
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