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The right way and wrong way to use Twitter

Tweeting is a great way to share thoughts and information with friends and followers, as long as you stay safe, keep it civil, and most importantly, be interesting.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

Humboldt State University map of hateful tweets
Humboldt State University's Hate Map tracks the source of tweets that use homophobic, racist, and other hateful terms. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

"Thank you for sharing" takes on an entirely new meaning when using social media. Most of the people who use Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks intend their posts to enlighten, amuse, or inspire their friends and followers. It doesn't always work out that way.

For businesses, Twitter is primarily about customer relations, but this can backfire, too, as Customer Think's Trish Miller points out in the Top 10 Twitter Mistakes of 2012.

The first time you sat behind the wheel of a car you didn't just turn the key and head for the freeway at rush hour. Social media require a similar training period to avoid crashing and burning with your first posts. Twitter seems particularly susceptible to social-network gaffes.

Politicians aren't the only ones whose careers can be endangered by inappropriate tweets. PCMag.com's Mark Hachman presents a slideshow of six people who got fired over a tweet. Maybe ill-tweeting politicos are simply sidetracked, as former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner's possible political revival indicates.

Whether you're a veteran tweeter with thousands of followers or a newbie still struggling with URL shorteners, these tips will help you use the microblogging service to best effect.

Before you tweet, learn the rules of the Twittersphere
As with most Internet activities, you have to think of safety first. In a post from last November I explained how to secure your Twitter account.

Following several high-profile hacks of news-media accounts, Twitter is reportedly about to enable two-factor authentication, as CNET's Dara Kerr reported late last month. Whether due to hacking or just plain poor reporting, you have to take breaking-news tweets with a big dose of skepticism.

I got a first-hand look at the effects of Twitter-based rumor-mongering during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers on April 18 and 19. Three different "reliable" media sources I follow tweeted the wrong suspects, and several others tweeted links to stories with incorrect information about the search for the bombers.

Repeat after me: Getting it right is much more important than getting it first.

Even longtime tweeters may not know that Twitter has rules -- in fact, the service has dozens of them governing spam, serial accounts, bulk invitations, pornography, and inappropriate use of Twitter badges, among other subjects.

Twitter Rules page
The Twitter Rules explain such violations as spamming, impersonation, and divulging other people's private information. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The Twitter support site provides information for securing your Twitter account and protecting your personal information.

Twitter's advice for how to respond to offensive content is to consider the context. The service recommends that you tweet back using @reply to ask for clarification, or to send the person a direct message.

A simpler solution is to unfollow the person, as explained on the Twitter support site. To block the person, follow the steps described on this Twitter support page.

The Twitter Help Center's abusive-behavior page provides links to antibullying organizations as well as a form you can use to report a violation of the service's rules. Twitter also offers guidelines for law enforcement.

Among the privacy resources on the Tactical Technology Collective's Me & My Shadow site are tips to help you determine how secure your Twitter account is.

Follow Twitter's own advice for honing your tweet skills
Some people start their Twitter feed with a built-in audience, but most of us generate a following a tweeter at a time. The Twitter Help Center's Getting Started page covers finding accounts to follow, developing a voice via retweets and replies, and using lists, direct messages, and other advanced features.

The Help Center resources include a glossary of Twitter terms, instructions for setting up a profile, and tips for using Twitter for business.

If you're looking for interesting people to follow, Paste Magazine's Josh Jackson compiled the 75 best Twitter accounts of 2012. Media Bistro's All Twitter offers tips on boosting your retweets, promoting a local business, crafting clickable headlines, and other subjects.

When you're ready to go beyond the Twitter basics, check out All Twitter's "7 secrets of highly effective Twitter power users." Topics include creating lists and saved searches, conducting hashtag chats, and devising tweet schedules.

Avoid tweeter's remorse by being deliberate
As long as there has been a Twitter, there have been people apologizing for their tweets. Social Media Today's Jayson DeMers recently posted the five biggest Twitter blunders by celebrities. Big names aren't the only ones exhibiting a lack of sense on their Twitter feed, as digital-marketing consultant Jeff Bullas demonstrates in his post on 14 Twitter mistakes to avoid.

Probably the worst Twitter mistake you can make is hate speech. The map at the top of the post is Humboldt State University's Geography of Hate, which plots geotagged hateful tweets in the U.S. You can view the occurrences of hateful terms based on three categories: homophobic (four separate terms), racist (five separate terms), and disability (one term).

The map is part of a project by Dr. Monica Stephens that ties online hate speech back to its geographic origin. The colors (red to dark blue to light blue) represent more than 150,000 instances of a hateful term in a tweet. Student volunteers read each tweet and categorized it as either positive, neutral, or negative; only those deemed negative were mapped.

The Huffington Post's Britney Fitzgerald compiled a slideshow of "15 annoying things we never want to see on Twitter again." They include overdoing hashtags, begging for retweets, drunken tweets, tweeting every item you consume, retweeting celebrities, and tweeting about how hard you're working.

Speaking of which, I need to wrap this post up so I can go bore my Twitter followers -- both of them.