Today is my Twitter birthday. My 4th, actually – I signed up for the network back on March 8, 2008.

As I wrote about earlier in the week, I certainly did not take to Twitter immediately. It took me a while to get it – after an initial burst of modest activity, I dropped off the network entirely for six months at the tail-end of 2008. But then, all of a sudden, something clicked. Like magic. And I’ve never looked back.

Indeed, 2009 saw me embracing Twitter with some gusto. I started my blog, Twittercism, in February 2009, and have been writing about Twitter ever since.

A rare sighting of Twittercism in the wild, circa September 2009.
Note the obligatory 1 tip of a flat belly Google ad.

In February of 2011, Twittercism was acquired by WebMediaBrand’s Mediabistro, and merged with AllTwitter, which is both where you are now, and my Twitter writing home for the past year.

In total, I’ve written 1,179 articles about Twitter. Actually, I tell a lie, as this post is entry number 1,180. That’s an average of over one Twitter article per day for each of the last three years.

So, what have I learned? What can I teach you about Twitter? Well, this. This article is the summation of my parts. It’s largely personal opinion, of course, as all of these things are, but it’s backed up by a wealth of experience, a lot of trial and error and, on occasion, some science.

I present to you 48 Twitter lessons, which is one for every month since I joined, broken up by topic into bite-sized sections, with a few extra tips for brands at the end.

GETTING STARTED

  1. Your choice of username does matter. Like domain names, good usernames are scarce, but you can change it at any time.
  2. If you’re new to Twitter, read, read, read. Then read some more. The learning curve is pretty steep, but manageable through education.
  3. Ask yourself: why am I using Twitter? Who am I? What can I offer? Identify your goals and ambitions. Analyse consistently and revise as necessary. It’s OK to change your path, but if you do it too often it can drive people crazy.
  4. Don’t protect your tweets. Twitter is an open, public network, and really doesn’t work as intended when you put up walls. If you want absolute privacy, it probably isn’t for you.
  5. Twitter isn’t Facebook.

YOUR TWITTER PROFILE

  1. Unless you’re a brand (and even that doesn’t seem to matter for Mashable), use a photo of YOU as your avatar. That’s who we want to see. Not your baby, not your cat and not a close-up of your eyeball. You. It doesn’t have to be a professional or overly serious pic – a casual photograph is much better than something which looks like a stock photo.
  2. Animated avatars are a really bad idea.
  3. Few users will care about your Twitter background. The reality is people only pay fleeting visits to your profile page on Twitter, and how your background looks is very dependent on the screen in which it’s being viewed. A horrible or offensive background would obviously not be recommended, but don’t sweat the details. A nice tile or one of Twitter’s off-the-shelf wallpapers is more than adequate.
  4. Complete your bio. After your picture, it’s the first thing potential followers will look at. It’s OK to be witty or whimsical, but only if you can pull it off. If you’re a brand, your bio isn’t the place for in-jokes or questionable humour.
  5. If you don’t have a website you want actually people to visit, don’t include a website in your profile.

FINDING PEOPLE TO FOLLOW

  1. You don’t need to follow more than a few hundred people. Honestly, you don’t. Everybody on Twitter is connected, so news will always filter through. What you need to do is follow the right people. And that’s the right people for you. Nobody can tell you who that is – you have to find out for yourself.
  2. If you’ve been on Twitter for some time and are still following more people than are following you, you’re doing it wrong.
  3. Revise and prune your Twitter network on a weekly basis – it shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be static.
  4. Twitter Lists are super-useful, but if you need dozens of Lists to cope then something has gone awry. Your Twitter feed should, ideally, be manageable in and of itself. And what about those people who aren’t ‘worthy’ of any of your lists: why are you following them at all? It’s a harsh but reasonable question, and one that you need to answer.
  5. Google is a much better way to find people than Twitter’s own search engine. Simply search for ‘firstname lastname Twitter’ and, nine times out of ten, and assuming it’s not a very common name, the person at the top of the results will be who you are looking for.

FINDING (AND LOSING) FOLLOWERS

  1. Be polite, useful, interesting and unique. But most importantly: be yourself.
  2. After that, it’s all about engagement. Act as if.
  3. WHO is following you is far more important than HOW MANY. A handful of influencers paying attention to your tweets is dramatically more valuable than 10,000 users who couldn’t pick your avatar out of a lineup.
  4. Negative people are poison, and you should weed them out of your network.
  5. Don’t use garbage like TrueTwit. It will only cause you to lose prospective followers.

YOUR TWEETS

  1. Like it or not, people will judge you on grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  2. If you want to be taken seriously, avoid the use of text speak. At all times.
  3. Use hashtags sparingly.
  4. Don’t stress too much about the original retweet versus Twitter’s new internal style. It’s increasingly becoming less of an issue. Use what you want.
  5. Strive, at all times, for the perfect tweet.

TWITTER ETIQUETTE

  1. Be mindful to monitor and reply to mentions and direct messages.
  2. Actively block spammers and other undesirables who follow or tweet you. They make your Twitter network look negative to others.
  3. You don’t have to thank for retweets (and never, ever be a metweeter.)
  4. Openly give credit when it’s due.
  5. It’s perfectly acceptable to schedule tweets, but don’t automate anything. This definitely includes direct messages (most people HATE ‘Welcome!’ automated-DMs), but also junk like FourSquare check-ins and anything else that clutters up a stream.

THE TWITTERSPHERE

  1. Don’t underestimate the power of Twitter. Used correctly, it can change the world.
  2. Twitter has over one hundred million active users. As the network grows, it naturally begins to reflect the ‘real world’, which means it has its share of jerks, trolls, spammers, mass marketers and good, old-fashioned weirdos. The block button is your friend.
  3. Some people go out of their way to be offended, and they are nearly always the problem, not you. Cut ‘em loose.
  4. Social influence platforms like Klout are irrelevant, easily gamed and will never compete with basic human intuition. Ignore them – nobody who matters cares about your ‘score’. Who do YOU find influential?
  5. All you need are 100 true fans.

PRODUCTIVITY

  1. You don’t have to read every single tweet.
  2. It’s okay to take a break from Twitter. In fact, it’s healthy.
  3. Think drunk, tweet sober.
  4. There is no perfect Twitter client, and there likely never will be. The best Twitter client is the one that works for you. Try as many as you can, and make your choice.
  5. For optimum results, access to Twitter should always be two clicks away from wherever you are. Whether that’s your desktop, smartphone or iPad, keep Twitter close by. You never know when you might need it.

BRANDS ON TWITTER

  1. As a business, your Twitter username is very important. If you’re just starting up, make sure what you want is available. If you have to compromise, do so wisely.
  2. Ideally, your Twitter presence should always be managed in-house, by employees that you can empower to make the right decisions on your behalf. However, if you have to outsource the management of your Twitter profile, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to monitor it. Closely.
  3. Unless you’re a household name, building a relevant and engaged Twitter network takes time. Twitter is free, but you have to prepare for the long haul. Overnight successes are very rare, and ROI, even amongst the best, is relatively slight. It’s my honest opinion that if immediate results are important, and you have a CPC budget in place, you’re better off with a Facebook Page.
  4. There’s a critical balance between engaging on Twitter and marketing on Twitter. Don’t oversell.
  5. If you’re a content publisher, it’s OK to share your stuff twice each day. Rewrite the copy, and spread the tweets out between major timezones.
  6. Buying followers does not work. Ever. Twitter trains, ‘systems’ and the like are all complete garbage, without exception.
  7. Always respond to and address complaints. If you can, move the conversation immediately to direct message, and then email.
  8. Educate your boss. Otherwise, you’ll always be forced to prove the value of Twitter, which is difficult when you first start out. And if YOU are the boss, educate yourself.

As I’ve said many times, Twitter is an eternal work in progress. These lessons work for me, but your mileage may vary. And times, as they say, change. Which is a good and positive thing. But, as of right now, circa March 8, 2012, these tips have stood me in good stead for a remarkable four years, and I think many of them will have weight for the next four years to come. The technology of Twitter will continue to adjust and shift, but society’s expectations of good behaviour, in etiquette, manners and style, were in place in long before Twitter, and likely will always be just so.

So, over to you. What have you learned about Twitter? What have you learned from Twitter? I’m very interested in your journey, so hit the comments to let me know.