Why should cyclists use Twitter?
Twitter is an information network made up of 140-character messages called 'Tweets'. It's an easy way to discover the latest news related to subjects you care about, and you can add pictures and videos too.
Twitter contains information that you will undoubtedly find valuable. Messages from users you choose to follow will show up on your homepage or phone for you to read. It’s like being delivered a newspaper whose headlines you’ll always find interesting – you can discover news as it’s happening, learn more about topics that are important to you, and get the inside scoop in real time.
While I do use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, Twitter offers much more and I have been very keen to embrace it. Like many cyclists, I am IT savvy and although Twitter can take up a lot of your time, if used effectively, it can prove to be a very up to date and appropriate way to organise your life.
Why I use Twitter
We all like to talk about cycling and in my role as chairman of CTC Scotland and now CTC councillor, Twitter has been useful to network quickly with cycling organisations, media - print, Internet and television. Twitter was also especially a great tool to use to let my friends and followers know where I was as I cycled across USA this summer from Los Angeles to Boston.
Via Twitter, I have met other cyclists I would not have otherwise have met and have built bridges across many cycling organisations. I have certainly learnt a lot about the cycling world by gathering information and tweeting. It's fast and I feel much more connected with what's happening. For instance, I have been able to provoke and take part in interesting debates, e.g. on cycle helmet wearing, RoadJustice or 20 mph. It has also helped me globally promote a physical activity and obesity strategy with which I have been involved professionally.
I can also follow newspaper and academic articles on Twitter and ask authors themselves about their writings. In fact, its helped me discover many erudite blog writers posts, making me feel more connected with current issues and allowing me to evaluate evidence more completely.
Twitter and Facebook have certainly been very useful for cyclists to communicate and energise cycling campaigns, such as the Scottish Pedal on Parliament and more recent London TFL Die In critical mass cycling events.
How do you get started on Twitter?
You sign up at Twitter.com - straightaway, you'll find you'll get access to people and information very quickly.
Indeed, when I signed up, my cycling world got suddenly bigger! Journalists who I connected with began to ask me about my past obesity and weight loss cycling story which then led to paper, Internet and television appearances. I was enjoying a global conversation with cyclists from everywhere rather than simply with my local cycling club.
Initially, there is often a time lag before people follow you back, and sometimes you have to mention the name of a particular person to get them to become one of your followers. Getting my cycling TransAmerica story tweeted by Richard Branson to his 3.5million followers was a great thrill and inspiration.
I've always restricted my Twitter account (CyclingSurgeon) to discussions about cycling and for anything personal, I go to 'direct messaging'. I have avoided bland and meaningless open conversation, always trying to make every Tweet count. Often the shorter the message, the better and the use of a picture often gets the most favourites and 'retweets'. Things start to get quite busy when one of your Tweets gets retweeted over 100 times; stories go really global at that stage.
What was my Twitter goal?
In the beginning, I just wanted to hook up with as many cycling organisations and real cyclists as I could. I thought I could be a rigorous and trustworthy information source and my initial goal was to get 1,000 followers in the first year. Now the growth is exponential.
I often Tweeted stories from the Times Cycle Safety Campaign and Guardian cycling blogs columns, wanting to connect with other cycle campaigners and be part of the global conversation. I also wanted to be a source of encouragement and support for sufferers from obesity who wanted to get physically active and lose weight through cycling.
How do you find the initial followers?
First you find a few friends and cycling organisations, then see who they are following. You then follow them and sometimes they follow you back.
Twitter has a series of lists and subscriptions and these are the key. Once you start to get on lists, you will get more followers and subscribers so it’s really worth adding yourself to subscriptions and adding others to lists you create yourself. For instance, I have a list of cycling journalists.
It’s surprising to see how many people are on Twitter - most cycling organisations have a Twitter presence of varying maturity. Some of the famous Olympic cyclists have Twitter accounts too and have a massive number of subscribers, although some can be a bit dull - I'm not really interested in what they eat for breakfast!
The cycling campaign gurus mostly have Twitter accounts. Early on, I started following editors from cycling journals, cycling organisations, cycling bloggers, but I realise now that it's hard to keep up with it all and that at any one moment, it's just a blur of a snapshot of the cycling world.
There are Twitter groups somewhere representing most forms of cycling and active travel. Some of those I follow could be role models and I find this quite empowering - it’s great to get a direct message or Tweet from someone famous! I Tweet cycling stories from newspapers and Internet media to people that would not otherwise think about the topic in question, or read that media.
Having something to say and sharing it with others is a very powerful thing to do and I am sure this is why so many people are engaging with Twitter.
It takes time to establish a critical mass of followers and also a certain level of engagement with other people. My advice is:
- Engage with your account before it starts to pay off. Don't give up and don't be shy! Everybody knows someone on Twitter, so search for them. Once you find them, start looking at their followers and following those who interest you.
- Don’t be afraid of un-following people if you don't find their tweets interesting.
- Don't be discouraged if people don't follow you back. Initiate a conversation. If you think you have something interesting to say to a person you're following but they don't follow you back, just tag their handle and you may get them to engage in a conversation with you. You may have to do this a a few times.
The # hashtag has become ubiquitous. A hashtag is a word or an unspaced phrase prefixed with the symbol #. It is a form of metadata tag. Short messages "#" before important words (no spaces), either as they appear in a sentence, or appended to it. Hashtags provide a means of grouping such messages - you can search for the hashtag and get the set of messages that contains it. Tweeting at, say, a cycling conference or event using the agreed conference hashtag may bring a refreshing engagement with the conference and its delegates.
A Retweet is used on the Twitter to show that you are tweeting content that has been posted by another user. The format is RT @username where username is the twitter name of the person you are retweeting. Retweets can be very helpful for increasing a Twitter audience rapidly.
Organising when to Tweet can be difficult. At first, I made random Tweets, but more recently and when I cycled across USA, I used an automated service that tweeted at a particular time of day to coincide with larger Twitter readerships. Services like Buffer are very useful to perform this task. There are services also like Unfollow that can be used to automate people that unfollow you.
Did I doubt Twitter was worth it?
My Twitter was slow to build in the first year. When I rode across America, I made a tweet every day where I was and where I was going, and as a result I gathered a lot of interest and support. I even got followers for no apparent reason sometimes.
As Twitter is very fresh and things happen quickly, the encouragement it gave me whilst cycling 3,500 miles was worth it. Only on one occasion did I get “trolled” and chased by a few angry cyclists during a cycling “share the road” type campaign, but I quickly blocked difficult followers.
You have to be careful when considering personal versus professional use. I will, for instance, never give any individual medical advice as this would conflict with my role as a consultant surgeon.
So overall, Twitter has been very worthwhile. Just be careful that it doesn't become an obsession and take over too much of the time that you could be out cycling!