Following BBC London Travel Alerts has helped me get to work on time on several occasions. This is a fantastic use of the medium for something fairly humdrum, and demonstrates the power of Twitter to broadcast up to the minute information using contributions from the public. Recently I started tweeting a series of rants about the lunacy (and no doubt health and safety issue) of London buses having the heaters turned on during hot sunny days. I found others with the same problem, and encouraged them to use a hashtag, #hotbus, and direct complaints at the Mayor of London (in the shameful absense of a TFL Twitter presence). Though I doubt that my efforts were the cause, a few days later Unite issued a statement from bus drivers on the problem – which seems to have largely solved. If nothing else, Twitter raised some awareness and provided nice soundbites for the press (sadly the quote was not a tweet of mine).

One of Twitter’s key strengths is its interoperability with other services. With a post to my Twitter account, I can update my Facebook status and post the same message to Yammer, instantaneously reaching hundreds of contacts who themselves connect me indirectly to thousands more. These people include my friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues from all walks of life. When I post exasperated updates, I often find that someone from this network will respond with a useful suggestion. A few moments spent tapping out my thoughts can sympathy, inspiration and solutions. It’s not really any different to firing off an angry email to a friend, except it’s to all of your friends and acquaintances.

Twitter is also integrated nicely with Yammer, which provides a private Twitter-like system for people within a company. All you need is an email address to sign in with and you’re connected to people across the business. If you use Twitter you can Tweet directly to Yammer by adding #yam to your message. Yammer’s a great way to communicate informally with colleagues and has provided me with quick answers to simple questions, as well as the opportunity to write this post.

So what?

So far this post has probably struck you as fairly ego-centric. That’s right; it’s all about me. You might think that I spend my life in front of a computer screen, frantically reading and posting messages, most of which are slightly pointless, but my usage goes through peaks and troughs, depending on what’s happening in my life. Using these tools is incredibly easy and it’s possible to dip in as you please. Each and every individual uses social network in their own way, and understanding this is key to making the most of these new media. Too many organisations are eager to jump on whatever bandwagon is gathering speed, without considering that social media is all about people.

While I myself do use Twitter in place of RSS feeds, there are only a couple of accounts I follow that are pure news feeds. Every other account very obviously has a human being (or sometimes several working shifts) at the keyboard, which means channels of communication. I don’t follow anyone unless it gives me some value – information, informed opinions, and yes, a modicum of inane babble. Nor do I follow people to increase my own follower count. In the few months I’ve been using Twitter, I’ve gathered nearly 150 followers (above average, just) without making any particular effort other than to put value in my messages. A joke, an opinion, some news, a cause.

Hopefully my message hasn’t got too lost in amongst my rambling. Social networking can work for you as an individual, however you want it to. My girlfriend was dead against Facebook until she discovered she could be essentially invisible to all but her chosen few friends. If you’re looking to use social networking from the point of view of an organisation, don’t get trapped by asking the wrong question. If you want to be successful, you should be asking what you can offer to potential users, friends, fans or followers, and not the other way around.

– Simon