To tweet, or not to tweet - that is the question.
Love it or hate it, there is no ignoring Twitter. Launched in 2006, it passed the 100 million user mark earlier this year and is growing at an estimated rate of 300,000 new users a month.
I signed up for a Twitter account in March 2009 but after a couple of timid posts I left it alone and only began to play around with it from April of this year. And you really do need to play with it, to shape it to your personality and interests.You need to find people to follow and slowly, amazingly, you'll find that people will start to follow you. You also need to come to grips with Twitter's terminology, including timelines, hashtags, retweets and mentions.
I'll admit to being a bit overwhelmed at the start. It's rather like arriving at a party that's in full swing. The place is packed with lots of people talking loudly, laughing and it looks like it's a lot of fun. Your first few tweets feel like whispering into the void: no-one hears them. Gradually, though, your tweets get louder and a few people might turn their heads to hear what you've got to say. At this point you have to inch your way across the threshold and into the room in the hope that people will start to take notice and (gulp) speak to you.
After six months of being active on Twitter, I now follow 93 people and 27 people follow me. I've not quite crossed the threshold but I can clearly see the Twitterati all standing in the kitchen hogging the booze.
Why am I bothering? Social media is becoming an essential part of the marketing and communications mix for businesses. Companies are scrambling to find ways of harnessing the power of Twitter to promote brands, raise awareness, sell products and even recruit staff. Social media, it is said, allows people and companies to create a 'conversation' and 'communities' of shared interests. As an individual I'm also curious to see if Twitter was more than just finding out what celebrities are having for breakfast.
And it is so much more than that. Barack Obama used Twitter during the US Presidential election and famously tweeted his thanks when he knew he had won. When a passerby in New York tweeted that a plane had crash-landed on the Hudson last year, it was obvious that here was a powerful new way of communicating breaking news stories.
After the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, Twitter outrage forced Jan Moir of The Daily Mail to apologise after describing his as 'sleazy'. And the gagging order that prevented The Guardian from reporting on the Trafigura case involving the dumping of toxic waste in Africa was lifted following an explosion of tweets that drove the story into the public domain.
Of course it's not all campaigning and crusading - there's a lot of time-wasting dross out there too. The trick is to be focused and picky about who you follow so most of the irrelevant or uninteresting stuff is filtered out. Twitter provides tools to help you organise your account. You don't have to follow everyone who decides to follow you. And you can quickly 'unfollow' or even 'block' people. You can also create lists, which enable you to group incoming tweets into separate categories.
With only a few 'real' friends to follow on Twitter, I began by searching for interesting people such as comedians (Bill Bailey, Simon Pegg, Marcus Brigstock, Tim Minchen) and writers (Armando Ianucci, Will Self, Charlie Brooker, Mark Gatiss). I also follow Number 10 and just one politician - John Prescott (who is a very active tweeter). The list is growing.
You can also search by topic. I'm interested in words and language and I've discovered a universe of linguists, copy-editors, and other grammar nerds to follow - such as @WriteAdvantage, @HangingNoodles, @wordlust, @Lynneguist, @MightyRedPen, amongst others. One great find I can recommend is @DrSamuelJohnson, who tweets in the language of the great lexicographer (a book of his collected tweets was published last month).
As well as being amused by things people tweet, I love the links that are often included (shrunk, of course, to fit in the 140 character limit). The only trouble I have right now is organising all the bookmarks I've made for all the fascinating blogs, websites and articles that Twitter has put me onto. I've also got to find the time to read them.
I'm still a newbie (a twatchling?) but I'm enjoying the experience. Only one of my tweets has been 'retweeted' so far (forwarded by someone else to their followers) but it's a start.
Come and join me - @suewalder.