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Ok, so file that under “things I never thought I’d say.” And don’t get me wrong. Twitter can be a huge time vortex. But  I have discovered that I am not alone in giving Twitter another chance (see Kathy Sierra’s blog post. I saw her @SXSW this week and she is now among the Twitterati).

I live in Austin where if you don’t know about a new technology 5 minutes after it debuts, you’re way behind. So I gave Twitter a shot more than a year ago. I hated it. And even now, too many people still think “trying to decide what to have for lunch” is an acceptable post. It’s not. But what I realized about the first time I tried Twitter, is that I was doing it wrong.

Here’s what I learned

Twitter can be a great way to stay in touch with your friends. I heard someone discussing “start-up costs” as being a barrier to lasting connections with people. I think this is a great analogy. If you meet someone, or even if it’s an old friend, but you don’t talk with them for a while, that time lag can be a barrier to reconnecting with them. What if something tragic happened in their life lately? Or even without tragedy, you know if you call them, if will probably have to be a long conversation while you catch up. And while you may really want to do it, finding time for that long conversation is hard to do. Which makes it less likely to happen. If you were following each other on Twitter, you’d know what was going on in each others’ lives, and so now there is no barrier to connecting in “3D Twitter,” aka real life.  =)

And here’s a bonus time saver for using Twitter rather than email: Tweets almost never require a response. Chris Sacca said @SXSW that your [email] inbox is a to-do list, to which anybody can add an action item (and BTW, I wasn’t in his talk – I heard it on Twitter.)

Tweets can actually be a quick and easy way to stay connected to a lot of people. It can help you find connection points with people (my friend Steve Harper, the Ripple Guy, has been raving about this to me for months), perhaps give you the opportunity to help someone out if you have the time or the inclination, and can give you fodder for conversation the next time you see them. I also love when people have a picture of themselves in their profile, specifically their face, because it gives me that extra feeling of connection: I see your face, I read what you’re up to. All the better if it’s something interesting. But even if it’s not, it doesn’t take me more than a couple of seconds to scan through 140 characters.

Be selective

But definitely the lesson I learned from the last time I tried Twitter is to be selective about who you follow. Follow friends, follow people you admire, and people you find interesting or smart. But don’t hesitate to un-follow. If their tweets are nothing but interruptions, with things you don’t care about, ax ’em. I’ve heard many smart entrepreneurs this month, first at RISE Austin and then at SXSW. Many of them said that a mistake they made in their business was being too quick to hire and too slow to fire. I think that’s a great principle to apply to Twitter.

Ok, so enough about following friends. Here’s another reason why Twitter saves time. There is a lot to learn in this world, about the things I’m interested in. Reading blogs, reading books, surfing the net…it all takes time. A shortcut is to follow the people I think are the smartest about the things I’m interested in. It gives me quick snippets of information, and if I’m directed to a link, I’m reasonably certain it’s going to be pretty good. I don’t have to sort through all the data myself, looking for the interesting stuff. For example, I’m into productivity and politics. There is more information on just these two topics than I can consume in 100 lifetimes. But by following a few people, I can get caught up in about one page of tweets, at only 140 characters each. Takes me about 60 seconds to scan.

Just say no to receiving tweets on your phone

The next thing I learned I was doing wrong the first time I tried Twitter was that I set it up to receive tweets on my cell phone. BIG mistake. This will drive you batty, immediately. This time around I know that you should use a Twitter client on your iPhone or on your computer desktop. Personally I’m enjoying Twitter as a desktop app using Fluid. (UPDATE: Fluid inexplicably stopped working. I’m now experimenting with both PeopleBrowsr and TweetDeck). And I saw many, many people using Tweetdeck at SXSW. If you are following a lot of people, that’s the way to go, because it allows you to sort and group. And I like Twitterific on my iPhone. (UPDATE: I’ve switched to Tweetie but Twitterific is free so I’d suggest you try that first.)

Control it before it controls you

So just like any tool, especially technology, once you decide to use it, you need to learn how to CONTROL it, rather than let IT control YOU. This is true for email, your Blackberry, your iPhone, Facebook, LinkedIn…and it’s no different for Twitter. Don’t leave the clients open all the time, check them only when YOU decide it’s a good time to receive them. Still, it’s tempting to check them all the time, just like email. But if you allow these technologies to control your life like that, pretty soon it’s like you’re being carried away by the rapids, without a boat or a paddle. The key to productivity is staying in control. Just like in the “old days,” my grandmother would say, “just because the phone rings, doesn’t mean you have to answer it!”

BTW, if you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter @mnthomas.