How to Use Twitter Without Twitter Owning You – 5 Tips


(Photo: Timothy K. Hamilton)

Total read time: 5 minutes.

I’ve evolved as a user of the micro-blogging tool called Twitter.

That said, technology is a great slave but a terrible master, and Twitter can turn the tables on you with surprising subtlety. This post will explain how I use Twitter and the 5 rules I follow to keep it from using me…

I use it mostly as a digital diary for recording the fleeting moments, fun online findings, and useful tools that are worth sharing but not worth a separate blog post. For those of you who want more from me than 1-2 posts per week, Twitter is where I put most of my discoveries.

It is also amazing for real-time polling of followers on topics ranging from strength training to the best online back-up tools (in descending order of preference:,,, the last of which uses Amazon’s S3).

I avoided following people until one month ago, as I didn’t want another inbox (which direct messages or “DMs” produce), and I didn’t want to inadvertently hurt the feelings of acquaintances I might neglect to follow.

Following no one avoided both problems. I elaborate on this approach in a short video here.

I started following because I was interested in observing effective, interesting updates and also measuring the impact of following on my time use. Secondarily, I noticed some fine print in Twitter’s seldom-read Terms of Service (bolding is mine):

*Spam: You may not use the Twitter service for the purpose of spamming anyone. What constitutes “spamming” will evolve as we respond to new tricks and tactics by spammers. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be spamming are:

* If you have followed a large amount of users in a short amount of time;
* If you have a small number of followers compared to the amount of people you are following;
* If your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates;

Though it seems these rules aren’t yet strictly enforced (some business and RSS accounts are almost exclusively links), I didn’t want to risk being banned, as I find Twitter both fun and useful. [Update: as several readers pointed out, I read this and got things backwards. Following no one is fine; following more people than follow you can get you banned.]

The 5 Rules of Keeping Twitter Use Under Control

1. Don’t post and read at the same time.

Here’s the problem with following others, as fun as it can be.

You decide to make a quick post on, but then you notice the stream of updates from the people you follow. Then you click “older” a few times and peruse a few quick links like “World’s fattest cat (pic)”. Before you know it, 30 minutes have passed and you have forgotten what you were going to post, as well as your to-do list. Repeat this whenever your mind wanders throughout the day = nothing done.

Having your friends’ updates as the default dashboard helps Twitter’s pageview count but can kill productivity.

I suggest writing updates (“tweets”) separately from reading friends’ updates, so that you can better prevent entering the hyperlink blackhole. I read friends’ updates after 5pm and use, which automatically shortens URLs, during business hours to update both Twitter and Facebook status at the same time. I found TweetDeck and other applications, while full of cool features, too seductive and easy to overuse.

2. Set alerts or blocks on Twitter usage.

My time on Twitter immediately more than doubled once I followed others, despite the misperception that I was still spending roughly the same amount of time on the site. I used RescueTime (Disclosure: I am now an investor in RT, but I recommended them for months before we were introduced) to track usage and then set alerts, which is how I measured the increase and reigned in overuse. Use a program like RescueTime or MeeTimer to alert you when you exceed a pre-determined time on Twitter, or when you’re about to load the Twitter page.

For those who want to stronger methods for preventing time wastage, download Firefox and use LeechBlock to block certain sites entirely for set periods. From their site:

“You can specify up to six sets of sites to block, with different times and days for each set. You can block sites within fixed time periods (e.g., between 9am and 5pm), after a time limit (e.g., 10 minutes in every hour), or with a combination of time periods and time limit (e.g., 10 minutes in every hour between 9am and 5pm). You can also set a password for access to the extension options, just to slow you down in moments of weakness!”

3. Follow those who won’t create another inbox, or follow everyone and go Gary V.

I follow mostly close friends and celebrities, both of whom are unlikely to send me many direct messages, as the former knows I prefer phone and the latter doesn’t know I exist. The other approach, which bruises fewer egos, is to follow friends and strangers alike but make it clear that you don’t read any DMs, a la Gary Vaynerchuk. Based on attempts to the do the latter on Facebook and LinkedIn, I’ve concluded that most of the world doesn’t read directions or alerts, so I opted for the friend and celeb option.

4. Don’t post unless you add more value than the attention you consume (both yours and others’):

1. Add value if you consume attention.

I use Twitter as a “micro-blogging” platform, exactly how it’s most often described. Just as I wouldn’t put up a blog post that reads “just ate a burrito. Mmmm… good,” as it consumes readers valuable attention without adding value, I wouldn’t put up such a post on Twitter. On the other hand, “Just had an incredible mahi-mahi burrito at [best unknown taco stand] in San Diego. Must-eat: In NYC, try:” adds value with actionable details. Mundane perhaps, but still a cool “to-do” that ethnic food lovers can tuck in the back of their heads.

Some self-indulgent tweets are fine, but make sure 90%+ help or entertain your readers somehow. Information empty calories are parasitic.

2. Use the tool for its best purposes and ignore the rest.

Use a tool for what its best suited to do. Don’t make a Swiss army knife out of every social media tool or you’ll end up with nothing but overwhelm, passive-aggressive “friends,” and a dozen separate inboxes.

I use the blog for testing ideas/campaigns/memes, catalyzing social change, and introducing more developed concepts so I can watch and track their impact and evolution in the blogosphere.

I use Twitter to broadcast time-sensitive suggestions, questions, events, random facts, and happenings, and other ideas that don’t justify an independent blog post. I don’t want another IM program.

3. Linking is fundamental to adding value.

Twitter is perfect for honing your word economy and value-to-attention contribution: offer a brief takeaway and quicks links to more resources for those interested. Minimal attention impact for the uninterested with gateways to more goodies. Here are a few recent examples.

5. Do interact, but don’t try to respond to everyone. Don’t overuse Twitter out of a compulsion to please others.

To quote @karmakorrupt via Twitterholic extraordinaire @sacca: “Seeking approval from others is a full time job with no vacations or benefits.”

Remember: Twitter is something you chose to do. Unless you work at Twitter, chances are that you have another job (or family) that’s more important. Focus on doing big things and enjoying Twitter and similar tools in the downtime.

Related Links:
See Tim’s profile on Twitter
Measuring What Really Works on Twitter
Top 10 Twitter Tips for Beginners
5 Ways to Use Twitter for your Business or Career (NY Times)

Posted on: February 25, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

152 comments on “How to Use Twitter Without Twitter Owning You – 5 Tips

  1. Nice post, as I just signed up with ping yesterday. Oh a valuable lesson I learned was to use the http:// and then the website, as opposed to using and then the website. I struggled with this but found the answer on the forum. Just a heads up to new users on




  2. I am a fan of Twitter as well and have found many a useful tip, site, etc. from other users. That said it is VERY easy to get sucked in, as Tim mentioned, and to lose minutes if not hours of precious time. I have set aside my breakfast time for my only Twittering time of the day. Now, I know this goes against Tim’s advice on separating your work from your meals, and so on. But, this is a nice way for me to check in on Twitter in roughly 30 mins per day and get my morning nutrients.

    Glad to see you are following some people now Tim, would hate to see you get sh!tcanned by Twitter for appearing to be spammer. As you are one of the people that I can rely on for useful tweets.


  3. Good advice. I like that you mention:

    “Use the tool for its best purposes and ignore the rest.”

    That’s what I’ve been struggling with because I DON’T want to be in the grip of Twitter (and it’s tough not to buy into all of the hype of following, being followed etc.). The other day, I was in a Twitter induced trance and realized that I had given it over 2 hours. Not cool!


  4. I started tweeting fairly recently. It’s a better communication tool than I imaged. The are quite a few good tips and links as long as you follow the right individuals. As per rules, I try to keep a low limit on my tweets per day. Also try to have a balance of tweets, RT, and @ messages. It’s best not to follow individuals who tweet every few minutes for the entire day or that only link to their same posts over an over.

    Does anyone have a favorite Twitter iPhone app?


  5. Gennaro,

    I use the Tweetie iPhone app and like it very much so far. Both my wife and I have our accounts setup in Tweetie and it is an easy transition from one account to another. Plus, Tweetie feels pretty seamless when compared to the original user interface.


  6. Great advice Time. Hopefully people will take these tips to heart and we may get a bit more quality on Twitter. I wonder if it would be a good idea to add our twitter names here?

    mine is @iamchrisgreen


  7. Good post Tim,

    I can use some of the time tracking sites that you mentioned. At times I tend to be on twitter too much. Trying to find the perfect blend of time spent on here is the key.

    I also use which gives you the option to delay your tweets. So that you can have a voice on twitter without actually being on at that moment. Good when you find more that one interesting article and don’t want to post all of the at the same time.

    If you have another service that does the same let me know.



  8. I doubt twitter would ban you a) You probably know the people who run it b) Having a large amount of followers is the opposite to the breach you highlight.

    I love twitter for breaking news, interesting links etc – you’re tweets are perfect for that and a reason why I revisit your profile, whereas I wouldn’t for others. However you come in the celeb category for most.

    It’s great for running polls and ideas and with tweaking can be set up as a conduit for all your information.

    One of the best descriptions I saw of how to manage twitter (can’t remember where) is to think of it as a river. You just dip in every now and then, but you wouldn’t attempt to consume/feel all the water – all the time.


  9. Hi Tim,

    All good tips. I’ve also found that using 3rd party tools has greatly enhanced my ability to chunk my time accordingly ( as well as to find people to follow (, for example.

    There are so many tools popping up that make the Twitter experience more useful, and while I know you ‘re not a big fan of a number of these, I think some with less stringent Twitter rules might find these tools handy. Here is a link to Blending The Mix’s top 100 Twitter tools for those interested:

    A word of caution: be careful in giving out your Twitter username and password to access such sites. Twitter hasn’t yet allowed full access to their API (I think) so some of these site require you to give up that info. Others, like LinkedIn and Facebook, do in similar fashion, but discard it after use. . .so. . .just be aware, that’s all!



  10. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you previously had a lot of followers, but followed no one, you ran no risk of being labelled a spammer, did you? Since…

    ” If you have a small number of followers compared to the amount of people you are following” is the opposite of your previous situation.

    Maybe I’m just confused…


  11. Hi guys,

    I read that ToS, and unless I misundertood it, it seems to me that it is the other way around, you can’t follow too many, compared to those who follow you.

    So, not following anyone would in no way put you in danger of being banned.
    “If you have a small number of followers compared to the amount of people you are following”

    Also, interesting post Tim.


  12. Hey Tim,

    I agree Twitter can pull you in too much if your not careful. The upside for us is the ability (for the first time) to connect with our peeps in real time while traveling around the world. For example last month I was in Rio looking for directions to a restaurant in an obscure location in Leblon- Boom-15 seconds later 20 responses. I think your spot on with your 80/20 assessment of it.



    • Hey Tim!
      Great post you got here!
      The tools you recommend are absolutely brilliant, especially RescueTime!
      Very useful tool.
      Great guides and tips ;)


  13. I think you’re misreading the Terms of Use slightly. You can’t have a high proportion of following to followers. In short, the opposite of what you have. So no need to worry about that…


  14. This is an awesome post that is very timely! I too stopped having twitter email me anything… if it’s urgent people find my site and email me from there.. otherwise it can most likely wait until I’m on again. Thanks for the tool links, I am going to check them out. The tweet this button is giving an error message here and on your facebook… just an fyi. Thanks Tim!


  15. Good points. It really is pretty amazing to see how much time one can waste if you actually take the time to measure it. Great job on distinguishing and helping readers to focus on important things like family vs. fun but potentially time wasting things.


  16. Great post Tim. I am new to Twitter and am just trying to understand how best to use it. It can consume you quite quickly.

    To your point about being banned for spamming. You indicate that the fine print defines spamming to include having more people as followers than the number of people you are following. Since you were following zero people, but had people following you, you wouldn’t be considered a spammer by that definition.

    But, I like to promote social culture as somewhat time-consuming as it can be. I think it is good you are following others now, it will give you additional perspectives.