Information Seeking (and Sharing) Behavior of Social Media Users

I hate wasted effort. I can procrastinate with the best of ’em, so when I work, I’m all about “smarter not harder.” I’ve heard this same sentiment from countless friends and coworkers. So, I thought I’d put my hair up in a bun, throw on a cardigan, and summon up my inner-librarian to talk about information seeking behavior.

Wait, come back!

I really  just want to talk about using Twitter to make online research more efficient. It’s fascinating to me academically, but it’s very practical professionally.

My next work project may be an intranet. I’ve done IA work for years, but never on an intranet. I know there are particular design considerations when talking to an internal corporate audience and want to get up to speed quickly on what they are. I’m in this kind of situation several times a year and try to improve my methods each time.

Since the last time I did this kind of information seeking, I started using Twitter. Late to the party for sure, but I’ve had my doubts about whether it’s “for me” for a while and decided to give it a try. It really is for everybody with Internet access.

You can communicate directly to people in real time or you can release an idea out into the wild and see what happens. Both are very useful tools and truly a never-ending conversation about every topic imaginable.  Mining the information contained in Tweets is the next big thing in search. Google hopes so, anyway.

Here’s how I do it today.

1. Search the Twitter Steam

I like to use a Twitter desktop client like Seesmic Desktop (pictured) for this. You can search on Twitter’s site or on Google, but for now I like doing it in Seesmic.

My first search was for “intranet.” I like to cast a big net at first and then refine if necessary. Intranet turned out to be too broad. Lots of users complaining about how bad their intranets are. Fun to read, but since I want to know more about making them better, I need to add a search time.

2. Refine Your Search Terms

By adding a term like “design” to “intranet,” I’m trying to find users who aren’t just using an intranet where they work. I want to find the people who are discussing how to design them. I could refine further by checking and see if anything was tagged with #ux (user experience) or #ia (information architecture). Doing that would give likely mean that the results were tweets from people in that industry.

Search strategy and query formulation are a fascinating topic all on their own and I hope to write about it at length in the future. In the immortal words of nearly every professor I had for Information Studies courses, “What’s the best way to search? It depends.” The key for Twitter is to think about who in the world is likely to be talking about what you’re interested in, think about how they would talk about it, and be prepared to change strategies as you learn more about the conversation.

3. Mark Interesting Tweets

You results will probably contain interesting information within their 140 characters as well as links to other online resources. They are also refreshing rapidly. I don’t suggest trying to read them all and visit their links as they come up in the results. You don’t necessarily want to know everything about a topic, you want to know what’s most important. To figure that out you don’t want to start reading until you’ve heard from a lot of people.

So, look at the tweets quickly, decide if they look interesting or contain a link to something that might be interesting. Mark the interesting ones as a favorite and move on quickly. Return to this step often because the conversation keeps happening.

4. Collect Valuable Links

This is the only step I find easiest on Twitter’s site. Visiting your favorites there allows you to see them and unfavorite them quickly once you don’t need them anymore.

The links in posts are usually from a URL shortening service like bit.ly, is.gd, tinyurl, etc. What’s difficult about that is that the URL itself has very little meaning.

This URL tells me lots:

http://www.nngroup.com/reports/intranet/design/

It’s a domain name I know (Nielsen Norman Group) and trust. They sell reports, so I’m pretty sure the information won’t be free– especially since it’s in their reports/ directory on their site. It’s a good match for my query though because it contains intranet/ and design/. Since Twitter has a 140 character per post limit, users are unlikely to post long URLs.

The URLs on Twitter are more often this:

http://bit.ly/YZkqY

You have can use the context of the Tweet itself, but you really have to click on them to know very much. While you’re there, use a bookmarking service (I use del.icio.us) to collect the interesting ones and tag them. You could just use your browser’s favorite button, but the beauty of  a social bookmarking site is that you get a list that you can access anywhere and share with others. Tagging the links gives you the ability to sort and find things after time has passed and they are no longer at the top of your list.

5. Connect With Other Twitter Users

You might find some people’s tweets especially helpful or insightful. You should get to know these people better. Look at their description on their profile page and look through their previous tweets. If you think you they will probably be talking about things that interest you in the future, follow them. There’s very little risk. If they stop being interesting to you, you can unfollow them.

When a real person who isn’t trying to sell me on some pyramid scheme follows me, it’s a like a little head nod in a conversation. It lets me know who’s interested in a particular topic.

6. Provide Value Back to Community

So far, it’s all about mining and mingling. Fine for now, but as soon as your able, you should give something back. It’s the right thing to do and it moves the conversation forward. You could re-tweet (RT) a very interesting tweet so that more people are likely to see it. You could share some thoughts in your own tweet. Or, you could share the fruits of your labor.

While writing this post, I found out my next project isn’t an intranet afterall. I would still like synthesize the information I found into a blog post and share that with everyone. For now, I decided to share the intranet resources I found .

7. Ask For Help

You could start here. If your question is interesting and people are paying attention, they might answer it. I’ve found that the things I want to know about are interesting to other busy professionals who don’t just sit around waiting to answer questions. I say participate and add value first and then ask for help. You’ll know more about what you need to know and be in a better position to join the conversation.

I’ve been lucky to get some help from Chris Sledzik (@csledzik) today as I researched intranet design. He pointed me to a resource I hadn’t found on my own, The Long Dog blog, and that the author, Jason Buck (@jbuck), was Twitter user. Jason Buck saw the exchange and offered his help as well.

This is connecting and sharing is really what Twitter and all of social media is about. The more you use it, the more you get it.

8. Say Thank You

Tweeting back to say thank you is a no-brainer. You should always say thank you when someone does something nice for you. If the person who helps you has a blog or other site, it’s also nice to point the people you know their way. If you blog, introduce your audience to them by linking to them. The more ideas are shared the more everyone wins.

Chris put it well today in a tweet to Jason:

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One response to “Information Seeking (and Sharing) Behavior of Social Media Users

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