Twitter is the social media platform of choice for journalists, free speech campaigners, Russian trolls and American presidents. On the social media spectrum of formality, it sits somewhere in between professional networking colossus LinkedIn and lolcat empire Facebook.
Twitter is essentially a “social” messaging service which enables you to maintain a minimalist profile, broadcast short “tweets” to your followers and view and respond to tweets of those you choose to follow, which are displayed in your “timeline”. It’s deceptively simple but at the same time somewhat of an enigma.
There are important differences that distinguish Twitter from Facebook and LinkedIn and give it its distinctive “personality”.
- You can tweet, reply to a tweet, retweet a tweet and direct message someone. That’s it: a strictly limited messaging playground.
- Connections between users are asynchronous. You choose who you wish to follow; others choose who they wish to follow. Only if you wish to “direct message” another (ie privately) is reciprocity needed.
- The text limit for a tweet is 280 characters (increased from the original 140 characters in late 2017). This encourages brevity and creativity and precludes the ramblings frequently encountered on other social platforms.
How Twitter works
Whilst the essence of how Twitter works is simple, the devil is in the detail and it’s worth brushing up on that. We covered how Twitter works in the July 2016 issue of the Newsletter.
A more detailed primer, and most useful from a lawyer’s standpoint, was published in the libel case of Jack Monroe v Katie Hopkins  EWHC 433 (QB). The “relevant facts” about Twitter were agreed by the parties and set out in a schedule called “How Twitter Works”, which was attached to the judgment as an appendix.
How can lawyers get the most from Twitter?
Although Twitter has far fewer active users than its larger rivals LinkedIn and FaceBook, it receives a disproportionate amount of media attention. Whilst lawyers can effectively use all three platforms, Twitter perhaps requires the most creative thought.
Current awareness and research
Twitter is very much geared towards reporting current developments and reacting to and analysing their importance.
It is widely used primarily as a way of keeping abreast of sector- or topic-specific news and developments. Following relevant users and searching for hashtags can help lawyers keep up to date with their area of expertise and see what their peers are talking about. Retweeting anything of interest adds those tweets to the feeds of followers, thereby extending the “reach” of the original author.
Comments on tweets are an important part of the dynamic and provide a useful forum for discussion. Of course, it does depend on which bubble you inhabit as to how deep or trivial are the issues under discussion and how useful, annoying, offensive or libellous are the replies. For professionals, and lawyers in particular, Twitter can offer rich seams of discussion and expert analysis of the sort we used to associate only with meatier articles and blog posts.
Whilst Twitter is often referred to as a “micro-blogging” platform, that has always been somewhat of a contradiction in terms. Twitter has, however, now embraced longer-form journalism, with the official adoption of Twitter “threads” in 2018. Like a number of Twitter features, threads were an innovation by users rather than by Twitter itself. Linking together a sequence of tweets turns out to be a very effective way of developing an argument, telling a story and so on. Threads have very quickly established themselves as a literary form well deployed by lawyers.
Lawyers generally need to be willing to engage with other users on Twitter. Whilst LinkedIn can be used as publishing platform, Twitter is more of a conversational tool and virtual networking forum. Brian Inkster (@BrianInkster), founder of Inksters, has been Tweeting since 2009 and has found it a highly effective means of networking: “Twitter has over the years brought me so many connections and opportunities in a way that no other social media platform has. It has been referred to as ‘networking on speed’ and certainly can connect you faster and more easily with people you want to connect with than conventional networking ever would.”
Twitter activity is heavily indexed by Google, and the last few Twitter posts of a lawyer can appear towards the top of a Google search for their name. This means it can and should be used as part of an SEO strategy. However, one mistake a lot of businesses, including law firms, make is to use Twitter solely for the purpose of linking to blogs or articles which they have published elsewhere. Whilst linking to an article is fine, there should at least be some extra comment contained in the tweet, followed up by dialogue if it garners a response.
Although lawyers are traditionally cautious about providing personal views and opinions, doing so can help them stand out from the crowd of legal Tweeters. According to Joanne Frears (@techlioness), solicitor at Lionshead Law, Twitter can help to build the personality or brand of a law firm: “It’s too short to give advice, and shouldn’t be used that way anyway, but in terms of positioning for your niche practice and giving you colour and personality, it’s the perfect place. Twitter can be fickle though and it can take time to build a following, so consider ways of advertising to groups you are targeting. Twitter is also good for campaigns (or upcoming changes to law like Brexit) where you can feed new information in daily and drive readers to your blog or website for the longer version of your message.”
As Joanne mentions above, it can sometimes be useful to advertise to potential new followers, and Twitter conveniently offers its very own advertising platform. Similar to Facebook, Twitter advertising is heavily targetable, which means that lawyers can place relevant adverts for different client groups pertaining to specific practice areas. However, adverts are particularly contentious on Twitter, and they can sometimes backfire, leading to a whole barrage of sarcastic replies. So, if advertising on Twitter, it’s best to refrain from adopting a salesy angle. Courting engagement from a prolific legal Tweeter such as @BarristerSecret or @davidallengreen may well be a more useful method of attracting new followers than forking out for an advertising campaign.
Corporate vs personal tweeting
Encouraging multiple lawyers within a firm to maintain personal Twitter accounts, and ensuring that these occasionally tie into a corporate account, can be more effective than flying solo; Jon Bloor (@JonBloor) originally described this strategy as “tweeting in convoy.”
Brian Inkster notes that, when he started tweeting in 2009, his plan was “to do so for business purposes and I naively thought that meant concentrating on doing so via my law firm’s Twitter account @inksters. However, I soon realised that, like actual networking, it is best done on a personal basis as you and not as a faceless corporate entity. So I quickly changed my focus to my personal Twitter account @BrianInkster. Through that account I built up a network of new connections that I do not believe I would ever have had otherwise. Those Twitter connections have resulted in a plethora of unexpected opportunities that again I do not think would ever have appeared on my horizon otherwise. But it is still important to tweet via the main law firm account too and for other solicitors in your law firm to tweet on their own account and for you to tweet from niche accounts as, for example, we do at Inksters from @croftinglaw and @ukinfolaw.”
All news and periodical publishers publish their latest headlines to Twitter and other social media. There are many tools available which enable anyone to do this, simply by plugging in their blog or website RSS feed and scheduling when to publish. It is an obvious, effective, and indeed for many businesses, an essential way to promote their content and gain immediate traction. However, it does need to be part of an overall social media strategy and complemented by “human” effort where appropriate.
Twitter vs LinkedIn
Twitter and LinkedIn diverge substantially in some of their functions; LinkedIn is heavily used as an online CV and recruitment tool, as well as a standalone publishing platform. In terms of their social media functionality, namely exchanging news and views, there are more similarities. However, even in this aspect, they differ, and Brian Inkster has noticed some changes over the years:
“I don’t think Twitter is as good today as it was back in its early days. It has changed. Whilst once you would quickly be able to strike up debate and get various people chipping in almost immediately that is less so the case today. It does still happen but perhaps in a slower and less intense way. Maybe this is down to there being more social media platforms to spend time on and maybe the rise of LinkedIn as a more preferred place to hang out as a lawyer (but clearly not if you are President of the USA!). Twitter does still come into its own at conferences where content is so much easier to tweet and get reactions to in a way that LinkedIn is simply not designed to handle. Twitter remains a good way to disseminate links to blog content but I do, on the whole, now find more interaction on LinkedIn than on Twitter when I post such links.”
So, clearly there are pros and cons to each social media platform, and the right vehicle must be chosen according to the particular situation.
There are inherent risks in all forms of social media, but Twitter seems particularly prone to certain “unsociable” elements, such as trolling and cyberbullying. Some tips, including how to avoid becoming the victim of a Twitter spat, include:
- Don’t mention Brexit. Political views in general are almost guaranteed to cause a reaction. Although some high profile legal tweeters are willing to put their heads above the parapet, avoiding politics on Twitter ensures a quieter life.
- Don’t cause offence. Lawyers need to be particularly careful to avoid potential accusations of libel, even in a disguised If an argument turns personal, it could also end up being reported to the SRA.
- Think before you retweet. Retweeting a tweet can count as publication for purposes of libel law, irrespective of the author of the original Tweet.
- Consider adding a disclaimer to your profile description, stating that Tweets are posted in your personal capacity rather than on behalf of your firm.
- Beware the bubble. Because Tweeters tend to follow people they know or like, this can create a filter bubble or echo chamber. It can be helpful to follow people with different viewpoints in order to get a more complete picture.
The Law Society Gazette: How to: use Twitter
The Time Blawg: Law firm twitteratigate
LawFirmAmbition: How to use Twitter – for law firms
LexisNexis: Twitter: Top 10 tips for lawyers
The Tweeting Lawyer: Tweeting in Convoy
infolaw: Twitter: how it works
infolaw: Twitter for law firms
Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a copywriting agency in Bristol. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @alexheshmaty.