Twitter 101 for the Virginia Local Government Lawyer

By: Andrew McRoberts, Editor. This was posted Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

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Why in the world would a local government attorney want to use Twitter? I, for one, have found it helpful and informative, and it need not invite further public scrutiny if properly used.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is an online social media service in which folks send out short messages of 140 characters or less (called “Tweets”). People can “follow” Twitter users and therefore receive their Tweets. Users can follow as many or few of the thousands of people, businesses and entities that are on Twitter. To join Twitter, simply go to http://www.Twitter.com , select a Twitter name and a password. Then, you can follow anyone you can find on Twitter. The service is free.

How is Twitter Used?

Although Twitter asks the user to tell people “what are you doing,” it is not limited to that topic. Some folks follow celebrities to be a true fan and know what their idol is doing every hour. It is my guess that most people have no interest in what most other people are doing. I know I don’t. Similarly, you don’t want to know what some celebrity or business is doing? Don’t follow them.

Fortunately, Twitter has evolved into a service that allows anyone to send small bits of information quickly and easily. The ability to shrink long URL (web addresses) and insert them links into a brief Tweet makes it possible to share websites containing large amounts of information with followers. Nightspots use it to promote events. Politicians use it to point to press releases. Businesses use it to issue coupons or sell a new product. Media outlets use it to push their content to followers who want to see it. More and more local governments and local government entities – Fairfax County, Prince William County, City of Virginia Beach, the Virginia Association of Counties, many economic development authorities, just to name a few – are using Twitter to make real-time announcements and share information.

Even law firms like my own Sands Anderson Marks & Miller have started using Twitter to build a network and spread word of their lawyers’ blog postings to more people. For example, my blog is at www.VaLocalityLaw.com, but you can receive word of every blog posting as soon as it appears by becoming a follower @VaLocalityLaw.

The Value of Twitter to You

The real value to a local government attorney, in my estimation, is to gather information quickly, cheaply, in real time. Want to know what your local newspaper is saying about your local government, without logging onto their website constantly? Want to know national or state news that could affect you and your locality? Want to know what your (un)favorite gadfly blog is saying about your clients whenever they say it? Want to know what your neighboring locality is dealing with or trying to promote? They are all likely on Twitter, or they soon will be.

I describe Twitter as a personal web clipping service. You can use Twitter to follow selected media and governmental outlets. You can sometimes “find” people, businesses or entities on Twitter by searching after logging in and typing their name, or by seeing who is following your favorite Twitter user on their profile page. If you find the Tweets interesting, follow them. If you don’t, you can “unfollow” them at any time.

Your Privacy on Twitter

We are all public figures as local government attorneys, so being private online is important.

While you are encouraged to give your real name when opening a Twitter account, it is not required. You can adopt a screen name or pseudonym; all you need is a personal email address, easily available on Gmail, Yahoo and many other services. After opening the Twitter account, you don’t need to say a word. Just don’t Tweet. While I was a county attorney, I never said a word. I merely used Twitter to gather information, much like reading many news media sources. As an additional precaution, you can even require interested people to get your permission to become your follower, just change your preferences on your profile page. When the requests come in, just ignore them or proactively block the requested follower if you like.

Have Questions?

I would be glad to assist any Virginia local government attorney who has questions. Twitter is a big change in how to gather information, but it can be useful. And you need not be more public than you are now. Happy Twittering!

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