How to handle Twits and find hashtag heaven

JANINE SELF is a Twit. She admits it. But what should she do when someone Tweets that they wish her dead from AIDS? The freelance football writer finds few media outlets have a defined social media policy for their staff using Twitter

This is hard. Starting a sentence without #, I mean.

Or @.

Call me a Twit, but please don’t make it anything stronger.  Last week I was wished dead by one of those folk who inhabit the ethereal, virtual hustings arena that is Twitter.  More graphically, the anonymous person in question rather hoped that I would catch AIDS.

My first reaction was to report the offender, to block him (pretty sure it was a him), or to start trading a few insults of my own.  In the end I decided to retweet his offensive missive and wait to see what happened. A couple of hours and a good few Tweets from friend and foe later, I received a contrite apology from the author of my death threat.

Not a Twit anymore: David Lloyd

The alternative, which I did not consider, was to “do a Bumble” and leave the micro-blogging mayhem for good.   Ashes pundit and Daily Mail columnist David Lloyd turned his back on 100,000 followers after being bombarded by a couple of foul-mouthed kids (surely, kids?).

Not me. I’m part of the Twitterati like so many other journalists, broadcasters, sports stars, agents.  You’ll find the SJA there too (@SportSJA).

Twitter keeps me informed and amused in equal measure. It is an instant, real-time barometer of the mood of the people and it has introduced me to knowledgable, like-minded folk from all over the world. Besides I can vent my feelings without fear of retribution, libel laws and death threats permitting. My voice is heard, perhaps in a pitiful 1,000-follower way, but there are people out there who want to know what a gobby Midlands-based freelance journalist has to say on a variety of topics.

Ten times that number follow Mirror tabloid legend and occasionally prickly Gooner, John Cross (@johncrossmirror ) while 30,000 people tap into the thought processes of The Times’s chief football reporter Oliver Kay (@oliverkaytimes). Danny Taylor’s droll wit has earned the Manchester-based Guardian writer a 20,000 following too (@DTGuardian).

Henry Winter (@henrywinter), the doyen of the Telegraph, commands an audience of more than 50,000. Until recently he refused either to follow or reply to anyone else but these days Henry is as interactive as the rest of us.

Whichever way you look at it, there is a audience out there waiting to be captured. But have the journalists’ employers realised yet? More importantly, is there any kind of social media strategy in place?

The Daily Mail is switched on enough to give all their reporters branded backgrounds as well as the “DM” attachment to their user names.  The Times use their writers to persuade punters to scale the News International pay wall by publicising web chats and exclusive features.

Out in the field, journos have been so busy turning into Twits that clubs like Manchester United have banned finger-tapping from their press conferences. Well, the press conferences that haven’t already been cancelled by Alex Ferguson, that is. They reckoned that so many journalists were Tweeting from the Carrington press conferences that no one was asking any questions.

There are no rules in the Twitosphere, apparently. Everyone makes it up as they go along. Hence a situation last season where a BBC radio reporter, sitting at the back of a press room ostensibly working, Tweeted every word of a Premier League manager’s national newspapers-only briefing.

The recent Liverpool ownership court case, the Wayne Rooney contract saga and last week’s World Cup debacle were turned into high-speed Tweet chases, but did it affect the next day’s circulation, listening or viewing figures?

Twitter is still an untamed beast.  Many of the media guys and girls make it clear that any opinions expressed are their own, while still being publicly allied to a paper, radio or TV station. Is that under instruction from their editors?

And what happens if someone like Henry Winter upped sticks and joined one of the Telegraph’s rivals. Would he be able to take his legions of followers with him?

Facebook, YouTube, MySpace et al were spawned from a wish to interact socially with friends or at least people you know. Twitter is a different phenomenon entirely, working onthe principle of attracting as many strangers as possible to read your pearls of wisdom, delivered in 140 characters (preferably without death threats in return).

It is evolving, or mutating, day-by-day. It is a powerful, yet subtle, marketing tool. It clearly has huge potential to drive traffic to website content.

Newspapers have taken longer than the electronic media to cotton on to it, but most are getting there, if in an ad hoc way.

As for @janineself? #inhashtagheaven.

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