Twitter for Health

When I first read about Twitter last year, I scoffed. Who cares what other people are doing, thinking or eating every waking moment of the day? I don’t have time to pay attention to random bits of information or to post my every passing thought. For those of you not up on the latest shiny object to be embraced by the neterati, Twitter is a microblogging application that asks you to answer the question, “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. People use it to do everything from detailing the minutiae of their days to engaging in witty banter to promoting their latest blog posts and sharing useful resources.

While I was on my blogging hiatus, I found that I had a lot of thoughts I wanted to share, but no time to put them into a blog post. I decided to try out Twitter on a short-term basis to see if I thought it was worthwhile. After a few days of using it, I was hooked. I found that Twitter was a great way to have ongoing conversations and build relationships with colleagues, get quick answers to questions and get pointers to useful links. It sometimes feels like I’m drinking from a firehose, but I’m learning to identify the people who consistently have the best tweets. I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of months now (follow me at @Nedra), and I can see many potential applications for organizations promoting health and social issues.

Some of the ways nonprofits and government agencies could use Twitter in their work, along with real examples and ideas, include:

Since Twitter can be used via mobile devices as well as computers, many of the same concepts behind using mobile phones and SMS for social change are applicable as well. In fact, this Friday (2/29) there will be a conference on Texting 4 Health at Stanford focusing on using SMS to improve health behavior. Though it is not explicitly on the agenda, I would hope that they will also be discussing how Twitter can be used to facilitate this approach. Does anyone know if someone will be livetweeting the conference?

Nate Ritter lays out some of the benefits and limitations of using Twitter that you should take into account when determining whether the tool will work for your purposes:

  1. Speed Using twitter, you can very easily publish information more than once per minute. If distribution speed is critical, regardless of the information being distributed, Twitter may be the tool for you.
  2. Non-website (source) based alerts Instant messaging, SMS/text messages on cell phones, RSS/Atom feeds, email alerts, badges/widgets on other sites, and other methods of distribution are available. If your community can’t be tethered to a website for it’s communications, Twitter can provide other methodologies to get that information out to them.
  3. Community publishing There are a few (slightly more technical) ways of aggregating a group of twitterers posts, which means you could have more people — even your community — pitching in to help publish pertinent information.


  1. Only text and links can be posted. No maps. No photos. No videos. Text and links are all you get.
  2. 140 character limit. URLs will get shortened wherever possible, but 140 characters is tough to get used to.
  3. No conversation threading. This can be tough to deal with when you’re used to discussion forums and such. Connecting with your community in this way is almost limited to real-time dialogue, which can limit the conversation’s depth and longevity.
  4. The API has a 70 post per hour limit. Note that from what I could tell, the web UI doesn’t have this limit, but I’m sure they wouldn’t like you posting more than that unless it was an emergency anyway.

For still more ideas on how nonprofits can use (and shouldn’t use) Twitter, see NetSquared’s Net2ThinkTank round-up.

So, for some, Twitter will always just be a place to tick away the moments that make up a dull day, to fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. For smart social marketers, though, Twitter can be a powerful tool for education and action. How will you use it?

(If you have additional ideas or examples, leave them in the comments and I will add them to the list.)

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  1. It’s funny because I decided to give Twitter another look over the New Years when I decided to take a mini-blogging break. I’ve been hooked too, and you’re right, who you follow makes all the difference in the experience you get.

  2. Great post – really sums up Twitter in a healthy nutshell. As far as Twitter only being capable of text and links, it can be limiting. But I’ve recently discovered – which is like a Twitter that allows pics/videos too. Definitely less overwhelming than keeping a full-blown blog! What will they come up with next?

  3. Thanks for this round up, I’ve been wondering about how health organizations could be using twitter myself. There’s a list ‘non-profit’ tweeters at – maybe one for health would be useful?

  4. That’s a great idea, Andy! I know quite a few Twits with an interest in health issues.

  5. nice pink floyd reference! and otherwise, an insightful, concise treatment.

  6. Thank you so much for this post, it’s so useful for the nonprofit tech community!

    I work for a tiny little nonprofit in Australia in the human rights area. I’m wondering whether it would be more effective to build relationships by having an account under the name of my organisation, or by having an account under my own name? I use the former on MySpace and the latter on Facebook and it works well using that strategy. So I’m wondering if people would generally be happier to receive tweets from a person or an organisation? Hope that makes sense 🙂

  7. Priscilla – I think it depends on whether you are only providing news/info/commentary from the perspective of your organization, or if there is personal info in there as well. If the purpose is to provide updates from the organization, I would use the org’s name. If it is to build relationships as a staff member of the org, I would use your name or a combination of your name and org name together (e.g., priscillantar or something less clunky that shows the connection). I would keep any personal info/comments out of an “official” organization-named account.

  8. Great post! I was the same way about Twitter – at first I thought it sounded amazingly stupid. But then I created an account (for educational purposes of course) and I became addicted. Some of the mashups are really swell too.

  9. Wow, you have a lot of really great ideas about how to use Twitter. I myself was having trouble seeing all of the different uses for this new form of social media. Thanks!

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