André, Favorites, Social Skills

How to Use Twitter (and why it beats FB)

“Another Drew Jacob shortcut,” I breathed.

We were covered in mud, bites, sweat, bruises and just about everything except the tangy salt of a day in the ocean. It was a 6 mile bike ride to the hidden beach but I found a shortcut on a map. (I love shortcuts.) We never got there.

I didn’t write the story of that exhausting day, but I did drop a hint:

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Earning Its Keep

Many people are surprised that Twitter is my favorite (now only) social network. I never run out of friends who say, “I don’t need to hear what someone had for breakfast today,” or “I don’t get Twitter.”

I can’t help you fix what other people tweet about—though if they tweet about their breakfast, you’re following the wrong people—but I can help explain Twitter: how it works, why I like it more than Facebook, and how to get the most out of it.

Unlike Google+, Twitter is not a Facebook clone. It’s a profoundly different tool that does different things. It’s less about stalking friends/family and more about knowing what’s going on in the world—or making connections with new people.

In many ways, Twitter is for “advanced” internet users. Every tweet is limited to 140 characters—nothing more. That forces you to think about what you’re saying, and how to say it succinctly and well.

Here are the advantages Twitter has, that make it my favorite social media site:

  • Simpler. Twitter is the simplest and most streamlined social site. Everything happens in one column, and everything works the same way: no “pages,” “groups,” “causes,” “games” or anything else. You can share websites or pictures, but only as links in your tweet. It’s simple.
  • Not as addictive. Interacting on any social site gives you a hit of dopamine, just like chatting with a friend does. But some sites are designed to try to hold your eyes on the screen as long as possible. Twitter doesn’t do that. Brands can’t build their own on-Twitter presence, so any link you share is an external link. Unlike G+, Pinterest or Facebook, Twitter doesn’t try to keep you there.
  • Less clingy. On Facebook, if a real-life friend tries to friend you and you don’t accept, you’re rude; if you un-friend someone it’s a statement. On Twitter, “following” is not a personal judgment. I don’t follow all my friends and I unfollow people freely. It’s more like a news source or a chat room, and less like a yearbook.
  • Higher quality content. Twitter forces you to curate your content. All the factors above—the short, to-the point format; the easy-to-leave website; the social acceptability of unfollowing—combine to incentivize smart, funny or interesting tweets. On Facebook if you write boring/annoying posts, I stay your friend because we went to 4th grade summer school together. On Twitter, if you write boring posts you lose followers.
  • Ads aren’t intrusive. Twitter sometimes places a single “sponsored” tweet at the top of your stream. It always identifies itself as sponsored and they are never aggressive or deceptive. Thank you, Twitter!
  • Builds new relationships. Because Twitter is not a friends-only platform, it’s easy to meet new and interesting people. On Facebook, if I send a friend request to someone I don’t know, it’s weird—and J.K. Rowling will never friend me back. On Twitter, instead of waving at existing friends, it’s normal to make fascinating new ones or have conversations with people you admire.

Basically, Twitter gives you much more power over what comes your way. Twitter can be used to keep up with friends, but it’s a more fluid platform that lets you focus on meeting who you want to meet, or reading what you want to read.

Nuts and Bolts

There are many Twitter how-to’s out there, but the basic concepts to understand are:

  • When you “follow” someone, you can see all their tweets. They might not follow you back.
  • You can tweet at anyone, by putting @theirusername (for example) in your tweet, even if you don’t follow each other. They will see this.
  • Hashtags are helpful. Instead of tweeting, “I blog about adventure,” I could tweet, “I blog about #adventure” and other people looking for that hashtag (#adventure) would easily find me. (Punctuation breaks hashtags: if you try #isn’tlifecrazy you actually create the hashtag #isn, which makes no sense.)
  • Follow people you find interesting and don’t pressure them to follow you.
  • Not sure who to follow? Search by interesting hashtags, or follow the Twitter accounts of your favorite writers. Mine is @Rogue_Priest (surprise).

@Rogue_Priest

How I Use It

I’ve been using Twitter since I still had a job. I’ve always found it to be a more valuable tool than any other social network. That’s partly because of the reasons above, but it’s also how I use it.

I’ve developed practices to maximize what I get from Twitter. Because of this, I enjoy reading it as much as you might enjoy the Sunday paper. I often start a morning with my coffee and my stream, catching up on killer articles Twitter has brought my way—it’s a relaxing experience, with reading material tailored just to me.

Here are my best practices. These are just my own preferences—you might use your account differently than I do.

  • Privacy settings. I once heard author Tessa Zeng tell someone, “If you set your Twitter account to private, you’re not actually using Twitter,” and she’s not wrong. By default, anyone can see your tweets (whether they follow you or not) and anyone can follow you (you don’t get to accept or deny it like a FB friend request). Keep these settings—you’ll build more followers, meet more people, and have a reason not to say nasty things in your tweets.
  • I don’t follow everyone I know. Like any social media tool, Twitter can search your email contacts and suggest people for you to follow. Take a pass on that. Think about specific people you find interesting and follow them. You’ll have less noise and get a lot more value out of your stream.
  • When someone follows me, I don’t follow back. When I started on Twitter I thought it was good etiquette to follow back everyone who followed me. Anything else would be rude, right? Wrong. It’s not an insult to not follow someone back. Only follow them if you think they’re interesting, or if their profile and tweets are tantalizing.
  • Never follow companies. Why would you?
  • Follow less than 100 people. This is a longstanding rule for many Twitter users, and it pays off. Checking Twitter should be a relaxing experience where you see things that make you grin—not a stressful experience with more noise than signal. If you find yourself approaching 100, take a few minutes to trim off the ones you don’t really pay attention to.
  • I don’t use lists. Optionally, Twitter allows you to create “lists” to sort and organize the people you follow. I never use them—they just take more time and effort, and they’re never needed if I follow less than 100 people. (I do look at other people’s lists to find the folks they think are interesting.)
  • Retweet often. Anytime you find yourself enjoying a link that someone tweeted, RT it (giving them credit) so your own followers can enjoy it.
  • I make a point of tweeting things I like. I read online a lot, and anytime I like an article or site, I make a point to shorten its URL and tweet it with a snappy headline and a little comment.

A retweet.

Clearly, these are my own habits that support how I prefer to use Twitter—as a place to find and share high quality articles, and have meaningful conversations with the people I respect.

You might use Twitter differently, or not like using it at all. There won’t be any pressure for Rogue Priest readers to use Twitter—even as I leave Facebook you can subscribe to the site via email or RSS (check the right-hand sidebar of this very page).

But if you want to have more contact with me, or if you want to put my claim to the test and see if Twitter can be as useful for you as it is for me, then these are the habits I suggest. I believe they’ll help make your experience with Twitter far more meaningful. They’ll definitely help you beat the learning curve and avoid the frustration of many beginning users.

Are you on Twitter? Leave a comment with a link to your account. I’ll follow you for a week to see if I dig what you share.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Minimalism, Personal Development

How to Live in a Monastery

My house was gone and I needed somewhere to live. I wanted to save money for my travels—even a studio apartment was pricey. So I went to a monastery.

Since then that post has become one of my most popular ever. Apparently a lot of people want to live in a monastery. I get an email a week asking how. So here it is: if you’re wondering how to get started living in a monastery, this is your guide.

The monastery where I lived in Minneapolis.

1. Are You Religious?

I moved into a Buddhist monastery even though I am not Buddhist. However, I am a priest of another religion and I have respect for Buddhist practice. I was able to hold conversations about meditation, chanting and other techniques and trade thoughts with the head lama.

You don’t need to be an advanced practitioner, but if you want to live in a monastery for free you should think about why. Monasteries exist to create a supportive environment for the religious practices of the monks or nuns who live there. They may have other missions as well—charity work, teaching classes—but at a minimum they support individual and group religious practice.

Are you religious? Are you part of their religion? If not, why would you live there?

If you’re “spiritual but not religious” you may not have a place in a community of dedicated religious clergy. Monasteries aren’t hostels; while they perform a lot of charity work to help outsiders, bringing in a roommate who doesn’t support their shared beliefs is hard on the whole community.

Maybe you can still find a place in a monastery regardless of your beliefs. I did. But the most obvious way to live in a monastery is to become a monk or nun.

2. Ask

When I decided to approach the monastery, I did it with a clear proposal for how I would earn my keep.

In my case, I already knew the head lama from my past interfaith work, but we were by no means close friends. I wrote her a formal letter pitching my idea. I sent it more than two months before I needed to move (don’t rush it!). I waited about a week, then called the lama and left a message saying I’d like to follow up.

You can see the actual letter here, but here are the highlights:

  1. I explained my situation and made a clear request. I didn’t seem needy or desperate.
  2. I established a clear timeline for when I’d be arriving and when I’d be leaving.
  3. I offered a service of value to the monastery.

Of these, the last point is by far the most important.

3. Offer Value

I believe this is the only reason that I, as a non-Buddhist, was allowed to move into a Buddhist monastery. Maybe if you’re starving they’ll take you in out of kindness, but if like me you’re just some kid looking for a free room—you need to give back in some way.

The services I offered were circumstantial. They were based on what I’m good at doing, and on what  they needed. I had already done my homework and seen that the Monastery had a bad website and no social media presence. Since they acted as a meditation center for the greater Minneapolis area, that was a problem (and it was one I could solve).

What you offer might be very different. Maybe you know that your monastery wants to put in an organic garden, and you’re good at landscaping. Maybe you’re a roofer and they have a storm-damaged roof. Maybe their office is a mess.

The point is to make a useful offer: don’t offer to organize the office and answer phones if they already have an administrative assistant on staff.

(Offering general labor is fine too—”I’ll spend this many hours a week doing whatever needs doing”—but I’m convinced that’s less appealing than offering a specific skill. The monks all pitch in for random unskilled work; more hands may not be needed.)

One word of warning: Decide how much time you’re willing to give. In the business world, work-for-lodging is always bad for the worker—if it was cheaper to pay you a wage and charge for the room, that’s what they would do. In a monastery there may be a purer intention, but non-profits are always starved for help and often work volunteers relentlessly.

Know your boundaries and offer a fixed number of hours per week.

4. Meet

If your offer is appealing you’ll probably be asked to come in and meet in person. Most people don’t accept a roommate sight-unseen, and many monasteries won’t either.

Being asked to come in and meet doesn’t mean they’ve accepted your request. Put your best foot forward, but be transparent: they’ll see the real you soon enough if you live with them.

At my meeting with the lama, she:

  • Wanted to know more about my travel plan and why I was doing this
  • Asked me to justify my proposed social media work, and wanted to know how it would benefit the Monastery’s mission
  • Proposed other projects she would want me to help with in addition to the work I had offered

But this is a two-way interview. I also asked questions about the rules of the monastery and what it would be like to live there. I needed to know that I could come and go at my own hours, that it was understood that I was not a practicing Buddhist, and that we had the potential to be mutually happy roommates.

5. Negotiation

I had expected the monastery’s goals to include increasing attendance at the meditation classes, and attracting more newcomers. This was not their goal at all—recruitment just wasn’t a priority for them.

I did make a case for how social media would still be useful, and ultimately the lama agreed with me. But the value of the social media work was less, and she asked me to take on other projects as well. I had to consider this carefully, go back to my own boundaries (remember that warning above?) and told her yes, but with very clear limits on how many hours I would put in. (One afternoon per week gardening.)

She also wanted me to pay $50/month toward utilities. I considered this fair and accepted. Since I wasn’t charged rent, I still consider that I lived there for free.

6. Monastery Rules

Ask about the rules of the monastery and which ones you, as a lodger, have to follow. For instance, if the monks are vegetarian are you allowed to eat meat, or not? If they have a communal cook, are you allowed to eat the food or are you on your own? What behavior expectations do they have?

Ask specific questions about potential problems. I told the lama I am not a huge drinker but I do like to relax with a drink in the evening. If she came down to the kitchen one night and saw me drinking a margarita, would it be a problem?

“I’d probably ask you to make one for me, too.”

I lucked out because this monastery was small and easygoing. As long as I was respectful I could pretty much do as I pleased. I didn’t have to follow their diet code and there was no curfew or lights-out time.

But if there was, I would respect it.

Even though you’re an outsider, not a monk, it’s completely fair to tell you to follow the monastic rules. If the monks have an early pre-dawn prayer hour, yes you do need to be silent in your room by curfew. If they are sworn off alcohol, it is rude—maybe even downright mean—to pop open a beer in front of them.

I wouldn’t expect to have sex in the monastery, by the way.

In Western monasticism, the Rule of an order is the definitive feature uniting their way of life. In Buddhism monastic rules exist to help limit attachment and craving. Either way, house guests who don’t follow them create a roadblock for everyone.

If you can’t follow the rules, don’t move in.

A Perfect Life

The reason I offer so much caution is to help you make the best arrangement possible. If you follow the advice above, you’ll maximize your chance of being accepted and create a sustainable situation.

Life in the monastery was really idyllic. There were tough moments (I’ve scaled a monastery wall in a thunderstorm and picked a lock to sneak in) but also great ones (I’ve high-fived a lama). One night I made dinner for the whole group of us and served it in the garden with a bit of wine. It’s one of my fondest memories.

My life at the monastery was extremely low-stress. There were day to day tensions, like dealing with a very sick cat or defending my time boundary on how much gardening I could do. But I was with peaceful people who led a simple life. I had no money concerns and I could spoil my friends while paying down my debt. It was relaxing to wake up there, and relaxing to come home.

The greatest experience was seeing how human these practitioners are: a lama is a human being. Many Buddhists never see that.

I gave up that peaceful life for one of risk and challenge. I prefer to struggle for greatness, to make love to the world, to love her as she is. The monks may inherit the earth: today it’s for those who struggle.

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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