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All A-Twitter

I'm enjoying my time on this social-networking phenomenon, but condensing my life into 140-character bursts is a challenge.

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Okay, so my milestone wasn't quite as momentous as the President's. But don't underestimate the challenge of using 140-character "tweets" to keep your audience informed and entertained, the goal I've set for myself. It's still not clear whether Twitter will explode or flame out. But it certainly has people, well, all a-twitter.

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On NPR, for example, commentator John Ridley recently complained that thanks to Twitter, privacy has gone out the window and discretion out of style. "Where is the expectation that people will keep their private nonsense to themselves?" Ridley huffed. That set off a string of responses, in which people either defended Twitter or piled on, lamenting the death of civility, the "banal and pointless" comments, and the end of good writing as we know it.

No one has yet figured out how to make money on Twitter. But so many reporters and media types have jumped aboard the bandwagon, not to mention blogs and other social-networking sites, that some news organizations have felt compelled to issue ground rules for professional conduct -- such as "Don't engage in any impolite dialogue with those who may challenge your work, no matter how rude or provocative they may seem."

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New users have swamped Twitter, but Nielsen Online reports that the retention rate has been lower than for other social-networking sites. One reason, speculates Steve Smith, who covers digital media for MinOnline.com, a media-industry report, is that "the information Twitter renders can be ephemeral or overwhelming." The challenge is to "shape the information in ways that make sense to a particular audience."

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How I tweet. I have to admit that I'm enjoying my time on Twitter more than I thought I would. One of my disappointments is that there doesn't seem to be a way to plug in to a ready-made network of followers who are interested in what you’re writing about -- in my case, personal finance. That's all the more frustrating because I do try to take up Smith's challenge and shape my tweets in ways that make sense to my audience. I have no idea if this micro-blog has staying power. But as long as I'm doing it, I'm trying to do it right.

Early on, one of my followers advised that "moderation is really the best policy," and I've tried to stick by that rule. Depending on how busy I am, I probably send out anywhere from three to six updates a day. But as a writer, I think of them all as a cohesive whole, telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. For instance, I generally start every day with an editor's pick of one of my favorite stories on Kiplinger.com (along with the link, which people have told me they appreciate).

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Because I'm doing this as editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, most of my updates are focused on work-related events. I might give personal-finance advice, pass along newsy bits from professional journals or press releases in my e-mail, or talk about media appearances by myself and other Kiplinger's staff members.

As promised, I try to give a behind-the-scenes peek at what goes on at our magazine. (Once I was stopped in the company cafeteria by a co-worker who wanted more info about something he had learned from one of my tweets.) I'm not going to clue in the competition by divulging our future cover stories. But I'm happy to let you know that we sweat bullets every month to come up with just the right words for seven lines of copy on the cover.

Don't worry, Mr. Ridley, I intend to keep most of my "private nonsense" to myself. Nevertheless, my college-student son tells me it's important to be a "real person," and not just an editor. So to leaven the mix I add book reviews, restaurant reviews and other observations about our nation's capital (and once in a while how I spent my weekend).

From the beginning I've joked that people don't want to know what I had for lunch. But guess what: They do. (It's not for nothing that Martha Stewart Living is the top consumer magazine ranked by number of Twitter followers.) Food apparently sells (Martha twitters menus). So occasionally I let people know when I'm heading across the street for a slice of pizza. And I get positive feedback whenever I mention tortilla-crusted tilapia, one of my favorite lunches in the Kiplinger cafeteria.

In fact, that may be my next Twitter challenge: figuring out how to tweet the tilapia recipe in 140 characters or fewer. Eat your heart out, Martha.

Janet Bodnar is editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and the author of Raising Money Smart Kids (Kaplan, $17.95) and Money Smart Women (Kaplan, $15.95). Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JanetBodnar.

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