The left column – AKA Your own Magic Donkey

Yeah, Neigh or Hay?


I’ve been asked several times today what the Left Column is, followed by confused looks when I respond,”The Magic Donkey did the math.”

“Huh?   you’re a Smart Ass that can sit on an ice cream cone and tell what flavour it is?”

(I am, and I can, but that’s a post for a different day…)

I often meet people who’d like to be more involved in Twitter for business or pleasure, but are unsure how to begin or have quickly become discouraged as they’ve been overwhelmed with  too much information once they’ve started.  In those instances, I find it useful to teach them the Left Column method.

Think about it… people are already trained and familiar with reading books, balance sheets, forms and even software/web  scroll-out menus from left to right, to the point that it is an unconcious action people don’t even notice they do. It’s a productive habit. If you teach clients to prioritize their listening and engagement focus from left to right in applications like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite  they’ll adapt quickly with greater success and comfort.

The basic principle of the Left Column is that you place key listening triggers in the left most column of your twitter app, then line up each one to the right in order of importance or need of response. For me this is never static and I change it dynamically depending on what I’m listening for, or to, at any given time. I shift various groups of people, hashtag searches, or reading lists left & right as needed to make sure that I’ve got the content I want front & center. If participating in a twitter chat session like #custserv or following a conference like #e20conf, that  search column moves… you guessed it, to the left position so I read it first. Without thinking too hard about it.

That part is easy to teach, but inevitably clients ask, “How do I know what to put in the columns?”

I simply explain that there are no rules – there is only the Magic Donkey.

The Magic Donkey is a bit of web lore that I’ve always appreciated because of the fun controversy surrounding it. Back in the old days, there was much discussion about how Flickr’s algorithm of ‘interestingness’ to rate & rank images worked. A bot? Semantic context long before such things were discussed out loud? Elves?  Five long years ago, a wit responded with this, an a new web myth was born:

The whole premise has always been sticky with me, so much that it is even in my profile, and is the basis for the ‘Left Column’. I don’t listen to what any and every old Social Media Ass tells me to, you know. I’m not a social media anything, I’m just a soul who enjoys getting as much out of Twitter as I can, so I need to do my OWN math, just as I teach clients:

You need to saddle up & ride, then build your own context framework based on what you see & hear around you that makes the ride more fun and gets you to your destination easily.

Maybe this will help you explain to customers how work out their own formula for twitter value and management:

It’s entirely subjective and I don’t actually have a burro as a pet, (I might have an ass who occassionally wears a sombrero… oh, nevermind…) The way it works for me is my inner ThoughtElf applies an algorithm to all I see, read, do or hear.  I get a mental poke that prods me to explore the idea further when the ThoughtElf calculates that something will  hold my attention long enough to educate, tinker with or stimulate new thoughts. When in Twitter, it means those are the voices who land in the ‘Left Column’.

I’d love to say I read as many tweets as I can from all the folks I follow, but the truth is that I don’t. When I open Tweetdeck, I look first to the Left Column, which is populated with the thoughts and ideas of the mentors, friends, stimulators and even the trouble makers that I listen to the most, or have the most in common with personally & professionally. These are the Brands I follow most closely and include on a separate twitter list for when others with similar interests want a quick look at what’s going on in the left column.  When it’s time for a key conference or twitter chat, they get shifted to the right, and I set the left column to my listening/engagement focus of the moment. It’s dynamic. But, it always starts on the left. ;>

It’s really sticky if you think about this idea and apply it when you’re trying to explain the value of Twitter list to clients and customers,  as Mike Friaetta noted in this video. Which cracks me up, because Mike is one of the cleverest Social Media Strategists and Coaches that I know, so if he likes using the term, then I know it will be useful to others when trying to explain how to listen carefully to filter for the highest value.

Whether you use a column, list or grouping, there is a lot of benefit in learning to sort digital content into tidy Yeah, Neigh or Hay (hey!) piles for your own knowledge management. Just like you read from left to right.

Ignore the Asses who make rules & ride your own Magic Donkey!

What tools do you use to teach twitter newbies how to manage their feed & calculate interestingness?


14 thoughts on “The left column – AKA Your own Magic Donkey

  1. I must admit to a bit of confusion at first, especially since I had just noticed you included me on this list. My first thought was “How the hell does Kelly know I’m a leftist?” then I realized I haven’t exactly hidden it. Then I read this and realized it had nothing to do with politics . . . which I kinda assumed once I saw who was on it.

    I had never heard the Magic Donkey thing before, but I realize I need to train one of them things. My PKM leaves a lot to be desired. I’m honored to be on the list and, of all the superlatives you used to describe those you’ve listed, I sincerely hope trouble-maker fits me best ;0)

    • I refuse to answer that one the grounds that it will incriminate you. ;>

      Actually, I just checked and you’re also on the Influencers & Stimulators (Disruptive Troublemakers) lists, too. heh

      Thanks for the thoughts. Much appreciated.

  2. You are one of the few people who manages to be funny AND informative AND technical AND a true voice, all at once. You are the definition of a thought leader. I love the concept of the Left Column! I didn’t know what it meant until I watched Mike’s video earlier. All I knew is I was honored to be on the list, because I was sure it meant something good…

    • Aw, shucks… coming from you, that makes me blush. as I appreciate your wit greatly. Thanks!

      Hope this helps you bring more goodness to your own customer experiences.

  3. Thanks for the kind words Kelly.

    I do have a “left column” of my own on Tweetdeck as I feel there are several feeders out there that share the real goods. While filtering is extremely important, as I feel the need to follow everyone human back, I like to keep the all friends on the left to catch something random to reply to…I might switch that. Not sure. Honestly though, I’m more of a term and phrase tracker than anything. That helps me find and increase the number of like-minded individuals that I’m connected to. I keep my alerts very limited to the things I want to hear and those are more or less my “left column”. When teaching though, I think your approach resonates with the new user clearly.

    Thanks again Kelly – Mike Fraietta

    • That video made my day! Huge smile generator. I love that you do things like that, which is just one of the many reasons I’m glad you mentor me and teach me new skills & ideas so often.

      As usual, you’ve raised an excellent alternate point, Mike. I make a point to read for random juicy bits, too, and I do think that is very important to remind people to do when teaching whether they are using twitter for business or personal interests.

      If clients don’t have listening/analytics tools yet, what methods do you teach them to use for phrase & term listening beyond the basic twitter search?


      • Google alerts and social mention are both free and their results help them understand that there is chatter going on that they were unaware of. If there is a need for real-time intelligence and broader coverage, then we bring out the paid tools. I’ve seen some nifty monitoring hacks done with Yahoo! Pipes, but have not used them myself.

        Mike Fraietta

  4. Great post Kelly. Coming from Texas, I can relate to many things in your post. 🙂 The key ideas I’m taking away from this are: 1) Work it from the left and 2) Saddle up and ride, baby….Yeehaw. PS I think you’ve changed your web design since my last visit. Love it!

  5. Hey – not hay, I have always done this as well. I thought that everyone else would automatically do also.

    Does this mean the rest of you do not hear a buzzing in your ear either?

    Anyway, I have a column on left that I call BEST – and is who I want to make sure to follow, and don’t miss their tweets. I have other columns for tweetchats such as #custserv, that like you I move to the left during the chat. When I am going through my Favorites – which I use as a bookmarking system of TO READ, I also will move to left while I review. Otherwise mine is setup like yours, with my ‘favorites to follow of the moment’ column and then ALL / Mentions etc … Occasionally, I search on one person and create a column – particularly if I am catching up.

    I also use Seesmic and find it not as easy to move columns about, even though drag and drop. So far I have not tested Hootsuite or Kiwi (for Mac OS X) My one complaint about the web Twitter is the lack of columns. I recently started using FLOCK and am impressed with how I can filter and display the websites tweeted, BUT the sidebar displaying tweets is on the right, and browser window is on Left > so far I have not found a way to do the LEFT-> RIGHT reading. Flock has by default a BEST Friends filter – oh yeah!

    • Dar,

      Thanks so much for offering up the additional tips and insights on other twitter apps. Very useful, and much appreciated. Hope it helps others making decisions about which to select & how to use them.

      I’m sure you don’t hear any buzzing in your ears – you know this stuff, as do most of the people who are on my must read lists, but they aren’t necessarily, (or even often), the intended audience for my posts. ;>

      We recently talked about P/A comment zingers when reading an article as a guru while it is actually intended as a teaching tool for less experienced folks, like SMB’s just entering into SM all by themselves without any guidance at all. Now read this quote over again out loud as if you were fresh to twitter & not nearly as software savvy as you are…
      “Hey – not hay, I have always done this as well. I thought that *everyone else* would *automatically* do also.

      Does this mean *the rest of you* *do not hear a buzzing in your ear either*?”
      (Can’t help pointing this out – it’s the trainer in me, and I know I can do so with you…)

      Really? Why would you think/expect anyone not as immersed in the world of IT or software to have the same level of understanding SM listening & engagement practices that you do? Define ‘everyone else’?

      The whole purpose in sharing knowledge like this that might seem like old-hat basics to some, is like making the effort to document fluid ideas about managing work processes, so others can learn, experiment, then put their own spin on it. Those just entering the ranks of any new experience benefit when we share snippets, flows & methodology. Not as in suggesting rules & norms, but in showing possibilities to get from point A to point B.
      While it is easy and natural for some to create their own efficiencies, the left-right method also applies to thinking styles. We’re left-brainers who have the opportunity to help right-brainers get started, then they will provide us with further creative right-brain innovations.

      I know I get asked all of the time for ideas on Twitter use for business. Just this week one of my old colleagues, a very successful Sales Manager, called me twice peppering me with questions about how I participate in chats, find Thought Leaders, etc., which he’d like to do more of to find a larger lead pool & stay up to date on important ERP/MFG industry news. I buzzed in his ear for 40 minutes.

      Which is longer than it took me to write this non-buzzy post. ;>

      The next time I get asked for help a person or company to offer a bit of help, I can point them to this post, and save us both some time, while still providing answers & value that they can pass along to others, too.

      Come to think of it, you might even encounter some friends, colleagues and customers that this will resonate with, too. Bet they’d also appreciate some more in-depth reviews of the tools you have tested and trialed like the ones you mentioned above. I know I would & would pass them on – they’d be buzz-worthy to many.

      Your Evil Twin – who likes to create buzz by Poking Hornet Nests
      (It only stings for a minute…)

      • Thanks for the constructive and always useful response! I agree, I didn’t have my mind in gear. I struggle with apps myself, but more than anything desire to help others find a comfort level, and encourage so their experience is more useful and friendly. I missed the mark this time.

        Also I had never thought about how we are programmed to read left to right, so applications are more user friendly when setup as such. You always provide more than just – how to do – but an explanation of why. Aha, so that is why I automatically shifted columns moment. Certainly others may not think of, but often wonder why they find the application clunky. We are definitely here to help each other, and never put-down.

        We are all learning, and myself more than others most of the time.
        Thanks for the advice and yes it this is a good lesson hopefully for others as well, to be more conscious when commenting.

        Thanks for teaching me more than just how to use Tweetdeck!

        You are the Smarter Twin. Hoping I can help you as well going forward.

      • It’s a relief to find sooneme who can explain things so well

      • That’s a posting full of insight!

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