Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tweet tweet..

Just recently I've started using Twitter. It's the "microblog" service where people send 140 character messages to whoever is following your feed, and receive these messages from whoever they are following. Think Facebook status updates with two crucial differences: 1) there's nothing else but these messages (no throwing sheep, no quizzes, no groups to join and no events to maybe attend); 2) following people is asymmetric, so that people don' t need to follow you before you can follow them. So, you shouldn't think of it as yet another Facebook, because Twitter is not so much about keeping in contact with your friends, and it's more about keeping in touch with issues.

Why is it so popular? Well, like any other social networking service, it is fun if your friends are there. Facebook had it's origins in the campuses, where everyone joined FB because everyone else joined, and then after reaching a certain critical mass it exploded and now everyone is there because everyone is there. With Twitter, the original users were the Silicon Valley folks, techies and internet entrepreneurs, and everyone who wanted to associate with that culture of 24/7 mobile online existence. And it's then expanded from there, with the help of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Fry, Shaq O'Neal or Britney, and now more and more people are joining it, and it's growing faster and faster, even this side of the Pond.

Another reason for its attractiveness is the 140 character limit. Throughout, technical limitations have encouraged creativity rather than stifled it. Think of smileys for instance, or the original Star Wars films. Stephen Fry is a great example of how 140 characters is plenty if you are a wordsmith. Interestingly, a whole industry has sprouted around Twitter. The site itself is very plain and simple, the user interface isn't great, and at a first glance you just can't see why anyone would bother to use it. But nobody uses Twitter via Twitter. There are a number of applications, desktop or mobile, that focus on improving the user experience by adding flitering, search, grouping, URL-shortening and picture-linking functionalities, or integration with other social networks, emails or calendars. And suddenly this starts to make more sense.

I'm using Nambu to read and send my tweets, and will try the Seesmic desktop next. Also, if I spot something interesting while surfing the webs of inter, I click my bit.ly bookmarklet and save and share the link via Twitter and/or Facebook. There are photo-sharing sites, such as mobypicture that are well integrated with Twitter, so that you can take a snapshot with your cell phone, store it to your onine gallery, caption it and send to your Twitter feed for your followers to see.

So, what's the value of this? It CAN be used productively, it can be useful, and more than just a waste of time / procrastination. But, you have to find the right people to follow. This is where hashtags come in. Often, to improve searchability, people "tag" their tweets, so for instance, while writing about an article they read about brains they add #brain or #neuroscience in the tweet. Not everyone does this, because it consumes your valuable 140 chars, but enough people do, and you can find those people by writing #brain or #neuroscience to the search box. And, you'll see all recent tweets with that hashtag and can then follow the people who sent the most interesting ones.

This is also where retweeting comes in handy. It's customary to forward interesting tweets to your feed, i.e. retweet them. To do this, you add RT @username to the copy-pasted tweet and send it (this is where the applications like Nambu are great, they do these at a click of a button). So, you can find new interesting people by following people who have been RT:d by those you've already following.

Twitter is fast. So many times the fastest way to hear about breaking news is via Twitter. And, as "everyone" has a phone with a Twitter app in their pocket, you can find first hand info about events in twitter.

But Twitter has its dark side, and finding a way to make it useful for your purposes will take some time. There's a lot of "noise", as the system encourages shouting over listening. There are spammers around, and also many "online marketing gurus" out there trying to pitch their services. People who are reporting what they had for breakfast and others who keep on sending the same links to the "hilarious pics" that outdate even the Arpanet. But luckily, after a while you'll find people that are really interesting or useful, and learn to get rid of the noise. And then you can for instance follow the astronaut who tweets from the orbit or "A mum and a wife with a really cool day job..."

Pic: Twitter / Guardian

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