Sunday, 27 April 2008

Twitter: Brevity is the soul of wit

I'm into my second phase of Twitter use, and am finding it more enjoyable, and a little more useful, than the first time I tried it.

To backtrack; Twitter is "micro-blogging". It's most similar to the Facebook status function. Some people think it's SMS for the Web, but as people don't use txtspk but normal language instead, not sure that's a good comparison.

You type in a message of up to 140 characters. And that's it. You can "follow" other people's Twitters (I refuse to get drawn into semantic debates about whether these are Twits, or Tweets, or Twittees), and other people can follow yours. The messages are, by default, viewable in a Facebook status-like "Most recent at the top" listing to your followers. For stuff spread across several Twitter messages, read from the bottom up; for example:


That's pretty much all there is to it.

Though if you want more, here's a video on YouTube::


The first time I tried it last year was a bit rubbish. I entered stuff. Nothing much happened; I had little idea if stuff was being read, and it felt more like sending SMS messages to an answering machine. In retrospect, the lack of followers at the time meant the experiment was a bit pointless.

Recently I've tried it again, and it's a much more worthwhile experience.

Uses? So far, ten for me:

  1. Facebook status updates are, in my case anyway, of limited interest as my FB contacts are spread globally, through work, family, friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues. Maybe it's because of the follower concept, but Twitter seems to attract a more focused group of people, with more interesting and work-relevant status updates. I get more out of 5 Twitter message reads than 30 Facebook status reads.

  2. Conferences I'm not attending are, unexpectedly, fun to follow on Twitter. As has happened a few times, a speaker says something interesting or unexpected. Suddenly, there's several Twitter updates from followers at the event, with snappy (140 characters maximum) summaries of what's just happened. Quick to read, and you get an overall wisdom-of-crowds idea of what just happened. 

  3. It's easy to use for people with a wide range of disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing. I didn't realise one of my previous Twitter "followers" was deaf for a long time. It's a level playing field for him, so he's very happy with Twitter.

  4. Stuck? Chuck a question out there in nice, concise 140 chars or less format and see what comes back. A quick (short) question may elicit a quick (short) response. There's little effort/time involved by both parties.

  5. "Which session are you in? Worthwhile sneaking in?" More than once I've been at a conference and chosen the wrong room at a parallel session. I'm then stuck with the dilemma of walking out, and the (grass is greener) concern that I'm missing a better, more useful, session elsewhere at the same time. Twitter has a use, and is quicker than email, in arriving at a quick "stay / leave / goto a different session that's happening now" choice.

  6. Physically distributed group activity. There's many applications of Twitter here. Marshalls at a marathon checkpoint can Twitter when runners appear, or if they are running out of water. People in a sports stadium or outdoor concert can hook up. A group of people outdoors doing just about anything (especially if in fog and out of visual contact) can maintain contact. A group of people looking for something or someone lost? Send updates to each other indicating areas covered, so the search layout can be rejigged.

  7. Quick reminder. "The symposium starts in SL in 5 mins". That was useful. Especially as I was the first presenter.

  8. Mixing it up. Twitters can be people, or news feeds, or organisation information push-outs, or just about anything that is in a digital 140 chars max format. 

  9. Time management training. People who can't express simple things without writing an essay will either (a) have to adapt if they use Twitter, or (b) avoid using Twitter. Either way, that's a good thing.

  10. Similarly, unlike the hell of multiple RSS feeds which quickly deliver a mountain of blog essays to my screen, Twitter keeps it short. It's the "Milky Way" of digital information; the chocolate bar (online service) you can eat (read) without losing your appetite (focus). It's easier to follow a large number of Twitters than a much smaller number of RSS feeds - though I do wonder if some people "collect" followers for similar reasons to collecting Facebook friends:


It's also a partial replacement for the WDE (Worst Device Ever), but more of that another time.

Other people, such as Andy Ramsden, Jonathan DaviesDon Steinberg and Geekpreneur have described uses of Twitter, while Christopher Sessums points to some more resources and educational uses. There's also a cluster of applications that incorporate Twitter in some way. A strangely hypnotic one is Twittervision - based on the photographic Flickrvision service - which shows where random Twitters are being typed in around the world.

The key to effective Twitter use seems to be matching the use to the followers. Twitter relies on both content and people, with the latter finding the former relevant. If your "crowd" are mainly fanatical football fans, then throwing them a Twitter question about Semantic Web research may result in a dissapointing reply. Or some abuse, and a sharp reduction in your number of followers.

So, this is an area where Twitter may need to introduce some (not so simple) partitioning; I'd like to separate my followers into categories, with some people in multiple categories. A bit like blog postings. Then I can Twitter library stuff with the library crowd,  video game stuff with the video game crowd, and so on for the cricket, Outer Hebrides, alumni and other crowds. Or is there already a Twitter-based application that does this?

As with other applications, it's not for everyone. Some don't like the apparent immediacy of Twitter:


...though, of course, you don't *have* to read, or reply, or Twitter. Some people won't like it because it will "corrode literacy standards" (yawn), or because they can't send essays through it (fine). Some won't like it because it's new, because it's technology, or because they can't immediately "see the point of it" (even more boring). Conveniently forgetting that most things they do in life have no obvious point, or no point at all. Some people will see it as a time-sink, which is the one thing Twitter is not, unless you are a painfully slow typist or reader. In which case the Internet isn't for you anyway. No, I'm warming to Twitter, and looking forward to trying it with a vengeance at a few (Real World) conferences later in the year. 

n.b. "Brevity is the soul of wit" is from Hamlet, and clocks in at 26 characters, leaving 114 spare. Billy Shakespeare would have loved Twitter, Facebook and blogging.

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