George asks, why is everybody talking about Twitter?

Let me be the first to say, I hate reading and hearing about Twitter. The news media is filled with reporters talking about Twitter. Twitter itself has all sorts of "Social Media Gurus" that will tell you how to gain followers and use it to your best advantage.

It's all hogwash, and most of these stories are an utter waste of time.

And yet. There's something really remarkable about Twitter, and there's a big gap in articles that explain the basics of how to use it. So at the risk of adding even more noise to the conversation, here's my take.

What's so great about Twitter?

It's a whole new medium for conversation. It's more immediate, and less time-consuming than e-mail. It's more persistant, and less immediate than instant messaging. And most interestingly, it bridges the SMS capabilities of cell phones with a web-based service. But the best thing about Twitter is that it can be used in so many different ways. Different people have completely different experiences on Twitter. Some people post boring stuff about their day, and chit-chat with friends online. Others use it for marketing their business. Some celebrities use it to have conversations with ordinary people, bypassing their usual handlers. Some organizations use it for coordinating efforts on a particular project.

If you browse the public twitter stream, you'll see lots of inane stuff go by that's completely irrelevant. But search for a couple key phrases that you're interested in, and you're sure to find a few interesting conversations going on.

I like following people who are not just commenting on news, but creating it. I follow a mix of friends, open source programmers, scientists, thought leaders, atheletes, celebrities, and a couple robots. There's always something interesting going by my "Friends" timeline. Quite a few news-worthy events break first on Twitter--the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and more. By following a broad set of people, I learn of these events before I hear them on the radio.

I also see other more immediate uses for Twitter. It's perfect for a pub crawl, with its ability to keep a group of people updated by text message wherever they are. We've pitched the same capabilities for emergency management, helping people coordinate relief efforts. While Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans last summer, I was captivated by the drama of people having to make decisions on whether to evacuate or stay, so soon after Katrina. Among the evacuees, people communicated traffic conditions in real time, and even rescued the pets of somebody whose air conditioner had failed. Twitter fills a similar role to ham radio operators, for these types of situations.

And there's tinkerers out there hooking machines up to Twitter feeds. At Freelock, our project management system can send direct messages to people when they approach the end of a project budget. In many cases, it's easier and less intrusive to check on Twitter messages than e-mail.

If you're in business, you really should be on Twitter for its marketing power alone. One side effect of the media being over-represented on Twitter is that if you have something interesting to say, it may reach people who can spread your ideas and your name a lot wider than any other outlet available to you. But it's not just a place for getting press--much more importantly, it can give you direct access to your customers. There are many well-known stories about people complaining about Comcast and other companies with a poor reputation for customer service--and then getting contacted by the company and having their problems resolved immediately. If you're in business, you need to be doing regular searches on your company's name, and engaging people who are talking about you. A few coffee shops and restaurants have found Twitter to be a great way to get customers in during slow times, by offering a Twitter coupon.

Twitter has a well-known and well-criticized limit of 140 characters per message. And it's just text. It forces writers to be brief. Writers know it can be much harder to write something short than something long--getting the essence of your thought in a tiny message means you have to be thoughtful when you write. And for the reader, you're not overwhelmed with long-winded explanations (like this one).

What's the matter with Twitter?

Of course, everything has a downside. Twitter certainly has its share of problems:

  • It gets far too much hype, too many people talking about Twitter without any real substance.
  • It has far too many outages and service interruptions--in this case, it's a victim of its own success, struggling to keep up with demand.
  • It can be very addictive, and a distraction to more important things.
  • It's only text. And only a small amount of text. No pictures, video, or novels.
  • Twitter has a history of changing how certain things work, without consulting or warning their users beforehand.

But frankly, these are small issues compared to what you can do with it.

Ok. So what do I need to know to use it?

It's really, really simple. Go to https://twitter.com/ and sign up for an account. Got it? Let's cover a few different things:

  • Finding and following people
  • Talking to people, both privately and publicly
  • Hooking up to your cell phone
  • Private accounts, blocking, unfollowing
  • Powerful tweeting

Here we go.

Finding and Following People

Twitter is not a vacuum. If it's just you telling the world about what you're eating for breakfast, you're doing it wrong. When you "follow" somebody, you see their tweets when you go to twitter.com, and when you look at your "All Friends" timeline. They will get an email letting them know you're following them, and most likely, unless they're overwhelmed by followers, they will check out your profile and your tweets, and decide whether to follow you back. Whether they follow you or not really makes no difference, except when it comes to private messages.

I suggest that you search for people you know, and search on topics you're interested in. Anybody that's saying stuff you find interesting, go ahead and follow. You can follow me here: https://twitter.com/freelock. Don't expect everyone to follow you back, don't be nervous that you're giving away anything--find stuff that's interesting to you, and follow the people talking about it.

If you follow me, I'll probably check out your profile within a few days (I generally let the email stack up and then clean it out every few days). If your profile looks interesting, or you're talking about things I'm interested in, I'll probably follow you back. If I'm in a bad mood, and nothing I see grabs my attention, I may not. If I see anything on your profile about how to gain more twitter followers, I definitely won't follow back... Whether I follow you or not, however, you can engage me and anybody else on Twitter in conversation.

Engaging in conversation

My rule about twittering is that if I don't have something interesting to say, don't say anything at all. I'm the first to violate this rule, of course. But I try not to contribute to the mundane. One side effect of the short post size of Twitter is that there's nearly always room for highlighting a different angle on a topic. So if I see somebody talking about patents and open source, I may just jump into the conversation.

In Twitter, you direct a tweet to somebody by putting an '@' in front of their Twitter name. If you start a tweet with "@freelock," it shows up on my Replies page. It doesn't matter if I'm following you or not--I'll see your message. And if I have something further to say, I'll probably respond. This type of message is called an @reply, and you'll see it all over the place.

There's a few mechanics to @replys. If I begin a tweet with an @reply, you'll see it if it's directed to you. You'll also see it if you visit my twitter page, and it's republished on our web site. It's a public reply, meaning the whole world can see it. But Twitter doesn't necessarily show @replys on your "Friends" timeline, unless you follow both the person tweeting, and the person the @reply is to. If I @reply to somebody you don't follow, you won't see it unless you specifically go to my page. @replies are only hidden like this if they're the very first thing in a tweet--if you put an @freelock later in your message, all your followers will see it and be able to follow a link to my timeline.

If @replies are like replying to somebody in email, "Retweets" are the equivalent of forwarding an email. Basically, a retweet (usually shortened to RT) is basically rebroadcasting something you find interesting enough to want to talk about. You're rebroadcasting it to your followers, who may or may not know the original source. Retweets are a way of extending a conversation to a new audience. There's nothing special from Twitter's point of view about a retweet--it's like any other tweet. It's just a convention people have adopted.

Hashtags are another thing you'll run across. Basically they're a word that describes a topic, to make it easier for people to find tweets related to that topic. Words, including hash tags, that lots of people are tweeting show up in the "Trending Topics" list in the right sidebar at Twitter. Right now I see that #24 is trending. Following the link to #24 I see a lot of discussion about the television show. Again, there's nothing special about hashtags--they're just a convention people have adopted to make finding conversations of interest easier.

There is also a private reply, called a Direct Message. To send a direct message, you start a tweet with the letter D, a space, and a user name. For example, to send me a direct message, you'd send a tweet that starts like this: 'd freelock you have a typo in your story. Get a spell checker!' This would send a message that only I could see, sparing me the public humiliation of poor proofreading. I thank you for your thoughtfulness. The catch is, to send me a direct message, I have to follow you. Basically, you can send a direct message to anybody who follows you, presumably because they trust you to not send you spam. If you don't follow me back, I can't send you a direct message, so I would have to reply with an @reply.

The cool thing about direct messages is that you can set up your account so that direct messages get copied to your cell phone's SMS. So I get a text message when somebody sends me a direct message, but not when people just tweet. This is great for coordinating things on the go.

Hooking up your cell phone

To me, this is where Twitter gets really interesting. It's a simple couple steps to add a cell phone to Twitter, and once you've done so, you can send and receive tweets without being online. To send a tweet, just create a text message and send it to the Twitter number, 40404. It will appear on your timeline, just like any other tweet. You can also send @replys and direct messages.

As I mentioned, I have my account set up so that direct messages go to my cell phone. This is a great way to reach me, if you're one of my friends--just send me a direct message on Twitter. I also have the SMS features turned off at night, so I don't get woken up. And I can choose to send certain people's tweets to my cell phone at any time, by going to their Twitter profile and setting the "Device Update" for their specific account. Useful for meeting up at loud sporting events.

Privacy, Spam

You can set up your account as "Protected," which hides all your tweets from the world at large. If you have a set of people you want to talk with, and don't care about the rest of the world, this is useful. It's also useful for devices that use Twitter to send updates, if you don't want the world to see. But for the most part, protected accounts take away the conversational nature of Twitter. People who don't know you won't bother to follow. It gets in the way conversation--if your updates are protected, people can't see your @replies. If you'd like to reach out to new people who might share an interest with you, part of the bargain is participating in public. Of course, if you're not interested in having conversations, you can do whatever you want.

So one of the key things about Twitter is that it's just as easy to "unfollow" somebody as it is to "follow" them. Unlike Facebook, where there's a lot more social pressure to not diss your friends, in Twitter you can follow and unfollow as your whims desire.

In practice, people don't often unfollow all that much. I've only unfollowed people who were on the verge of what I considered to be spamming. Twitter doesn't tell people when you unfollow (although some 3rd party services do reveal this fact to people who really want to know...). If you no longer find somebody interesting, unfollow them. Don't waste your time.

If you do find somebody really annoying, you can block them entirely. I haven't done this, so I don't know the mechanics of it--in general, this doesn't prevent people from being able to read your tweets, but it does keep them from following you or @replying to you.

Power Tweeting

To wrap this up, one other big reason Twitter has become so widespread is that they have a powerful interface that allows other programs to connect directly. I rarely go to Twitter itself--most of the time I use a program called Tweetdeck, which allows me to have some live searches and put people I follow into groups so I can read more context. In addition to "All Friends" and @replys, I have columns for people in Seattle, people who rarely tweet, and some general searches on Linux, Drupal and Open Source. By opening Tweetdeck, I can see what people are currently discussing wiith these words, and jump into the conversation. I even have Facebook status updates available from Tweetdeck.

And that's just one of dozens of Twitter programs. Twhirl is another popular one, and I also use a Firefox extension called TwitterFox. There are Twitter clients for iPhones and Blackberries, add-ons for blogs (and Drupal!). While the web site will get you started, you'll probably find pretty quickly that it becomes much more a regular communication medium once you start using applications that keep it at your fingertips.

I hope this post helps you see the value and power of Twitter. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts--please share them with me on Twitter, or in a comment below!

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