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Confessions of a Twitter Convert

I’m eating a hearty meal of crow (roasted, with garlic and rosemary) today, since I’m here to tell you how interesting and downright useful I’ve found Twitter to be since being turned onto it properly at the C4 conference in August. My initial reaction to Twitter was that it was utterly inane, but I was basing my opinion on the public timeline that shows posts from all Twitter users and on the Twittervision service that plots messages from Twitter users on a map of the world (see “Visions of the Sublime and the Inane,” 2007-06-18).

Frankly, I put much of the blame on Twitter itself, asking as it does, “What are you doing?” as a way of prompting people to post 140-character messages. For the most part, as I acerbically noted before, no one cares what you’re doing. However, that’s not entirely true, and what I missed in my quick and disdainful overview is that a certain number of people do care what you’re doing, as long as it’s interesting, funny, or relevant in some other way. And here’s the other thing – they, not you, get to decide if you’re interesting, funny, or relevant.

Building Your Nest — Here’s how Twitter works. Visit the Twitter Web site and sign up for a free account. Next, you have to decide who is interesting enough to “follow,” which means that you want to read messages, called “tweets,” written by that person. For the purposes of argument, let’s assume I’m that person, so go to my Twitter page, and click the Follow button underneath my picture at the top. Now you’re following me, and you’ll be able to read every pearl of wisdom that I accidentally step on while going about my life.

Let’s assume you’re also interested in other people like me. Over on the right side of my Twitter page are a bunch of tiny icons of all the people who are following me. Mouse over them to see their names in tooltips, and click any one to open their Twitter page. But it’s a lot easier to click the Following link to see a full page with larger pictures and full names. From that page you can easily follow any of the people who are following me, making it a fast way to add cool people like my wife Tonya, Macworld’s Jason Snell, the incomparable Andy Ihnatko, John Gruber of Daring Fireball, Ars Technica’s Jacqui Cheng, and many others.

Although it’s not a guarantee, most people who you follow will receive an email message saying that you’re following them, and if they’re anything like me, they’ll be curious who you are, click through to your Twitter page, and, if it looks like you’re saying interesting things, they’ll follow you too. (So it might be a good idea to seed your Twitter page with a few trenchant comments before following people. If you don’t want random followers, you can set your account so you must approve followers first; that will discourage all but your closest friends and relatives.)

Twittering Away — So what should you twitter about? It doesn’t really matter as long as you can answer this simple question: Does anyone care? Sometimes the answer may be limited – only your co-workers planning to meet you in an unfamiliar city may care that your plane was delayed, but that’s fine. The fact you’re brushing your teeth is of interest to only your dentist, and he’s probably not following you. One friend with medical issues even uses Twitter to keep his family updated on his whereabouts so they don’t worry about him.

In essence, Twitter is a form of blogging, where blog posts are limited to 140 characters, and where readers will likely see your post right away. Consider it near-time micro-blogging then, which makes it far, far easier to update than a traditional blog. (As Tonya has noted, you only have to think of the title.) Your tweets are preserved, so you or anyone else can go back to read them at any time, but realistically, I doubt most people do. Twitter is about the moment, and if you miss the moment because you’re offline, so be it.

To help you think about what to twitter about, let me suggest some alternatives to Twitter’s “What are you doing?” question:

  • What do you think about some current event?
  • Tell us about something funny you just saw.
  • What neat thing have you learned recently?
  • What have you done lately that was particularly cool?
  • What question would you like to ask your followers?
  • Give us a link to the last great article you read.
  • What was your last blog post/Flickr photo/YouTube video?

This last one is particularly interesting. Twitter accounts can link to publications as well as people, but publications twitter about their latest stories. To see what I mean, follow TidBITS and Take Control on Twitter. They’re not very loquacious, but whenever we post a new TidBITS article or have some notable Take Control news, you’ll get a tweet with a link. Cool, eh? Other publications I follow via Twitter include Ars Technica, TechMeme, and science news in the New York Times, all of which you can find in my Following list. You’ll also note a Twitter icon in the Get TidBITS via… section in the upper left of our Web site.

As an aside, one of Guy Kawasaki’s current ventures is a site called Truemors, where people post short 350-character comments about things they found fascinating. Truemors doesn’t seem to have an official Twitter feed, but if you follow Guy (in my list, like the others), you’ll get a short list of the Truemors posts he most likes along with other tweets. If you want everything from Truemors, or any site that has an RSS feed, there’s a service called Twitterfeed that sends RSS posts to a Twitter account, so you could set up a private Twitter account for all your feeds and then follow it. Twitterfeed is a little clumsy to set up, but it works fine, and is in fact
how we’re posting TidBITS articles to the TidBITS Twitter account.

Twittering Conversations — Tweets are mostly aimed at your followers in general, but there are two exceptions. You can point a tweet at a particular person, or reply to something that someone else has said, by prepending the tweet with that person’s username and an @, as in “@adamengst And you moved from Seattle because Ithaca has better weather?” There’s no guarantee that person will see the tweet even if they follow you (and they definitely won’t see it if they don’t follow you, which I think is incorrect behavior on Twitter’s part), but at the end of the tweet, Twitter appends “in reply to” and the user’s name. Click that, and you’ll see the tweet it replied to. The Twitter FAQ claims you’ll see @
messages from the people you follow only if you also follow the person it’s aimed at, but that’s patently not true. Too bad, since @ messages in reply to tweets you haven’t seen initially are almost always uninteresting.

The second special message type is the direct message, which is seen by only the person it’s directed at. To send a direct message, prepend the message with “d username”. If you wanted to send me a direct message, you’d type something like “d adamengst Great article on Twitter!” No one else sees direct messages to you, and you can find them in the Direct Messages page in your account. Since you may not remember to visit that page, I recommend a setting in the Notices preferences that causes Twitter to send you email with the text of direct messages.

Growling Tweets — So far, everything I’ve talked about is available via the Web, and that’s one good thing about Twitter – it’s available anywhere via any Web browser. But the Web browser isn’t the best way to use Twitter, and what sets Twitter apart from competing services like Jaiku (just acquired by Google) and Pownce is Twitter’s open API for making independent services that work with Twitter. That’s how Twitterfeed was created, for instance, and tons of other programs and services work with Twitter. Check out the Twitter Fan Wiki for a full

Without implying anything bad about all the Macintosh Twitter applications and Dashboard widgets and other utilities, I want to tell you about the most popular one, Twitterrific. Written by Craig Hockenberry of Iconfactory, the free Twitterrific provides an elegant Macintosh interface for following others on Twitter and posting your own tweets. It’s sleek, easy to use, and highly configurable. But what’s most important about Twitterrific is that it integrates with the free Growl system-wide notification service. Without Twitterrific and Growl, Twitter would be more trouble than it’s worth for me.

So here’s what to do. Download Twitterrific and Growl from the links above, and install them. When you first launch Twitterrific, it asks you to log in to your Twitter account (for some reason, it suggests logging out via the Web first). Click the little wrench icon at the bottom of the window to access the preferences, which you can tweak to your heart’s content. I believe Twitterrific will automatically register itself with Growl too, and you can configure Growl from System Preferences. (I’m partial to the Music Video style of alerts that rise up from the bottom of the screen.)

Once you have everything configured and launched (and it’s a good idea to set both Twitterrific and Growl to launch at startup in their preferences), every tweet that comes through in Twitterrific will be reported to you via Growl. Since tweets are no more than 140 characters, you can easily read them in two or three seconds without being distracted from whatever you’re doing. I find this truly compelling because I have trouble making the time to read a collection of RSS feeds, and worse, if I happen on good stuff, I end up spending even more time I can’t afford to waste. Thanks to the combination of Twitterrific and Growl reporting tweets not just from my friends and colleagues, but also from publications I want to track, I can stay up
to date with a minimum of time and effort.

You can also use Twitter from cell phones that support SMS messages, including the iPhone, but I haven’t done this largely because I don’t feel like paying extra to read tweets while I’m out, and I don’t generally feel the need to twitter about something while I’m away from the Mac. More mobile people may appreciate the integration, particularly with an unlimited SMS message plan, although I’d encourage such people to remember the “Does anyone care?” question – from what I’ve seen, those twittering from their phones tend to blather a bit.

If you use an iPhone, you can stay up to date with your Twitter stream without incurring SMS charges by using PocketTweets in Safari. It doesn’t alert you when new tweets are published, but it does let you catch up by refreshing the page. Of course, you can also send tweets from it.

Twitter Flying High — Like many social networking services, Twitter relies on the network effect. It wasn’t interesting to me until there were people who I wanted to follow using it, writing things I wanted to read. And because I got on, Tonya tried it, and once Tonya and I were using and recommending Twitter, the rest of the TidBITS staff gave it a try. Now, even if I wanted to try Jaiku or Pownce (both of which are invitation-only at this point), they’d suffer from not having the people with whom I want to network. (If they’re smart, they’ll figure out how to integrate with Twitter via its open API.)

In the past few weeks, I’ve also seen A-list bloggers like Robert Scoble and Dave Winer start using Twitter in a big way, and Robert Scoble has said (on Twitter) that Twitter has taken over the “personal blogging” role for him. Between the two of them, they have nearly 9,000 followers, giving an indication of just how popular Twitter is becoming. (In contrast, Robert Scoble notes that he has only 882 followers on Jaiku, and I have a measly 289 followers on Twitter as of this writing.)

The combination of being able to get news headlines and tweets from connected bloggers means that Twitter has become the place to find breaking news.

The question is if Twitter will maintain its momentum or falter under the load. Already the service is going down, sometimes for minutes at a time, fairly regularly. While I was writing this article, I saw the “we’re working on it!” page twice, although I find that Twitterrific insulates me from most of the momentary lapses since it updates only once per minute (a frequency you can configure). Reportedly, Jaiku and Pownce are more reliable, but since they aren’t yet public, they haven’t had to scale to the point where reliability becomes a tough nut to crack.

Right now, I’d guess that the competing services have more features and are slightly better thought-out than Twitter, simply because they’ve come to the game later and haven’t had to deal with the real-world scaling issues. Twitter will need to keep the pressure up, both in terms of solving its scaling issues and adding new features. For instance, Jaiku offers threaded conversations, and Pownce lets you send messages, files, links, and events, and people can comment on each item.

One thing Twitter could use is the concept of groups. Tweets could be aimed at the group, and thus seen only by other members of that group. I know managers who would jump at the chance to keep up on what their employees are doing in a low-pressure, low-bandwidth way, and the employees would probably appreciate having to write only 140-character status reports.

The fact that Google just bought Jaiku deserves notice. Of anyone, Google knows how to scale and has vast server and network capacity to do it. Plus, Google could easily integrate Jaiku into other Google services, such as Gmail and Google Docs, in interesting ways. But just as YouTube won out over Google Video (to the point where Google bought it), Twitter has the network effect going for it now and can, as long as it doesn’t make any mistakes, likely stay ahead of whatever Google does with Jaiku. But if Google publishes the Jaiku API to enable services like Twitterrific and Twitterfeed, and if Twitter suffers more significant reliability problems or falls too far behind in the feature war,
Jaiku stands a chance at taking over.

All that said, right now, Twitter is perched firmly at the top of the tree, and every day it proves its utility to me. Hmm, as I finished writing this article, Twitterrific and Growl informed me that Glenn just published an article on the TidBITS site that I need to read and edit. I might not get to it until tomorrow, but now that I know about it, I can more easily make some time for it in my schedule.

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