A couple of weeks ago, Oprah began using Twitter. Some saw her adoption of the service as a milestone that Twitter had gone mainstream. Others decried it as a sure sign that the Twitter fad was about to flame out.
Why all the fuss about Twitter?
I have to admit that I just didn't get it. At first. In this post, I'll talk about how I learned to love Twitter. In my next post, I'll talk about Why twitter matters.
How Twitter works
Twitter is a microblogging service which allows users to post messages of 140 characters or less. These messages – called 'tweets' – chronicle what the user is doing / reading / thinking in that moment. You can follow other users, and they can follow you as well. [Note: There are privacy settings in Twitter which allow you to protect who sees your tweets.]
Because the messages are limited to 140 characters, a kind of Twitter shorthand code has developed to convey key concepts. Responses to other users contain an 'at' sign (@) before their user name – so, for instance, other Twitter users respond to my posts with an '@robmorris2'.'
When discussing a particular topic, users often apply a hashtag (a pound sign – #) to their post. Right now, there are a lot of #swineflu hashtags in the twitterverse as people tweet about the current flu outbreak in Mexico, the US, and New Zealand.
Many users want to share interesting stories or blog posts with their followers. But because regular web addresses (URL's) can run 60 or 70 characters, many people use URL 'shorteners' to compress a web address to just 16 or so characters. So many of Twitter's addresses are from the bit.ly, is.gd, tr.im, or similar odd-looking domains.
When users want to share someone else's tweet with their followers, they often 're-tweet it'. They do so with 'RT' and the user's @name. So, when I saw a Dave Winer tweet that I thought was worth sharing, I shared it this way: "RT @davewiner: Why NPR is Thriving (They’re Not Afraid of Digital Media). http://tr.im/jH5o".
Twitter gives you some basic tools to help you find and add other friends who use the service. When I first started using Twitter, I added a few close friends. I twittered something about what I was doing, careful to use my 140 character allotment.
And nothing happened. I really wondered what this Twitter fuss was all about…
Only one of my friends really used the service more than a few times a month. And he (@billder – well worth following) was in Portland, used a bewildering array of #'s and @'s, was talking with folks I didn't know, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it all.
I posted to Twitter once or twice a week through January. And then I drifted away until April.
I followed many more folks the second time around: local and national news sites; favorite authors, bloggers, and personalities; technology sites; interesting companies and their executives; and whatever else I found interesting.
When I got up to about 50 people, Twitter started to get really intriguing. With more and more interesting people sharing more and more interesting thoughts, links, and re-tweets, Twitter suddenly became much more vibrant.
But there was something which still didn't work for me: the Twitter web page. As a static page with maybe 20 tweets on it, I had to keep reloading. If a lot of folks were tweeting, I often missed important tweets from friends in the flurry of tweets from other, more prolific users.
It was (and is) all a bit chaotic.
But there are solutions. Twitter has allowed software developers to graft their products onto the Twitter platform. There are a bevy of such products out there: Seesmic, Twhirl, TweetFon, Tweetie, and many others. Each has different features and functions.
My current favorite is desktop software called TweetDeck. With TweetDeck, Twitter finally came alive and started making sense for me. In other words, I finally 'got' Twitter.
There are four key features of TweetDeck which make it work for me.
First, TweetDeck auto-refreshes. This means that I get nearly-live updates as soon as they happen. For me, it transforms Twitter from a static web page into a real-time social messaging system.
Second, TweetDeck lets me create groups of people that I can follow. This means that I can group folks according to how important they are to me or by which parts of my life they belong to. By default, TweetDeck has an 'All Friends' column which contains live tweets from everyone I follow. But I created another column which has tweets from folks that I really want to pay attention to. The 'groups' feature let me create some order out of Twitter's chaos, and helped ensure that I didn't miss important local or topical or personal tweets.
Third, the software made tweeting easier. TweetDeck has a lot of built in stuff to respond to (@) or re-tweet (RT) other users. It lets me shorten a URL right inside the interface.
Fourth, TweetDeck has a search function which allows me to monitor what anyone in the twitterverse is saying about a particular topic (like, say, "Toyota") live. So I can get a sense of what is happening with things that are important to me right now.
These four features of TweetDeck (some of the other Twitter software has them too) brought Twitter to life for me. They allowed me to connect with new people and have new conversations that would otherwise never have happened.
Making Twitter Work
What made Twitter 'work' for me was 1) making sense of its shorthand, 2) following a critical mass of other users to make things interesting, and 3) using a 'live' interface (for me, TweetDeck) which catapulted the service from a website into a many-to-many conversation.
In my next post, I'll talk about Why Twitter matters.