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Twitter this, Twitter that...


So I recently started using Twitter (I'm RickStrahl in case you want to follow me). Late I know - Twitter's been around forever, but when I first heard and thought about Twitter the first thing that popped into my mind was "So what?". The concept of getting blasted with small disconnected messages detailing the minutiae of life of other people didn't sound terribly appealing to me. I'm still not sure that after the initial fad drops off whether that isn't what we all will be left with, but in the meantime I'm finding Twitter interesting to play and experiment with and maybe more importantly - finding it to be useful and helpful in a few situations.

The best description of what Twitter is and why it might be interesting beyond the initial impression of - "Why should I care what YOU do? Let's talk about me, damn it!" is this video:

http://www.commoncraft.com/Twitter

which puts Twitter into a non-geek, every day context, which is what it takes to 'sell' the idea of Twitter I think beyond the initial So what?  reaction.

The thing that finally made me try out Twitter and get (somewhat) hooked was a couple of weeks back at DevConnections when seemingly everybody around me was using Twitter to communicate. While at the conference with a bunch of other folks around physically, it's a great tool to get people together to do something, or have a general pow pow to find out what you might want to do with others. It's a great way to get motivated and keep up in an environment where the people twittering are actually around you. At the conference there were many moments where Twitter brought people together.

I figured once I get back home I'd probably be done with Twitter. But to my surprise I've been keeping up with it. There are a few folks I keep in contact with through Twitter now and a lot of the professionally related content has actually brought me some valuable links and other items of interest that I would otherwise probably wouldn't have found. Since I'm a single developer shop and live in sort of a bubble on a far away island (or a small town on the mainland when I'm back there) Twitter is  providing a little more sense of being a part of greater community to me.

Twitter is also a great way to throw out ideas and get feedback - quickly. In this context Twitter feels more like a micro blog with instant feedback. I've had several instances where I posted a request on some development issue I was stuck on and was inundated with a few suggestions that actually helped solve my problem in a few minutes. It's a great community tool at least for those that have a fair amount of followers.  Of course there is a key requirement for that aspect - you actually have to have people in your twitter follower's list that can potentially help you out or even care enough to follow your tweets.

Twitter fits a weird niche between IM and chat and blogs, but the nice thing about it is that its as interactive as you want it to be. Most other forms of communication require either two-way connections (ie. both sides need to commit to talking) or they are delayed communication (blogs with comments or message boards). Twitter is more like a public bulletin board where you subscribe to who you want to listen to and can blast out to whoever bothers to listen to you. In a way it's similar to blogging except that it's much shorter and way more abstract. Perfect for those with limited attention spans and wanting to perpetuate ADD <g>.

Surprisingly that works fairly well. The thing that's maybe enticing about Twitter is precisely that it's impersonal - the poster doesn't explicitly referencing a single person or even group usually. It frequently results in stream of consciousness messages that are out of context and can be intriguing or often spark interesting ideas in a way that no other medium really does.

And while there is a lot of stuff like - at the bus stop - waiting for the bus type messages, cooking dinner, heading to the john etc., once you've used Twitter for more than a few days you probably realize that that sort of thing is tedious - not just for others to read, but even for yourself to post. Instead I find myself spewing out occasional frustrations with what I'm working on, interesting finds I find while browsing around or reading something or some other quote of the day type thing that comes to mind at the moment. I see the same sort of thing from most other folks that I follow as well and as a Twitter consumer that's what I suspect most people are looking for. Not all of it is interesting of course, but there are frequent little gems in posts that make it worthwhile to glance at the tweet list from time to time.

What's not to like?

The problem with tools like this is that you just seem like a freaking ultra geek. Get out the thick glasses and pocket protectors and start poking away at your mobile phone everywhere you go <g>. I'd really hate to be one of those goobers constantly thumbing my cell phone everywhere I go (although it seems that's already happening anyway with CrackBerry email). Worse yet those folks that are doing while in the middle of something and then go - "Hang on while I Twitter". There's such a thing as too much information too... One thing that stuck out to me is we were at a dinner in Orlando with 8 speakers in the room and everybody was poking their phone every 10 minutes checking and entering new tweets. There's something rather lame about that, but yet it's also strangely addictive.

The other issues is that it's also somewhat difficult to have a 'real' conversation. Twitter really is the tool for the decimated attention span as you have to squeeze any thought or reaction into 140 characters (SMS size which is deliberate so you can use Twitter over SMS). This means lots of truncation and maybe even more so a lot of banal and disconnected content that has its head cut off and is then posted. It's also difficult to reply if a response requires more detail. Scattering content over multiple tweets is considered bad form for a reason: it's hard to read and follow in a reader.

Another problem seems to be the Twitter site itself. Twitter seems to be down an awful lot with messages sent simply failing or refreshes locking up. The timeout on the site is also pretty long so that requests can often hang for along time before failing. Not sure why, but logins especially seem to fail frequently and only several retries eventually allow access. Again this is most annoying when you're on your phone or other device when your connection is slow.

Twitter is also an exhibitionist's dream. Folks who love to show off what they're doing and let the world know get to blabber on all the time about minute details of - everything. At first I really was almost revulsed by this idea but in a lot of ways it's actually interesting once you start hitting the right people to follow on Twitter. Once you do, there can be some value to seeing what other like minded people are doing and how they are going through their daily routine along with the occasional inspirational gem.

There's a trade off I suppose between wasting time and getting something useful back. Which end you come out to depends on your particular usage scenario.

Tools

I've tried a bunch of Twitter clients and the one that works best for me seems to be twhirl. It's an open source client that looks nice and has a UI that's nice and usable. It's an Adobe Air app, which is an interesting choice, so it's fairly big, but it's a nice and clean app and it has just the right feature set IMHO. There are a number of other clients available including a few .NET clients although they are still pretty rough. The most interesting in that batch is probably Witty, which is a WPF Twitter client. It works well, but for some odd reason on my machine it doesn't show images <shrug>. It's also Open Source and provides Twitter API code which may be a good starting point if you want to use the Twitter API in your own applications.

Another interesting one: TwitterFox which is a small FireFox plugin that sits in your FF statusbar and gives easy access to tweets.

I also use Twinkle on my iPhone. Twinkle is a native iPhone app and it's much faster than the Web clients and looks a lot nicer too, but you need a jailbroken iPhone and use the Installer in order to install it. 

Stick with it?

I'm not sure whether Twitter will last with me. For the moment it's interesting and it's been helpful, but it also turns out to be a big time sink and a distraction. I already have enough trouble staying focused on work when I'm not under deadline, so Twitter is yet another distraction although in the grand scheme of things it maybe a helpful and productive distraction. Also, since I'm traveling in Switzerland and Europe most of this summer it's actually been a good tool to find a few folks here to ping on all things touristy.  I've turned on a few friends here and now I have a few local folks who can answer my touristy questions for decent restaurants in the neighborhood while I have to fend for myself in the evenings in Geneva <g>. A few good recommendations account for very little sleep in the last week... call that another plus point for Twitter <g>.

I think the one thing that is still missing with Twitter is location awareness. Being able to tell which of your twitter contacts are around you when you're away certainly would provide a lot of extra value. The iPhone Twinkle app tries to do something like this although it doesn't filter the list by contacts and just gives you everybody. BrightKite is another tool that also tries to match location awareness with Twitter, but it's a bit of a manual process at this time. Ultimately universal GPS tracking capabilities are what's needed to make this really work well and well that's a double-sided sword which brings up many 'Enemy of the State' connotations that feel a bit scary, especially if you voluntarily publish yourself (I guess the gov't already has the capability to track us pretty much completely as long as we carry our devices on us).

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear other people's experiences on their continued Twitter usage and 'alternate' use cases that keeps them using at beyond the initial "This is interesting" factor. Let's hear it...

Posted in Personal  

The Voices of Reason


 

Juan Antonio Santana
May 10, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

You´ve got a new follower jasantana

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

My opinion is that it's part of where society is heading -- whether you think it's good or bad, or perhaps just partly bad.

What bothers me is the bigger picture: people who cannot sit and look you in the face and have a discussion without texting or picking up every phone call; those whose attention spans are no greater than 15 seconds; etc.

While getting quick answers to questions, whether it be email, IM, or tweets is very desirable, how does one separate this from a lifestyle that molds itself around being online all the time?

It's hard to remember (but I do) when families had 1 phone, no message recorder, no voicemail, but somehow the world still ran...

Claudio Lassala
May 10, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

huh... funny... I was just about to post my own impressions about it. :)
http://claudiolassala.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!E2A4B22308B39CD2!724.entry

Chris Miller
May 10, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

I've been on the fence about it. I don't want to know about the minutia of someone's day to day existence. It feels funny to follow someone with a well established blog presence, I feel like I'm eavesdropping on private conversations. It's also odd when complete strangers with no previous connection to me start following my twitter presence. And it is a distraction, but I can control the level of distraction. I've been using Digsby to handle my Twitter needs and I can turn off the notifications when I need to concentrate.

On the plus side, I can see where it would invaluable at a large conference like DevConnections. It's a good way to let your friends and colleagues know where you are and where you will be. And if you have enough followers, it's a quick and easy way to toss out a question and get a quick response.

Brett Baggott
May 10, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

I first learned of Twitter at PubCon IV last October. I saw some of what you mention about Twitter bringing people together. However, I didn't stick with it. Coincidentally, last week I got involved in a project that has to do with MySpace (which I also never really got into). Because of that project, I've made a commitment to "get into" all the social medias if for nothing else than to understand the perspective of the user.

I agree with Steve, it's where we're going.

Also, if you want a _huge_ laugh, go google "penny arcade twitter". Gabe and Tyco are TOO funny. :)

_o/

^ - that's me waving at ya Claudio - been a while.

Jon Galloway
May 10, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

I've been vicariously following your European adventures through Twitter. Since I also work from home, I'm also finding that Twitter is valuable for a feeling of connectedness.

The Witty / no pictures thing is due to a bigger issue with IE8 and WPF. IE8b1 breaks image references in WPF applications, and there's not really anything we can do about it. Hopefully that will change on the next release.

Rick Strahl
May 11, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

@Steve - yes I think you're right about that that's where we are heading. More and more of our lives seem to be segmented into little sets of impersonal communities that are really far flung.

But that's just it: it's all very impersonal. Even blogs are that way although that requires a much bigger commitment in time and effort for the poster at least, while Twitter is just like the 'American Idol' version thereof: All entertainment, no content or quality. <g>

There are so many distractions in life. Since I'm 'going to the office' these last few days, which is something I don't usually do, it's interesting to see just how far this phenonmen has gone. Looking around on the bus I see perhaps 75% - 80% of people either plugged into their music players or typing away at their phones, or having noisy conversations (on the phone) - all of them nearly completely disconnected from what's going on around them. Prime pick-pocket targets, he he.

Reminds me eerily of the Matrix, but in an even more devious and realistic way...

Not sure if this is helping society as a whole. It seems if anything it makes things even more impersonal and/or cliquey than it already is.

Joe Brinkman
May 11, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

I am another work at home individual who finds Twitter a great tool to stay connected. For me, I keep witty running in the background. I do not check it all the time. Every hur or two I take a mental break from my current task and that is when I find myself checking Twitter.

Andrew MacNeill
May 11, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

Great post Rick - really well worded.

Where I find Twitter particularly useful is from connecting to other things that are of interest.

It really does seem to be a stream of consciousness except these days, we are seeing more self-promoting links (I guess, some people would say that's their conscious as well) and I'm not sure how great that is. One meme at one time was to try and judge something's popularity by the number of tweets about it - but I find that simply creates too much noise.

Yes there are some "doing this" messages but I don't mind those as much since it does offer some real great meat that wouldn't turn up in my regular RSS feed. Examples: I found jquery.com simply on your tweet yesterday and loved it. I wouldn't go out and google "javascript libraries" since it wasn't high on my radar but your tweet of " this is how it should be", got me there.

It's also a great way for companies to track what the word on street is (consider www.tweetscan.com) - rtipton mentioned evernote, a "notes" aggregator, I asked her for some info; the comany started following me based on that tweet and all that was before I was added to the beta.

Peter Bromberg
May 11, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

I've been in and out of twitter for about six months. I only got back in because several of the twitterers I had been following actually made a few useful tweets among the noise of the flock.

But you know what? As a developer, twitter has taught me that I really would like to find the time to build something "like" twitter, but much more focused and useful. Hopefully I'll find some like-minded developer(s) who start something on codeplex.com and I can join in to help.

Josh Stodola
May 12, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

Great thoughts! I am not so sure if I like it though. I've given it a sincere chance to grow on me, and in a sense, it has. But overall, I think it's a huge waste of time that would probably be more popular if the targeted users were teenagers. They've got more time to waste than I do. I also find myself questioning daily events and shallow observations as to whether or not they are "tweetworthy". So instead of progressing my thoughts, I think about whether or not other people will care to read about the experience on Twitter. IMO, that is counter-productive to intuition. Granted, there have been a number of tweets that I benefitted from and were definitely worth my time reading. But in the grand scheme, it's just been a time-passer. Speaking of time, is it May already?!

Pertti Karjalainen
May 15, 2008

# re: Twitter this, Twitter that...

Slightly off topic:

The other day I observed my 12 -year old daughter on the couch with her classmate. They were both sitting in front of the TV, my daughter was tapping away on a laptop, simultaneously IM-ing with what looked like five separate friends (while a YouTube video was running in the background), talking on the cell phone (in one ear) and listening to iPod (in the other). Her friend was text messaging someone and looking over my daughter's shoulder at the IM landscape... On top of that, these busy girls were having a conversation about what happened at school that day.

This reminded me of an old V12 engine where the distributor spins wildly inside the cap, sending periodic jolts to each spark plug and thus keeping the big mighty engine running. And I realized that my little daughter had turned into a V12! Can she keep going and reach a V24 -level in another 12 years? Or will her little brain shut down or melt down under the massively parallel barrage of input?

What does this do to a young person's brain? How about attention span? How about the twittering (real) birds outside, when do they get any input into this busy brain? Is it any wonder kids are consuming more and more ADD/ADHD medication every year? Have I turned into an old grump, or am I onto something?

I think it is about time to push the button on the Massive Electromagnetic Pulse Machine and roll back the clock to the slower pace of tube radios and serial, not parallel conversations.

Won't see me twittering any time soon. You will, however, see me taking my daughter on a week-long backpacking trip to the Sierra Nevada's this summer, maybe kicking and maybe screaming, but more importantly beyond the reach of electricity, WiFi, cell phones, etc.

She can twitter at me all she wants, as long as she does it in person.
 

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