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:
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.
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...
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