6.4 Twitter (Microblogging)

The traditional media pick a Big New Thing in Technology all the time, and in 2009 it was Twitter. This time, the traditional media got it right.

Twitter is a “microblogging” service that lets you post messages of up to 140 characters in length, called “tweets.” That’s not as short as a typical newspaper headline, but it’s not long enough for more than a basic thought.

Yet the very limitation of Twitter—combined with absolutely brilliant positioning by the company—has turned it into what has aptly been termed the “nervous system of the Web.” The flow of information on the service is diverse, of course, given the millions of users; but it’s also useful, not just entertaining.

Twitter users soon find that almost every event they care about—if they are following the right people—is first mentioned in the “tweetstream.” Search engines aren’t as good at capturing real-time information flow, though they’re getting better at it (and increasingly they include Twitter in their own results.) Of course, the value of this stream of data depends as well on whether you’re paying close attention; it’s easy to miss things that scroll by. With third-party Twitter-management software, discussed briefly below, you can set up searches to keep track of things you care about.

I use Twitter both as a creator and a reader; it’s an essential part of my daily media. I use it as an alert system to get tips and early warnings, and to keep an eye on what people I respect think is important. I follow the “Tweets” (Twitter postings) of about 350 people and organizations. I’ve selected and organized them carefully, looking for rich information from the relative few rather than a fire hose from the many. Many of the people I follow are involved in the media. I post frequently as well, and as of this writing have about 11,000 followers—a decent number, but not remotely in the ballpark of the most avidly followed people or services.

The main reason Twitter has become so popular is that the people behind it—including Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger (see a pattern?)—have made the service the center of an ecosystem. They’ve made it easy for other people to build applications and services on the tweets of the millions of Twitter users, in all kinds of ways.[1] Third-party applications that manage your Twitter stream are invaluable for organizing the people you follow and creating searches that you can check from time to time.

If you have a blog, you can use Twitter to build the audience by tweeting to point to blog postings you think are particularly interesting. I don’t recommend tweeting about every blog post, because your Twitter followers may well grow tired of this kind of self-promotion when they can just as easily get an RSS feed from your blog.

In general, the best newsworthy Tweets contain hyperlinks to something else. When someone I follow because I like her work suggests I look at something related to her expertise and makes it sound interesting in her brief description, I tend to click through and check it out. I can’t overstate the value of Twitter when used in this manner.

Because of the 140-character limit, Twitter has spurred the use of URL-shortening services such as bit.ly and is.gd, which shorten the Web addresses you submit to a Twitter-appropriate lengths. However, the use of these services has raised a number of questions, including the permanence of the links and how search engines will handle valuable links that actually send you to something else, as well as security questions.

[1] I’m an investor in one of the third-party companies creating software for Twitter users, called Seesmic. By some reckonings, the most popular Twitter client application is TweetDeck. Most are free or low-cost, so try them until you find one you like.

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