The first time I heard about Twitter I thought it was a stupid idea, possibly because the name seemed like it would be too accurate for comfort. I also didn't really like the idea of another social network requiring care and feeding. But in the end I got sucked in, and having used it for a couple of weeks I think it has a lot of potential.

some terminology

I've noticed a few terms floating around, so let's cover a few of them before we get started:

A person who uses Twitter ("twit" is tongue in cheek, you at the back).
A group of Twits, eg. "the Aussie Twitterati" (aka. the Auspack)
A Twitter update. "where's that tweet about the bar meet?"
Twitterchat/Twitter chat
A stream of Twitter updates that read like IRC/chat rooms.
One term used to describe the short posting style of Twitter.

Not everyone will agree with the terminology of course.

life with twitter

It seems fairly obvious that people use Twitter in ways the creators didn't intend. Although it's a service rather than content per se, this quote from Jeff Veen still springs to mind: Few use your content the way you intend. Everything you create online is being ripped apart and recombined with other stuff by thousands of curious geeks. Or at least, it should be.

Twitter was intended to be a status system, with all posts answering the question "what am I doing right now?". However as soon as you do that, other people want to respond - humans are social animals, after all. The result often turns into something like a chat room or IRC - and I pity anyone trying to keep up via a mobile phone. It has been said that Aussies use Twitter in IRC mode more often than other groups.

So at once it creates a tension - the great idea was to know what your friends are doing. The problem is that as soon as people respond, the traffic can easily make it impractical to follow the flow when you're out and about (unless you really are happy to be glued to your phone). If you really just want to know what people are doing, Twitterchat adds noise to the signal.

However if you're at home on the computer, Twitterchat is just dandy. IRC was always plagued with technical issues - you had to get the client installed (or know your way around shell) and find a server for a start; then find a channel and hope you didn't get a netsplit (seemed quite common for Aussies). Twitter avoids those problems - you can just hit a website and away you go.

should it be about status or chat?

Twitters know that they should just be saying what they're doing (posting their status). But they also get sucked into the chats. It's almost like you need a filter - actual status tweets versus general chatter or responses. But then you'd need people to tag their tweets one way or another - and if they followed rules like that you wouldn't have the problem in the first place.

So is Twitter a status stream or a chat tool? It's both, depending on the hive mind's mood. Is that a problem? Depends on what you want out of it at the time. Given that the status aspect is rarely going to be seriously useful to me, I don't mind the chat.

You could perhaps have Twitter proper, then let people spin off to a Twitter chat room for general chatter. If you piped the status posts into the chat room, you'd get the best of both worlds. People who don't want to chat wouldn't have to; those who do would still get status messages.

interesting uses

twitter tours

A Twitter Tour is a string of Twitters forming the tale of travelling somewhere. Gian is leading the charge on my contact list with two detailed Twitter Tours so far. I really like the way the string of status messages can tie together a routemap and photos.

The output is not really that different to blogging about going somewhere, except for the fact that you can follow the person's progress and chat to them while they're actually doing it - which is pretty cool, really. Plus you're getting the actual impressions of experiences along the way, rather than the overall/filtered impression after the fact. It feels a bit more "real".

twitter games

Put people together and sure enough they'll come up with new ways to amuse themselves given the at hand. Twitter games are a classic case. On my list, Molly is definitely the ringleader for Twitter games. I went to make a list and discovered it was Molly who had suggested all of the following:

Twitter games can be quite fun, although I have to admit it's hard to discuss the finer points of different operating systems using haiku.

twitter polls

Twitter Poll is just a term I use to describe a message along the lines of "should I do x?" or "what do you think about y?". Users regularly solicit thoughts and advice from other users. I've even seen quite effective technical support take place within minutes of someone grumbling that something was broken.

twitter news

Several flavours of BBC news (eg. are being Twittered thanks to one enterprising user, who used the Twitter API to crunch the Beeb's newsfeeds. No idea what the BBC thinks of it, if anything.

I'm not sure I would really want the news following me on Twitter... I wouldn't mind getting BOM weather alerts though!

what sucks about twitter

There are many things that show that Twitter is a new service that really needs some rough corners knocked off. I'll just cover a couple of them, since I'm not aiming for an exhaustive breakdown of its interface and design.

handling of connections

For a social network, Twitter is rather bad at handling friends requests. For a start, you can't import a list of friends - a problem which has already been discussed at length. So you're left trying to work out which of your friends is on Twitter, using which variant on their online identity... which just feels like work. Boring, repetitive work.

Once you do find people and start adding them, you discover some people have opted for a minor layer of privacy - so you have to wait for them to accept your request to add them to your Twitter friends list. If people notice your request and respond quickly, all is peachy. If they don't notice, it can go pear shaped.

The only alert that a request has been made is a text link on the web interface, so a user could literally never notice that someone has made a friends request. If they don't actively accept or reject a request, there's no way to know if they've been online or not - have they even seen your request?

So it can be quite easy for one user to appear to snub or ignore another user - intentionally or not. It can lead to a new variant on social networking anxiety.

direct messages

Direct messages are like really private tweets - short emails, essentially. They suffer the same problems as friends requests if they're sent while you are not receiving updates via mobile or chat. The web interface just tells you how many direct messages you've received, not how many are new or unread. You can't archive the old ones, so you just sort of have to remember the number you're up to. So you could easily miss a direct message - once again, social network anxiety fodder.

archive handling

Twitter's interface makes it quite hard to get a view of the the tweets posted since you last logged in. I guess the intention was that people would just jump back into the flow - or never leave it ;) But naturally enough people want to know what they missed, but can only find the last 24 hours. Which is silly really since everyone's entire history is stored.

teething problems?

It seems like the volume of SMS traffic generated by Twitter is causing some trouble in some parts of Australia.

what rocks about twitter

Twitter at its best is a little like a coffee shop full of friends. You can tune in and out, lurk, or start conversations. Because it's not actually IRC people know that you could be dropping past rather than actively watching. So you can check in a couple of times through the day or have a window sitting open all the time. It's your choice.

It also has to be acknowledged that Twitter really can go where you want it to - web, IM or mobile. That's really quite a broad reach. Since it uses SMS rather than WAP or wifi, even Aussies can use it from their mobiles (although beware of pocket posts).

Twitter is a nice, informal way to keep up with people - especially if you're not in regular email contact. Twitter's forces quick, easy messages - you can't get stuck writing a 1000 word email which never gets sent. This keeps it "light" - even a busy person can participate.

where's the money?

Sooner or later I think we'll see a business plan emerge. A few obvious ideas:

  • premium features requiring paid subscription
  • charging to receive updates via mobile
  • ads on the site
  • direct marketing (twitterspam)

In any case, someone must be paying the bills for all the text messages... sooner or later they'll want to see some return on investment. I'll be curious to see how/if Twitter is changed when that happens.

so what to make of it?

I think the tweet that most accurately sums up my experience so far was when I posted: blogs about twitter, twitters about blogging, then goes to bed. If you take it too seriously, you'll go nuts.

It's faster than email; slower than IRC (in a good way); doesn't demand immediate attention like IM and has a social/group aspect that SMS alone can't touch. It is quite odd, but I can't help thinking this is a sign of things to come. Communications channels that are flexible and quick, personal and tribal... it's approaching what I imagined when cyberpunk authors talked about personal comm units. In fact, more recent reading like Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe is a little freaky when I consider the disrupted circadian rhythms of certain Twits.

So what do you make of something like Twitter? Whatever you want to, really - at least for now. No doubt it will evolve as time goes on... it will be interesting to watch.