After Hours optimize

10 things I've learned about Twitter as a late adopter

Twitter is closing in on its seventh birthday, but some people remain skeptical about its value and usefulness.

Twitter started in the summer of 2006 -- eons ago in tech time -- but I've been ignoring it until recently. I'll spare you my excuses/reasons/justifications. I could say that novel technologies need time to find their niche; people need time to learn their good and bad points. The real answer is probably sloth. Now that Twitter is a well-established technology used by millions, I'm attempting to answer (for myself at least) two questions: "What is it, exactly?" and "What is it good for?" If you've been similarly slow to jump on the Twitter bandwagon -- or you struggle to come up with any reason why you should -- you may have asked those questions yourself.

So far, here's what I've learned.

1: Twitter is not a PC function ported to the cell phone -- it's the reverse

We're used to seeing computers applied to devices like cars, TVs, microwaves, and phones, with the aim of improving their functionality or performance, but in the case of Twitter the direction is reversed. It's not the computerization of the cell phone (that would be the smartphone) but a "cell phoning" of the PC, which brings the existing world of cell phone interactions to the computer. As a result, Twitter gets some of its characteristics from cell phones and some from personal computers.

2: Like the cell phone, Twitter is designed to be "always on"

The mobility and simplicity of cell phones make tweeting very convenient, which leads to Twitter being always on -- worldwide, and up all night. The old metaphor for the Web of "drinking from a fire hose" is far more appropriate here. Although the Web may be overwhelming at times, it changes relatively slowly. Twitter is constantly updating in real time, a thousand conversations happening at once. The flow is rapid and relentless.

3: Welcome to the party... here's your blindfold

Twitter is like an everlasting cocktail party... in a Very Big Room. However, like a phone conversation, Twitter lacks any real-time visual or spatial cues. In a physical room, people are distributed in space --near or far from you, more or less audible, visibly grouped or alone. You can see when people are talking together, flirting, arguing, or looking bored. You can see how individuals are dressed and how they behave, and you can use that information to decide whether to talk to them. On Twitter, though, people at the party are reduced to voices and hidden from view. You can't even tell when they enter or leave. It's like a telephone party line, but with some aspects of a PC chat room.

4: "I can't see you, but I can follow you" (or organized eavesdropping)

Twitter includes a couple of methods to compensate for the absence of a spatial dimension. User-created hashtags organize discussions by topic -- although there's no central list of topics, few hashtags are ever defined, and no attempt is made to avoid duplication or crossover between them. The web of "following" relationships also helps, showing you who thinks who is interesting... although not why, or how much. Following is also lopsided. I'm interested in you, but you (initially at least) don't even know me. It's less like a conversation, more like organized eavesdropping.

5: Twitter is public and on the record

It can be tempting to take the rapid back-and-forth of a Twitter exchange as a normal, casual conversation, but it's not. Face-to-face or telephone interactions are ephemeral. Whatever is done or said quickly vanishes, except in the memories of the participants -- which are neither perfect nor public.

Twitter (inheriting from the PC) is a written record, kept indefinitely, available to anyone who's interested. In fact, it's promptly broadcast and, like any broadcast medium, there's no audience control. When you tweet, you don't get to select who reads you. That combination of recording and broadcasting provides numerous opportunities to get embarrassed by something you said. Twitter encourages you to respond quickly, never forgets what you said, and happily passes it along to friends and enemies alike. Painless tweeting can be tricky.

6: Twitter is particularly vulnerable to entropy -- e.g., cryptic URLs

Entropy has been described as the loss of information, and entropy rules on Twitter. There's just not much room to express yourself, so everything gets squeezed. The 140-character message limit (a function of current cell phone technology) means that a standard URL eats up a lot of space -- hence the use of URL shorteners. Unfortunately, there's nothing in the shortened version to indicate the Web site or Web page you're going to. Clicking a link in Twitter might take you to a New York Times article... or it might not. Information that was in the URL has vanished. It's not irretrievable, though. If you're willing to step outside Twitter, there are a number of "unshortening" options, such as Unshorten.It, a Web site and browser add-on.

7: Much of the conversation on Twitter is just pointers

That 140-character limit makes conversation difficult unless the context is mutually understood, and that leads to an abundance of links. Links connect you to Web pages, pictures, or video intended to provide the context. It's as if everyone at the party were limited to talking about something outside -- "Hey, look at that!" "Oh, look at that!" Much of Twitter is just incomprehensible unless you follow those mystery links to see what people are talking about. In a sense, Twitter's less a conversation than a search engine, continually generating a list of links to what someone thinks is interesting or important.

8: Twitter is good for getting timely information to a specific interest group

The other way of dealing with Twitter's message length is to rely on shared context, as between close friends or a group with shared interests. Less needs to be said; more can be assumed. It doesn't always work, though. If the problem is too small to cause a stir on Twitter, you're out of luck. On the other hand, if the entire West Coast is having connection problems, any helpful information tends to be drowned out by repeated inquiries, irrelevant information, and complaints. When everybody at the party is talking about the same thing at the same time, it's pretty hard to make sense of it even if you do know the topic.

9: Did I mention lack of context?

It's hard to provide context on Twitter. Visual and spatial cues are missing; Web sites, pictures, and videos pull you out of the conversation; and verbal context is limited to 140 characters. It takes time and effort to provide context, whereas Twitter's speed encourages a quick response. And lack of context is a serious problem -- it leads to misunderstanding, confusion, and the temptation to click on something else instead.

On October 6, 2012, I noticed that #tomastranstromer was near the top of the trends list, and I wondered what it was about. Many of the tweets in that category were not in English, which didn't help. Others seemed to be about writing, and a fair number were references to Transformers (the movie was just out at the time). Nowhere did I see, "Swedish writer Tomas Transtromer has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature." I had to go to a Web site to learn that. Admittedly, if I had been watching Twitter at the moment the award was announced, I would probably have seen that context. But if you come in late to the conversation -- a few hours is sufficient -- the context can be hard to uncover. Even major news gets swept away by the current. The "Invisible Children" video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, which accumulated 85 million hits on YouTube, stayed in the Top Ten trends for only three days. It was headed into Twitter oblivion before most of the Unplugged had heard about it.

To its credit, Twitter recognized the context problem, and its "#discover" mode now provides internal context -- the trail of tweets, responses, and retweets that led up to the tweet you're looking at. External context, though, is still often missing.

10: Timing is everything

If Twitter has one thing going for it, it's timeliness. But that timeliness puts a burden on the user, in reading and in tweeting. It's important to tweet at the right time of day, assuming you want to reach the largest audience. Tweeting at noon Eastern (4 PM GMT) works for the Americas, Europe, Africa, and India, but people in China, Japan, and Australasia are probably asleep.  A tweet at 8 PM Eastern (12 AM GMT) is good for them, but not Europe. Frequency is also important. According to experts, if you want to be a presence on Twitter, your "tweets per day" ratio should be at least 10. My own ratio is less than one. I wonder if there's any place on Twitter for the fractional tweeter?

TechRepublic's 2011 list 100+ geeks to follow on Twitter has Stephen Hawking as #1. He's clearly interesting, but following him is not like following other people on that list. Stephen Hawking has made a grand total of 43 tweets -- and none since January 2010. And yet despite being another fractional tweeter, he has well over 166,000 followers, more than 3,000 per tweet. Perhaps all is not lost for the Twitter user who doesn't keep up.

Upsides, downsides

Twitter is sui generis, unique, a hybrid of cell phone and PC technology. Like all technologies, it has its good and bad aspects. On the upside, there's no faster way to find out about things happening now. It's also a useful cross-network white pages directory... and it's a terrific distraction. On the downside, you have little audience control, the information is disjointed and lacks context (less so in #discover mode), and topics roll by at an alarming speed. Timeliness may not always be a virtue. Not everything that is new is important; not everything that is important is new. Some things benefit from time to research or time to consider.

I'll keep going back to Twitter, though. There's nothing else quite like it, even if so far I'm just a wallflower at the party. Feel free to give me a clue, if I don't seem to have one. You can find me on Twitter, @GGSloth.

Your take

Are you pro-Twitter or anti-Twitter? Join the discussion below and share your opinions with fellow TechRepublic members.

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35 comments
Henriquez
Henriquez

Actually, if you send a tweet at noon and again at 8 PM, Twitter will block the second one, apparently considering it spam. You'll need to alter the second one -- even a small change will do. Jaime

pgit
pgit

Pundits and pollsters submit that people tend to gravitate toward content that 'agrees' with their general world view. There's concern that search engine optimization is actually atomizing people, by filtering out 'opposing' content we find ourselves in a bubble of agreeable content. Countervailing data is not presented, much needed public discourse is stifled. Among your political tweeters do you follow any with whom you vehemently disagree? Would you continue reading content that makes your blood boil? I admit I do not. I consider certain socio-political positions to be born of ignorance, and no amount of righteous ranting will move me off that opinion. Certain assertions do nothing but pi$$ me off big time. If I'm tempted to reply I'd probably drop a nasty ad hominem first thing, which does neither of us any good. I first disciplined myself to NOT reply with any heat, but then I realized the other person is just like me; they think I'm the ignorant, self serving jerk and nothing I say will move them off that opinion. I don't bother with such 'debates' any more... complete waste of time and blood pressure meds. But you say you're politically hooked up... so, do you follow the opposition? BTW good observation about the "off the cuff" tweets. You can get some insights from twitter that you won't find elsewhere.

Alzie
Alzie

It is all about being selective. Don't follow everybody, follow the people who say things that interest you. I follow a number of people involved in Canadian politics. I have a number of journalists that I follow, they live Tweet proceedings from the Parliament in Canada. I also follow a number of politicians from the various Parties to try and get a feel for what really is going on rather than the sound bites that I get from the media, but I also get a good links to stories that I would have otherwise missed because they are reported regionally. Likewise with Facebook. My news feed is full of people winning things on the games which I ignore and I get a number of fringe stories about politics. I do have a number of groups that I visit more than my news feed to find out what people in various regions think about what is going on here in Canada. That is me, your interests would obviously be different. There are groups on Facebook or people to follow who would be of interest to you, but you have to sort the chaff from the quality. If you don;t want to be bothered, don't do it. For those of us who do use social media, we really don't care if you think it is a waste of time because for us it is not. Our Prime Minister appears to have his media corp handling his Twitter account, but a number of politicians here do their own Tweeting. It is sometimes interesting when they Tweet off the cuff.

eaglewolf
eaglewolf

Let me rephrase that: Much of the conversation on Twitter is just pointless. What I hate is the growing number of media outlets and programs that scroll senseless tweets across the screen during programming. a. distraction b. stating the obvious c. stating the obvious in such a way as to insure their tweet will be on tv - wow The second most pointless waste of time behind Facebook.

sdmcnitt
sdmcnitt

I still don't get Twitter. Maybe I just don't want to drink from that firehose of semi-useless info. But the idea of examining the trending of all that useless infomation is interesting. If you think of it all as one big hive mentality it is interesting. The big data angle is interesting. Unfortunately, nothing I say is very interesting (including this). I wonder how many Tweeters will understand the reference above to a "party line" in the comparison of Twitter to that old technology in telecommunications. "Dude, a party line sounds awesome!"

pgit
pgit

And a time saver. I follow a bunch of people on twitter who are themselves doing research and digging into areas of information I am interested in. (or rely on for my work) Basically twitter lets me use their time, their labor. I get the goodies (in the form of links) without having done any of the legwork myself. One key distinction I don't see being made is that there is a set of users who are net contributors to the 'twittersphere' and another set that take, but don't give. I'm clearly among the latter.

JJFitz
JJFitz

I have a personal account on twitter but I rarely tweet. I mostly follow my favorite writers to see what they are working on or have released. I also follow some of the writers' followers. I mostly use a company Twitter account I created. I use this account to send out official company announcements such as: "non-essential employees should stay home due to inclement weather (etc.)..." "open enrollment for health insurance begins on..." "seminar on ... in room ... today at ... Open to all" "change in production schedule..." I often include a link to our website or say "check your email or our intranet" for more details. This has been an effective way to keep in touch with staff - particularly younger staff. I have noticed that younger people much prefer text messages over emails so to make sure that they do not miss important announcements, I send a shortened version on Twitter. Note: I found one significant error in the author's post. The author says that, "When you tweet, you dont get to select who reads you.". That is not necessarily true. When you set up "Tweet privacy" on your account only those you approve will receive your Tweets and your followers cannot retweet what you have posted. Users (staff members) have to send a request to follow and I can remove followers (former employees) at any time.

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

The first thing I tell people when they're asking why they should bother with Twitter is that "If you're not sure what to do with it, you probably shouldn't be worrying about it." In other words, if you don't care enough to dig in and answer the question for yourself, then someone else won't really be able to make a case for it for you. But this really applies mainly to people who already know how to find that answer. You know who you are. For those who really don't get it but want to understand, I compare it to having your own billboard along the busiest highway in the world. What would you share to the people driving by? That's the simplest way to envision it. Your tweets are visible to everyone. Your followers are the people who make it a point to look at your billboard. That covers the broadcast portion of it. (Incidentally, it doesn't matter if each of your tweets is "meaningful"; unless you're trying to not have a personality, you can have some fun or share everyday experiences.) In terms of "receiving", it's actually even simpler. Take a little time to ID sources that you find interesting. You might start with local news and businesses that you're interested in. I think Twitter still can show you other users that are geographically close...take a look at those feeds. Search for your interests (I've found several people to follow from the UK just by watching the #F1 tweets on race weekends; it's now almost a pen-pal thing). Follow media personalities that you find interesting; this might mean musicians, actors, politicians, whatever. There are great content generators out there, but you DO have to take an interest in exploring, following, and expanding your following list. It's not just handed to you.

david.tredinnick
david.tredinnick

All the users have the same quality - they have an inflated sense of worth of the things they have to say - just like me posting here ;)

lskong
lskong

there must be better things to do than stripping in public

TSbegin
TSbegin

TWEntyten, at least ,

mikef12
mikef12

If you follow Santargh, you will be alerted when Slime Beasts Need Love is on a Freebee Promo! And when on sale for $.99. Guitar players save world from maniacal mutated lust! Unhealthy for over 30 age group.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I've created an account on at least four different occasions, and closed each after varying degrees of time. I too have the 'drinking from a firehose' problem. With those posters I've tried to follow, I run into the 'signal to noise ratio' problem. And as Jaime noted, just because it's immediate doesn't mean it's important. So you don't learn who your team drafted for a couple of days; the guy won't be in the starting lineup for months anyway. I tried it again last summer or so. It's too soon for me to bother again (assuming it hasn't been blocked here at work in the meantime).

mdbizzarri
mdbizzarri

I have had a twitter account, and have had many people try to explain how good it is/can be. I do "follow" several business' and such, but have yet to get anything that makes my life better. I see this program as inviting needless noise into life to distract people from much more important things, like their job. One big irratant for me is how the # symbol use be called "number", then "pound sign" and now they call it "hash tag". Even my voicemail tells me to enter my password then press "pound".

shiny_topadm
shiny_topadm

and I've yet to find a good explanation (or at least not one compelling enough) for what I'm missing. Perhaps it is somewhat related to the observation of my children and all of their friends, who seem incapable of in-person interaction. I also don't blog. I have been using and administering computer, internet, cell phone type technologies since they were all new and the whole concept around "twitter" is lost on me.

JJFitz
JJFitz

Why do so many people feel compelled to take pictures of their food?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"What I hate is the growing number of media outlets and programs that scroll senseless tweets across the screen during programming." I think I've figured this out. It's to attract those potential viewers who will get a cheap thrill out of seeing their post on the idjit box. The same motivation drove the old locally-produced kiddie shows with a 'Peanut Gallery': draw viewers who get a cheap thrill out of seeing friends on TV.

kwickset
kwickset

a very sound reason to use Twitter. Not a user myself, but you gave my cause to think about it.

Henriquez
Henriquez

Your correction is much appreciated. Thank you. It's good to know there are ways to limit the broadcasting. Jaime

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

Neither of those descriptions fit me either. I don't think that what I had for breakfast is that important (event to me!) and if you 'tweet' only what you think is important, you'll be buried by the sheer volume

Henriquez
Henriquez

Good point. I wasn't considering just how much Twitter data there must be. Apparently, they make only a limited amount searchable, although that doesn't mean they don't have an archive of everything somewhere. Also, there are third parties who have much of it and make it searchable, including one that surprised me -- the Library of Congress. http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/07/tech/social-media/library-congress-twitter I'm not quite sure what I think about that. Jaime Henriquez

Henriquez
Henriquez

Great comment, piqued my curiosity. In England "pound" would be confused with the currency, Pounds Sterling, so they call it "hash." The hash tag is so-called, I imagine, because it starts with a hash. There is a gloriously complete article about this on Wikipedia -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_sign. "Octothorp"? Sounds like part of an undersea jug band. Jaime Henriquez

JJFitz
JJFitz

I was on a local TV show in Boston back in the late 60's. It was called The Major Mud Show. Major Mud was supposed to be an astronaut and we were in a rocket. Say all you want about Miss. Jean on Romper Room or Rex Trailer on the Rex Trailer Show but nobody messes with Major Mud. He was an astronaut! I played a game and won a Wheelo on one of the shows. Everybody got lots of sugary goodness prizes too. Sugared cereal, milk duds, and sugar daddys. mmmmm

pgit
pgit

It's getting easier to follow the good stuff, lots of folks add the twitter button to their sites. I always manually 'follow' new feeds for a few weeks before I actually follow them. I bookmark them in a "twitter" folder on my bookmarks bar and drop by from time to time to check 'em out. Another 'trick' to twitter is you may not realize where the valuable information is coming from. For eg I am following a few self-described "anonymous" hactivist types because they occasionally link great info about security, international privacy considerations and even some news you don't find in the mainstream media. I don't use facebook or any 'social media' crap, for all the reasons anyone opposes such things. If you'd asked me as recently as 2 years ago I'd have lumped twitter into the mix. But nowadays I spend about a cumulative half hour a day checking on the feeds. Certainly not a waste of time in and of itself. I just have to avoid the temptation to click on links to frivolous stuff and stick to the work related content.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I think during the next round of budget negotiations, funding for the LoC to archive Twitter should be the first thing to go.

JJFitz
JJFitz

I heard a commercial for a sitcom that summed it up quite nicely. Twitter is for idiots and Instagram is for idiots who can't write. You might find Google+ worth joining - especially if you already have a gmail account. Many of the TechRepublic and ZDNet bloggers and frequent posters (like us) also post on Google+. It's not as noisy and intrusive as FaceBook. Privacy is easier to control than FB and you can easily decide what you want to read and who you want to direct your posts to. If you encounter someone who is annoying or offensive, you can mute them and / or permanently block them without having to avoid the other posters on the subject.

pgit
pgit

I hear ya about the cringing, and something about the performance being on TV apparently removes a lot of the natural inhibition, creating extra cringe factor. The kids (my peers) I remember seeing had no shame over their near total lack of talent. The same would never 'perform' for you in public if you asked them, but on TV it's no holds barred. ...tap dancers. I'd forgotten about that. I still can't comprehend what the attraction is, unless it's just a bit part among some real dancing. You folks in Boston are lucky to have a piece of honest to goodness Americana there, right up there with apple pie and mother. Hold on to it as long as you can.

JJFitz
JJFitz

It has been on the air since 1950 - way before American Idol and America's Got Talent. It's the cheesiest low budget show ever. musicians, singers, tap dancers, comedians, ventriloquists, etc.. Most of it would make me cringe for the performers. One can only stand to hear "My Way" and "Tomorrow" (from Annie) so many times before one gets nauseous.

pgit
pgit

Wow, what a great memory to have. And in Boston, no less, a major market. I lived in Rochester New York during that era, our local 'talent' show was "showboat," with some riverboat captain character that was decidedly creepy. (the kind that would have to register with the authorities every time he changed address, if you get my drift...) One cool thing about the show was local kids would perform with whatever instrument they were studying in school. The girls with violins were always a hoot. Did your show have kids playing their band instruments on air? Imagine trying to do anything remotely resembling that today... they'd be reaching for the censor button constantly, for one thing.

Henriquez
Henriquez

Especially, for me, the tip about "following" by bookmark first. Nice. Jaime