Tuesday, 1 June 2010

An introduction to twitter

Everyone seems to be talking about twitter. Watch TV, listen to the radio or read the newspaper and people are going on about twitter. You've probably heard one of your friends or colleagues mention it. It's slightly annoying.

What's more, opening a twitter account doesn't really help to understand what you're supposed to do with it. At first it seems virtually pointless. In fact, I've not heard any description of twitter and its potential that hits the nail on the head. So, I thought I'd add my swing of the hammer and leave another dent somewhere around the nail.

I've been on twitter for quite a while now. I started because I wanted to see what it was. Ever so slowly, my use has increased and diversified. This isn't a guide to twitter, as such. Just Google 'twitter guide' and you'll get hundreds of results. Most of these will be written by people who know much more about twitter than me. This blog is just my use, experience and how I see it.

I’ll admit it now, I love twitter. It’s a staggeringly simple and mind-blowingly effective form of communication. But I didn’t start off feeling like that. Anyway, here goes...

Google 'twitter' and the top result reads, "Twitter is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now." This is an excellent description – but it took me ages to understand why. I'm only just learning how to get something of value out of it.

It has helped me to think of twitter as having levels of involvement.

Level one - A public place to post little notices

This is the beginner level and the one I've spent most time using – but sticking to level one kind of misses the point. The little notices, or 'tweets', are restricted to just 140 characters. This may or may not sound like much but it's an important characteristic of twitter. It keeps things brief and there's a skill in getting your point across in such a small space. In fact, it's amazing what you can convey in just a sentence or two.

Another key characteristic of twitter is the ability to tweet from just about anywhere. If you have a mobile phone (and a signal), you can tweet by text/SMS. I've tweeted on the train, on the top of mountains, in airports, in pubs and restaurants and just about everywhere else. For example, while on holiday, you could send the following text from your mobile/cellphone:

Camping by the Dordogne. The weather is great but my French is terrible. Off to Bordeaux tomorrow.”

Once sent, it's automatically published online. This kind of tweet is a little like a postcard. I've been on a few holidays and told friends and family to keep an eye on twitter if they want to know what and where I'm up to. This in itself is a very useful tool – it's not revolutionary, but it's kinda cool.

During a recent holiday, the Icelandic volcano caused some uncertainty about when I'd get home. With twitter, I was able to post instant messages by text/SMS and everyone (family, friends, work etc) could read what was happening.

Level one is a fairly one dimensional use of twitter. It's just a message service from you to your twitter page. Readers don't even need to be signed up to twitter themselves. Your tweets appear on a public webpage called something like twitter.com/yourname. This is a webpage that anyone can view as it's public and on the Internet.

Level one can be enhanced with picture upload services like twitpic.com. There are dozens of photo service providers that integrate with twitter but, for something like a holiday scenario already given, it's great to post images from your trip. I took a photo of the Icelandic volcano from the plane and uploaded it the next day. For some of the people following my tweets, this may have been their first glimpse of a pretty big news story (you can see it here).

Level two - Listening to other people

As well as posting your own messages, you can read what other people are saying and doing. This is called 'following' and these people can be friends, colleagues, journalists, news services, political parties, authors, pop stars, actors or anyone you can imagine.

When you sign in to your twitter account, your home page is populated by the tweets of the people you're following. They appear in a list orgnanised in chronological order (the most recent at the top). You'll also see your own tweets here and there, depending on how often you tweet. This is where twitter becomes something much more than the one-way street of level one.

Hopefully, the people you have chosen to follow are interesting to you for some reason. Maybe you've opted to follow BBC News on twitter - this is where all the latest news will be posted (usually much faster than traditional news media). You may also be following your favourite comedian - with any luck, their tweets will be amusing and may even give you exclusive news about TV shows or tour dates.

Once you're following a good selection of people (and variety really is the spice of twitter life), you are actually tailoring a constant flow of information that suits you. Your account is unique to you and your interests. Just take a second to absorb that - there are millions of twitter users, every one is sharing information with each other, yet no two accounts are the same.

This ability to only get the information you're interested in is another key feature of twitter. And as you are part of a global community, the chances are their will be others who share your interest. For example, you can post a tweet that says, "at home watching the football". This may be followed by your friend who says, "at the match, great atmosphere but freezing in the stadium". Then, a footballer you are following (let’s call him Fabio) might tweet "on the bench today, not happy"'. Your favourite football journalist may also tweet, "Rumours abound about Fabio’s transfer to United".

Even in the football example above, you can see how twitter can add depth and insight into any given situation. It has taken us beyond the one way communication of level one and makes twitter a two way communication channel – you send updates out, and you can get other people's in. But this is only half the twitter story...

Level three - a source of news and information

The original intention behind BBC television was to inform, educate and entertain. You wouldn't think that little messages of no more than 140 characters could do all these things, but they can. Twitter is a great word to describe the virtual sound of millions of people commenting about everything and anything. It's an instant and global conversation. Much of this noise is nonsense, but a lot of it is about stuff (issues, events, emergencies).

You can search at any time for any word or phrase interests you. This is fine but it can throw up anomalies so twitter uses something called the hashtag. This simple punctuation turns a word or a phrase into a recognised topic.

For example, the TV series 'Lost' came to an end recently. For me, Lost is right up there alongside Saddam's WMDs as the world's biggest wastes of time. However, millions of people were talking and twittering about it.

To find out what they were saying, you could search for the word 'lost' However, the results would display every tweet containing the word lost - "England just lost the match", for example. If you search for '#lost', there's much greater chance that the search results will be more relevant. A hashtag turns a word in to a topic so that everyone knows what's being talked about.

Think of it as joining your friends halfway through a conversation. A hashtag helps you see what the conversation is about with every comment. What's more you don't need to wait for a gap to join in. Just add the hashtag to your message and you're in.

The second great thing about topic searching is that you can peek into the world of twitterers. Search results bring up all tweets about a topic, whether you are following the authors or not. This gives you access to a world of views, opinions and comments. Some of these are nonsense, some are extreme, some may even be offensive, but others are clever, witty, concise and intelligent.

The 2010 UK general election was a great example of a twitter-enhanced news event. I was able to search for all kinds of related words and terms. The results provided an informative and entertaining source of information. They were also a great gauge of public opinion.

Twitter also monitors what people are talking about. On the right hand side of your twitter page, you'll see a list of 'trending topics'. These are simply the most popular topics or talking points at any given moment. These can be tailored to your country or location. During the time of the election, the UK’s most popular and trending topics where election related. Once or twice, I joined in the conversation simply by adding a relevant hashtag. It’s that easy to take part. The trending topics are a great way to find out what's happening and what's being talked about right now.

I haven’t really given enough emphasis to something called the retweet. The retweet is a bit like a grapevine or Chinese whispers. It’s where someone tweets something you like, maybe something funny or interesting and you simply repeat this as one of your tweets. It’s still credited to the person who wrote it but a retweet is like saying, “hey, I thought you might be interested in this…”

The retweet is important to twitter’s success as it gives a viral element to information. News or events can be posted to a handful of people, but with just a few retweets, it can be around the world in minutes.

Twitter has become a great tool of the people. I've already referenced the BBC's principle's to inform, educate and entertain. There's a similar phrase I used to hear in the 1980s, usually from slightly more subversive political groups – agitate, educate and organise. Twitter can do these things too.

In the 2009 Iranian general election, social networks were used by demonstrators to organise and mobilise. Because twitter can be written and read, created and consumed via mobile phones, it proves itself to be one of the most effective mass communication channels we may ever have known.

Level four - A new community

This is a tricky level to write about because I don’t really know much about it. It seems to be for advanced users who are in constant touch with their twitter accounts. However, the other day, I had my first personal experience of it.

Once you’ve created your own network (of people you are following and people who are following you), you form something that resembles a community. This sounds a bit corny but let me explain.

I read one account of a person who lost his wallet in New York and couldn’t get home. He had his phone and tweeted something like:

"Stuck on the corner of 1st and 14th street. Lost my wallet. Looks like I’m walking home."

Before long, his followers had seen his message and started retweeting. So followers of followers were seeing the message. Before long, he started getting responses from twitterers with offers of money, bus passes and subway tickets. A little after that, a friend of a friend of a friend turned up in a taxi.

Hey, are you the twitter guy?”
Lost your wallet?”
Jump in”

The experience I had the other day was similar. In preparation for a meeting, I'd loaded a new selection of MP3s on my player. However, I ended up running late and grabbed my stuff in a hurry. When on the train, I realised I’d forgotten my earphones. In my frustration, I tweeted:

"Bugger. Put lots of music on my phone but forgot my earphones. What an idiot."

Within minutes, I got a message to say:

"If you’re on a Virgin train, the first class carriages sell earphones (£2, I think)"

As it happened, I didn’t need the earphones but this little tip could’ve made all the difference between a bearable or boring journey. I’d tweeted about my problem and twitter came back, directly to me, with a relevant answer. And that was pretty cool.

So, these are the four levels of twitter as I've come to understand them. There may be several other levels but I don't know anything about them yet. If you know of more, I'd love to hear about them. Or maybe the multi-level model isn't a helpful way of getting the most out of twitter? You tell me.

I now tweet several times a day. It’s almost as important as email and certainly more interesting (than my email account, anyway). Don’t listen to the people who criticise twitter for the sake of it. Twitter has its drawbacks but I’ve heard and read a lot of ignorant criticism.

Twitter is as adult and mature and serious as any format. It can be high brow and low brow. If you give it a go and don’t like it, fair enough. For me, it’s a source of news and information, it’s self-expression, it’s person to person and mass communication all in one. For now, or until something better emerges, I love it.

Give it a go...


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