On July 14, 2008 (my birthday!) I joined Twitter. I'd been hearing a lot about Twitter for a long time before that so I finally decided to join and see what this whole Twitter thing was all about. It's been over a year now and I wanted to give my thoughts about the whole experience.
Twitter is yet another one of those 'social media' web sites on the internet. However, it is quite different from the other sites, such as Facebook in that it is on the surface a very simple site. All you do on Twitter is post short, 140 character messages. These 140 character messages have become known as 'tweets'. You can then follow other people and read their own short messages. That's it. There's no games, there's no pictures, there's no nothing. It's just these little messages. It would seem that this very simple site would not be of much interest in people and it would die off rapidly. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Twitter has become incredibly popular. There are now many different ways to post messages to and read messages from Twitter. There is the Twitter website itself, there are lots of different applications for posting/reading messages for different operating systems (Linux, OS X, Windows etc). There are also a large number of iPhone applications that allow you to access Twitter.
Twitter to me is yet another example of how a very simple idea is started on the Internet and it just takes off and evolves in ways that no one, including the founders even expect. While Twitter itself has maintained it's simple structure, others have taken this structure and added on to it in clever ways to expand it's usefulness. A number of URL shortening services, such as bit.ly have been created so that people can post long URLs in the limited 140 character message size. Sites such as TwitPic have been created to allow the posting of pictures to Twitter.
What do I think the key to Twitter's success is, though? The iPhone. Why? Because of the iPhone's relatively large screen, it's portability, it's camera and it's always on connection to the Internet, it means people can post comments to Twitter from anywhere at any time. A number of well known news stories have announced first on Twitter. When that plane crash landed in the Hudsan River in New York a while back, the very first photo published of the plane was taken with an iPhone's camera and posted to Twitter. Earthquakes have been announced on Twitter. The death of Michael Jackson was announced on Twitter. I have an iPhone and as such, I too have instant access to Twitter. Probably 99.9% of the 'tweets' I've posted on Twitter have come from my iPhone. I use an iPhone app called Tweetie to access Twitter, though there are a number of other good Twitter clients for the iPhone, such as Twitterific, Twinkle etc. Each has it's pluses and minuses, so it's up to the user to decide which works best for you. I like Tweetie because it seems to be the most complete. It does darn near everything you can do on Twitter in one easy to use application. There is a new version of Tweetie (Tweetie 2) that will be coming out any day now. I'll be buying that when it is released.
Why do I like Twitter? The conversations. I started my use of Twitter by following a large collection of iPhone developers. I've been developing for the iPhone for while and I figured by 'eavesdropping' on the conversation of knowledgible developers, I could learn more about it. I've learned quite a bit since then about iPhones and other things I never even expected. I've gotten into political debates with people in the UK. I've discussed iPhone programming. I've discussed movies. I've discussed TV shows. It's all been interesting. I've found links to lots of interesting articles on the Internet. It's been an interesting experience. I noticed today, that in the last year or so I've been on Twitter, I've posted messages there over 1,000 times! That may seem like a lot, but it only works out to a couple a day. That means I'm a fairly light Twitter user. There are heavier users of Twitter who posted many times that number of messages. These conversations are also interesting in how direct they are. You are talking directly to the person (usually in 'public'). I've talked with the author's of books I've bought, I've talked with well known actors, I've talked with fellow programmers. It's an amazing thing. You name the celebrity, author, politician etc. and they are likely on Twitter.
It takes some time to get used to Twitter. One thing to remember though, is that in order to get something out of Twitter you have to put something in. You have to contribute. You have to post messages. Read people's messages. Reply to them. If someone asks a question and you know the answer, respond! If you have some information you think might be useful, post a message. You have to get involved with the conversation. If you are just sitting there quietly 'listening' and don't say anything, you won't see much use in it. I have to constantly remind myself to get involved in it. I do more reading then posting, but when I do post, I often get responses. The more you post, the more you respond to other's comments, the more response you will get and hence the more value you will derive from it.
Twitter is the main reason I've been so quiet on this blog lately. Before I joined Twitter, if I had something to say, I would blog it. Now, I just go on Twitter and post a quick comment about it. I have to admit though, that I miss posting to this blog. It's hard to get your point across in 140 characters on Twitter, but at the same time, because the messages are so short there, I can quickly fire off a comment. With the blog I have to sit here for a long period of time, typing out my thoughts, editing it for grammar, adding links to websites etc. The blog takes a lot more work.
Twitter has it's own 'language' that it tends to follow. Messages are called 'tweets'. Whenever you see someone on the Internet list a one word name following an '@' symbol, this is a reference to a user's Twitter handle. For example, if you see me mention @rekle, that is a reference to my Twitter user name of 'rekle'. The '@' symbol is used as a way of identifying a user. I assume that this '@' symbol style evolved from the similar email address style. If you see a word following a '#' symbol, such as '#iphone', this is a search tag. You can click on these tags to find other people who are talking about the same subject. You can search Twitter for messages in particular subjects. If you do this and you find an interesting person talking about a subject you like, you can start following them. Some Twitter clients, like Twinkle allow you to post messages with attached GPS coordinates. This lets you find people nearby that are interesting to you. I've always been a bit uncomfortable with posting my GPS coordinates on the Internet. People don't need to know exactly where I am at this moment. People don't need to know the exact location of my home or where I work, but if you don't have a problem with that, by all means, do so.
Some people may be bothered by the whole 'living your lives in public' that comes as a result of many social network sites, such as Twitter or Facebook. I certainly am one of those. I get around this by only publishing things that I wouldn't mind strangers knowing. I'll comment in public on books or movies I like. I'll help people with programming problems whenever I can. I'll pass on interesting news stories I read on the Internet. However, I do keep a lot of things private from Twitter and from this blog. I never mention my family and what they do online. If my family wants to talk about what they do, that's their business. I never mention my exact address online. People don't need to find me at my job. My family and friends can do that, not strangers. I never mention my salary, or the salaries of any members of my family. I never mention what bank I use. I never mention how much I have in the bank. Those are all private matters that the world at large don't need to know. Do I comment on ways to save money? Sure. Those are things that are useful to others. (See my previous blog). Do I comment on new technologies that I find interesting. Yes. Again these are things that I think others may find useful. This is not any way invading my privacy or my families privacy. I've talked in the past about friends I have who are homosexual. I have refrained from ever mentioning their names. Homosexuality is a very private subject and I certainly won't betray a friend's trust by 'outing' them in public without their permission. I have friends who are dealing with bankruptcy, marital problems, etc that I don't talk about. I won't betray their trust or friendship by 'outing' them on these things. I think I've found a good balance of 'public' and 'private' online.