Twitter Part 2: Bringing order to chaos

TwitterLast time I covered getting started with Twitter, building your network of contacts and interacting with others. This time I’m going to discuss some ways to manage your Twitter subscriptions and discover tweets about topics you’re interested in.

The easiest way to use Twitter is to login to the website to read and post messages. The web interface provides a way to see replies, search for people and send and receive direct messages. This works fine for general use but you have to remember to check for new messages on a regular basis. It would be better if messages came to you, which is exactly what you can do with an SMS gateway.

This frree service, operated by Twitter themselves, lets you link a mobile phone number to your account and have messages sent directly to your phone by text message. You can choose to have only selected users’ messages sent by SMS, restrict the hours of the day messages are delivered and you can even send messages to Twitter by SMS. There’s a limit of 250 messages per week so if you follow more than a handful of people you’ll want to limit which users you’re subscribed to.

SMS isn’t the a perfect solution though – it can be quite intrusive and best reserved for people who you’re really interested in. Twitter used to allow you to connect your account to an Instant Messaging system such as Live Messenger or an XMPP-compatible service (which include Google Talk and our own go.talk). Unfortunately in the struggle to cope with growing numbers, Instant Messaging gateways have been turned off. Fear not, because there’s an even better way to work with Twitter!

TwhirlTwhirl is one of many applications designed specifically for managing your Twitter accounts. There are many such programs for different operating systems and even some more advanced mobile phones. Generally though, they plug into the Twitter API and offer access to most of the features available through the Twitter website and often many more.

The Twhirl window is a bit like a combination of the friend list and message windows from a normal IM program. New messages appear at the top and you can post messages. Username, hashtags and messages are hyperlinked to give you more information and offer access to functions without over cluttering the interface.

I mentioned hashtags, so what are they? Hashtags are keywords put into messages starting with a hash (#) and used to identify a topic for that message. The major drive behind the adoption of them was the Hashtags.org website which required you follow the hashtags user in order for your tweets to be shown on the website. It’s still worth doing this but there’s a better way of tracking hashtags which isn’t reliant on opting in.

Usage of the hashtag syntax is very common but certainly not universal. It’s useful for keeping track of certain topics and allowing your followers to pick out at an instant what it relates to. One of the most common uses is in conferences where the hashtag creates a way of finding other people twittering. At the Institutional Web Management Workshop the tag #iwmw2008 was used and in some ways this was more useful than the official live blog service. I’m going to come back to conferences next time as the use of Twitter in the Real World deserves more attention.

For someone new to Twitter, the idea of hashtags might seem a little odd – why wouldn’t you just search for the topic you’re interested in rather than relying on an obscure opt-in service? The search box at the top of the Twitter site would (mis-) lead you to think you could bang in some keywords and get back useful results! No? Of course not – the search system on the main site is next to useless!

Fortunately the clever people at Summize had the solution and have developed a real-time search engine for Twitter messages. This is really neat work (far more impressive than Twitter itself IMHO) – so neat in fact that last month Summize was bought by Twitter and integrated to become search.twitter.com. Twitter Search is fantastically easy to use yet very powerful.

At its most simple, put keywords in and it’ll give you results back but you can also use it to search for replies, hashtags, limited by date and much more. The service is really quick and it even has some Ajax goodness which tells you when there’s new results matching your search without having to keep reloading the page. Best of all, if you’re a feed-nut, you can subscribe to any query as an RSS feed so you’ll not miss a tweet!

Twitter Search is a great way of finding people or topics of interest and next time I’ll cover some real world ways to use it!

3 replies on “Twitter Part 2: Bringing order to chaos”

  1. I wonder how much Twitter’s outage of various subscription services is due to an increased user base, and how much it’s because it is being heavily used in ways that they didn’t really anticipate (i.e. higher levels of interaction, rather than pure numbers). Twirl itself must put a lot of pressure on the site, and that’s certainly not the only popular Twitter client.

    Obviously in an effort to focus on the positives, you’ve only briefly covered the sometimes extreme levels of downtime Twitter experiences. It can be incredibly frustrating for those of us which use it regularly, and confusing for new users too. Hopefully they’ll get through the Bad Times (TM) and deliver on the potential that microblogging has to offer.

  2. You’re absolutely right about the problems with Twitter’s downtime. I think the main issue is probably (although they won’t admit it) that their architecture is badly structured. Until recently they ran on a single master database which all write operations had to go through and only two slaves. Ruby on Rails, while not directly at fault, could also result in scaling issues if they’ve not implemented things correctly.

    Alternatives to Twitter do look promising technically but unless they can match the diversity of users, or allow interoperability, they won’t get my vote any time soon.

  3. Thinking about ‘serious’ applications for Twitter alonmgside the obvious bantering, ranting, link-sharing and horsing around…

    If your ‘followers’ include folks from your academic/professional community, Twitter can be a good way for getting quick opinions on things. For instance, this week I tweeted about QR codes and got some useful opinions (seconds before I bought 100 billboards with giant ones printed on them 🙂 )

    I also think certain kinds of research (academic, journalistic) can use twitter search to get a the sense of the realtime buzz about something as it happens. A shallow example: after watching Bath University’s TV show ‘Bonekickers’ I wanted to see what people thought of it – a Twitter serach gave me an amusing overview (90% appalled and amused, 10% loving it.) Try it: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=bonekickers

    (The same process could be used for something more worthwhile, specially if has a distinctive keyword.)

    BTW, on Twitter I’m Mister_Roy

Comments are closed.