Twitter goes mainstream?

Was this the moment Twitter went mainstream?

When Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross start discussing niche social networks on primetime television then you know something is about to change. In what seems like a matter of days, Twitter has gone from the playground of geeks and social media nuts to the place to be seen for the famous and their stalkers alike.

Of course we’ve been plugging Twitter for ages – my first tweet was way back in May 2007:

I’m also at work.

Inspired isn’t it? I hadn’t worked out @replies but was talking to the only other person I followed at the time, Alison Wildish (formerly of this parish).

In the last series of posts about Twitter I covered a few of the ways I’d found it useful – things like networking with colleagues and contacts, crowd sourcing help and engaging with the back channel at conferences but since then I’ve found some of the ways I use Twitter have changed – I’ve gone beyond my own network.

My network of friends and followers on Twitter grew pretty organically over the last year but recently I’ve been less constrained by it. I didn’t realise it at the time, but one of the first examples of this was the US presidential election. Twitter added a special election site which allowed you to track tweeks about the candidates. On election night, I was watching TV, browsing the web, and keeping an eye on Twitter too. So was the BBC – the first time I’d heard it mentioned by them outside a technology programme.

When watching TV, I now find I often do a Twitter Search for the programme name to see what other people think of it – often with surprisingly differing opinions! [And anyone who says things like iPlayer will be the death of live TV is lying – there will always be a place for shared experiences].

Most recently, I’ve noticed a few Twitter phenomenon that have swept the nation:

  • #uksnow – reinforcing the world’s stereotype that British are obsessed with the weather, the #uksnow hashtag beat the Superbowl to become one of the hottest topics on Twitter.
  • Twestival – this Thursday, 12th February in over 150 cities around the world, Twitter Communities will come together to raise money for Charity:Water. The Liverpool one is being organised by Edge Hill’s very own Mandy Phillips and other people you might know will also be in attendence (but unfortunately not me – I’ll be a couple of hours into a very long drive up to the Scottish Highlands).
  • Celebrities – Fry, Ross, Philip Schofield, a gaggle of comedians and growing by the day. Chris Moyles gained over 38,000 followers in just five days.

Does this all add up to Twitter now being “mainstream”? For me, not yet, but it’s moving that way. Celebrity Twitterers are bringing in large numbers of new users, and while some may simply be using it to cut out Heat Magazine and get gossip direct from the source, others do seem to be engaging.

With a growing user base, perhaps it’s time to look again at how Edge Hill can make use of Twitter and if there’s things we can learn from other universities, or even celebrities. But that will have to wait until next time!

Twitter Part 3: Into the real world

TwitterAfter a short break from blogging while we finished off the redesigned website I’m back with the third and probably final part of my guide to Twitter.

It’s a fast moving world and since the last post, Twitter have stopped delivery of SMS to UK mobiles:

Let’s start with the bad news. Beginning today, Twitter is no longer delivering outbound SMS over our UK number. If you have been receiving SMS updates from Twitter via +44 762 480 1423, you’ll notice that they’ve stopped and you may want to explore some of the alternatives we’re suggesting.

Despite the title of the post, there is no good news for UK users! You can still send updates by SMS, which is quite useful for those “oh my God, I just saw a monkey run down the street” moments, but no longer can you make it seem like you’ve got friends by activating a stream of messages to your phone.

They suggest some alternatives which all rely on having data on your phone that’s not over priced – maybe it’s time to look into an iPhone after all! There’s also been a flurry of announcements from third parties who are readying to launch services to deliver tweets by SMS. These services appear to be around the 7p per message mark which IMHO is too expensive – I know first hand how much texts cost in bulk and this is a significant markup!

There’s a variety of other issues around this – these services will probably require you hand over your username and password which should be a practice that’s discouraged and Twitter don’t have any way of grouping or categorising your contacts. If I was going to pay to receive notifications I’d want more control over how many messages I receive from which people including the ability to differentiate between direct messages, @-messages and “noise”.

Anyway, back to the point of this post – how Twitter can impact on the real world. I’m going to cover a few examples of how Twitter has gone beyond virtual interactions.

Engaging with your community

One of the first things that brought home to me that services like Twitter have real uses was unrequested support from my ISP, PlusNet. I tweeted about some trouble I was having with my connection and within a few hours someone responded saying they were following up my problem. And I’m not the only one who’s found this:

Many other companies actively search for references to their products and services on Twitter as well as more generally online. Done well, it can be very good PR as well as improving the experience of users – everyone can see that you’re actively trying to solve problems.

Asking for help

Once you’ve built up a bit of a following, it’s time to start using them! Asking questions or inviting feedback about ideas can give you very quick results. It can also be a good way to expand your network – followers of followers will see the @-replies and maybe if it’s interesting will follow up the original question.

Conferences

One of the best uses of twitter I’ve found is acting as a supplementary back-channel for conferences. Either live blogging the event or just making contact with other participants, Twitter can connect people online in a physical location. At IWMW a significant number of people were Twittering – you can see the full list of posts referencing #iwmw2008 or @iwmw2008 through search.twitter.com.

I’d planned to write a bit more on the topic but I’ve broken the golden rule of blogging:

Never leave a post in draft for more than 48 hours

One final thing I will add is a note about sustainability. There’s a lot of questions about the reliability of Twitter (the feared “fail whale”), users outside US/Canada/India have complained about the switch off of SMS, and it’s a relatively closed system. So many people suggest alternatives – Jaiku (now owned by Google), identi.ca which claims to be an open, decentralised system and a variety of “life straming” services which build on the simple microblogging offered by Twitter but all have one key thing missing – people. No other services can match the range of contacts that can be found there and that’s what makes it so appealing.

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!

Twitter Part 1: What are you doing?

I’ve been threatening promising to blog again about Twitter. I’ve posted before introducing Twitter so this time I’ll go into a bit more detail about some uses that maybe aren’t immediately apparent.

When I was writing this I thought I’ll ask my followers for a bit of help:

Drafting a blog post about Twitter for @edgehill Web Services blog. Can anyone suggest good “getting started” pages to link to?

Within minutes a few suggestions came in to show Twitter in Plain English by Common Craft:

I included this last time I blogged about Twitter but it shows really clearly how to get started – just sign up, search for a few people, start “following” them and answer the question “What are you doing?”

Another suggestion led me to a great series of posts over on Search Engine Guide by Jennifer Laycock titled From Twits to Tweeple, Why I Embraced Twitter and You Should Too which introduces Twitter and is much more instructional than I’m going to be so check that out as well.

Here’s my thoughts on getting started with Twitter:

Dive right in. I think it’s important to start tweeting right away. You could try to grow your network first, “lurking” while you get to know people, but as ProBlogger Darren Rowse puts it:

Your Tweets are your best advertisement for people to follow you – if you don’t have any (or many) what reason do people have to follow you?

Follow the leader. When you first sign up for Twitter, the empty list can be a bit underwhelming so you need to do something about that and start following people. You might already know a couple of people who use Twitter (me for example!), or search for people you think might use it. This can be a bit hit and miss so you might want to grow your own network. Start by looking at who your friends follow. Likewise, if someone starts following you, then follow them back (providing they don’t look like spammers – thousands of “friends” but few followers). Soon you should start getting a steady stream of tweets from your friends.

Get interactive. Twitter is more than just about posting your status and watching what other people say, it’s more conversational than that. Pretty soon you’ll start to notice tweets cotaining @ signs. These are messages aimed at a particular user and show up in a special area for that user. To aim one at me, for example you’d include @MikeNolan – it doesn’t matter where in the message it goes. These are often called “replies” and they link to the last tweet from the target user, but often messages don’t relate to that message.

Replies are public so they’re a great way of finding people who are of interest – look out for people your friends are talking to. Twitter can also send direct messages which are private, but this is only possible if you both follow each other.

A quick aside on the nature of “friendship”… I came across this amusing tweet:

Twitter says I have close to 200 friends. Yet not one of you slack ass [expletive removed] has shown up to help us move. Some “friends” you are!

That’s enough to get you going with Twitter. Next time I’m going to go into more detail about using Twitter in different situations.

Who you calling a Twitt?!

TwitterIt’s a year since the last SXSW and the explosion of the Twitter craze. So fast was the rise of the microblogging platform that it struggled to cope with both the hype and the server load.

But as the dust settled, people have started to realise it can be used for more than talking about your cat and for many it’s become a key way of communicating with colleagues and friends.

If you haven’t come across Twitter – or maybe just don’t “get it” – check out this video from Common Craft:

Don’t forget you can integrate Twitter with your IM system of choice including our very own go.talk.

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