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!

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