A Guide to Social Networks for the Tragically Uncool, Part 3: Twitter

Note: this is part two in my series, “A Guide to Social Networks for the Tragically Uncool.” For Part 2, click here.

I had a hard time deciding whether to include Twitter in this Guide. After all, Twitter has hit the mainstream, with CNN citing it from its news program, and even the Daily Show making fun of it regularly. At the same time, it’s often criticized as one of the most useless, most shallow forms of communication. That isn’t a fair criticism, though, and so in addition to showing you how to use it today, I hope to explain why.

##Twitter: Gestalt of Civilization

The concept of Twitter, as you may well know, is pretty simple: at any point, one just answers the question, “What are you doing?” To make things a bit more constrained, Twitter imposes a size limit of 140 characters. This seemingly arbitrary number has a pretty mundane rationale: it allows Twitter to fit your message, with your username and a shade of formatting, inside a 160-character text message, which at its start was the primary method of interacting with Twitter. Indeed, that was one of its big draws– you could say what you were doing from anywhere you could use your phone, which for most of the world is everywhere.

These Tweets– and yes, Twitter messages are called Tweets and NOT Twits– are a small, beautiful form of expression. You only have a little bit of space in which to write your message, so you don’t need to get too much into detail. Messages are designed to be by their nature ephemeral and fleeting; it doesn’t have to be a koan, just a thought that occurs to you about your activities, or work, or whatever else you’d like. Tweets don’t change the world.

And yet, somehow, they do. Twitter has just a couple of customs; to address another user, one writes “@someone,” where someone is their username; for instance, to reference me in a tweet, you write “@USSJoin.” If you’d like to reference an ongoing event or discussion, you can put a “hashtag” in your tweet as well; these make it easy for other people to see all the tweets on a particular subject. For instance, at the recent Transparency Camp 2009, all attendees used the hashtag “#tcamp09” on their tweets, allowing everyone to see they were commenting on the conference. The webpage for the event then displayed all these tweets in real time, which created a wonderful sense of community.

So with these very small building blocks, we have all the communication tools we need. And it’s wonderful. One of the frequent criticisms of Twitter is that it’s mundane– that people don’t care what you ate for breakfast, or that you’re using the toilet. Honestly, though, most people (@greggersh aside) don’t tweet about the bathroom– but yes, these are not necessarily ideas that become full letters, or blog posts. The other criticism is that you broadcast this to all these people, whereas if you really cared about them, you could call them and tell them about your life over the phone. That, too, fails to see the point of Twitter. For instance, while filling out a form, I was asked to provide a list of people who knew me, at every residence I’ve had in the last decade– a monumental task. I tweeted that I found the task insane, and slowly people started to respond that they, too, would find it daunting. This idea didn’t merit a whole blog post– it didn’t merit even a whiny phone call to my parents. I did, however, tweet it, and I found more people with whom to connect in the community.

On Twitter, too, you can choose whom to follow (this means you choose whose updates display when you ask Twitter for your friends’ tweets; unlike, say, Facebook, your friends’ content never displays on your page). I follow 42 people, a combination of friends I’ve had for years (like @baroquebobcat), people I’ve met at conferences (like @chrismessina), and people I only hope I could one day meet (like @donttrythis, better known as Adam Savage of the Mythbusters). It’s great to be able to get these little scenes from their lives; each of them introduces me to things I wouldn’t’ve seen otherwise (for instance, Chris Messina regularly points out great articles on Social Web topics of great interest to me), and Twitter keeps me in contact with these people with whom I wouldn’t otherwise have a connection. I might well call @baroquebobcat from time to time, but Adam Savage doesn’t know me– and yet, it’s cool to know when he’s excited about a new Mythbusters episode coming out.

Twitter also offers a wonderful search function, which allows you to see every tweet (sorted by time) on a topic. For instance, Skittles uses a Twitter search for, naturally, “skittles” as part of their homepage (click on the “chatter” link); indeed, it was their whole homepage for a while. Anyone can go to http://search.twitter.com to look for very current, very quick feedback on issues the whole world is thinking about. This can be especially useful when breaking news is occurring; I found out about the attacks in Mumbai hours before mainstream media began to report, and I got information from people in the city without the filter (and simple delay) of international reporting. All this while my family and I were at Universal Studios in Florida. So the potential for learning the thoughts of civilization really is unmatched; like any civilization, sure a few thoughts might be about poop, or sex, but the majority really is quite interesting.

So Twitter is, much like life, what you make of it. You can follow all celebrities (though I wouldn’t, as most of them are boring), all politicians (even worse), or just people you see every day. But the advantage is that you can get a sense of the community as a whole, and you can keep in contact with people about whom you care. To me, it’s a pretty great experience.

When you get started, you (naturally) won’t have too many people you’re following, so I thought I’d list a few of my favorites; feel free to follow any or none of them.

  • @chrismessina - The creator of OAuth and enabler of many awesome web technologies.
  • @donttrythis - The aforementioned Adam Savage of Mythbusters.
  • @dakami - Dan Kaminsky, a prominent security researcher.
  • @davetroy - A Baltimore-area angel investor and deep thinker about technology and society.
  • @anildash - The VP of Evangelism of Six Apart, and a guy who just says really amusing things on Twitter.
  • @someecards - The same people who run http://www.someecards.com, “Cards for when you care enough to click send.”
  • @bestat - A Twitter bot that just retweets the funniest things people have said recently on Twitter.

And, of course, two that I run:

  • @mnikr - The Twitter presence for Mnikr, my thesis project / windmill-tilting challenge.
  • @ussjoin - My presence on Twitter.

There are lots of Twitter clients out there, but to get started, just try the web interface until you get the hang of it. If you decide you want more realtime updates, I personally use and hugely recommend TweetDeck for the desktop (Windows, Linux, or OSX), and I use Tweetsville on my iPhone.