Twitter, the social network tool with 1300% growth in 2008 and currently is all the rage in the media, is one of those things that's difficult to understand because it is so unlike anything that came before it. Conversations about the online service are usually punctuated with responses like “I don't get it”, “What a waste of time” and “I don't care what people ate for breakfast”. While these are all valid concerns, let me do my best to explain the service so you can better judge Twitter's value for yourself. Twitter
is built around users exchanging short messages, called “tweets”, of less than 140 characters. If you use Facebook you already know what a “status update” is, and Twitter is really no different than a ongoing stream of these updates. That's it. The rationale, as explained by many users, is that the small size of a message forces authors to be efficient with their thoughts. Another reason could be that one of the primary ways to interface with the service, at least in the beginning, was through cell phone text messages that are already limited to 160 characters. In fact, many still use the short text codes
available to handle Twitter’s functions through cell phone text messages.
Whatever the reasoning, Twitter has grown beyond its reputation of a way to post inane ramblings into a tool to discover very useful information. The trick, though, is “following” the right people. Following is what you do when you choose to receive posts from another Twitter user. Twitter, like nearly all current social networks, is built around an “opt-in” approach to sharing information: you cannot send someone a message unless they choose to receive messages from you. This is a welcome way to avoid the problems with email and spam caused when your email address gets into the wild and is picked up by unscrupulous spammers. With Twitter, you control who you receive messages from and you can shut off useless connections instantly. That bears repeating: you can shut off useless connections, like those that only post about breakfast, instantly. The rest of the Twitter community often functions like a human search engine, posting links to useful information elsewhere on the web (on blogs, news websites, etc). These people are what make the “Twitterverse”, or the sum of all the people and ways to interact with Twitter, so valuable. Different users post about different topics: technology
, real estate
, and more. Finding quality people to follow on Twitter is exactly what makes, or breaks, the value of the service.
Finding people and topics on Twitter can be daunting at first, but you can, nay MUST, use the search tools at http://search.twitter.com
to find what you’re looking for. Just type in what interests you to find people posting information about those topics. Twitter also uses “hashtags” to categorize information. Users create a hashtag by adding # before a keyword. For example, many tweets about the NAR’s Midyear Meetings can be found by searching for “#midyear
There are more ways to communicate through Twitter than simply posting a message for all the world to see. You can still send a private, “direct” message to a specific user by adding the letter “d” and a blank space before the username of the recipient. You can also reply to users posts by prefixing their Twitter username with the “@” symbol. For example, if you wanted to reply to something I wrote you could begin your update with “@marealtors.” You can also “retweet” a user’s original post. Both replies and retweets help spread a message to new people and new networks. This not only helps the message spread, it helps users find new people to follow.
It’s difficult to provide depth in less than 140 characters and this enforced brevity has spawned many complimentary services to expand Twitter's usefulness. Quite often, URLs can be too long to fit in a single tweet, so there are websites for shortening a URL to a manageable size. Visit http://is.gd/
for examples. The latter, budurl.com, even provides tracking tools so you can see how many people are clicking on your links. Think of it as a way to see the value of the different types of information you’re posting. Here are other services for posting content to Twitter...
The Twitter website is not the most efficient way to use the service. The majority of “tweeters” use software like TweetDeck
or Seesmic Desktop
to interact with Twitter. These programs, once installed on a user's computer, are much more user-friendly than the Twitter website. You can search for connections and organize them with ease. You can even create special lists of search terms to automatically pull in tweets containing those keywords. Think of it as a way to automatically scour Twitter for what you're interested in finding. These programs also give you notifications of new messages rather than forcing you to visit the twitter.com site when you want to catch up.
The important thing to remember about all of the social networking tools – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, instant messaging, etc – is that they all have particular strengths. The strength of Twitter lies in the massive amount of information flowing through it. There is far too much to absorb, especially once you follow more than a couple hundred users, so it's best to think Twitter as a flowing stream that you can dip into as often as you like. Indeed, the main page of Twitter is called the public “timeline
”. The timeline, like your own list of updates from those you are following, updates constantly and without pause... much like the Internet and life itself! So sit back, search for what you like, follow people with similar interests, discover new and valuable things, and maybe make a few friends along the way. Want to make a friend on Twitter? Connect with MAR Communications Director Eric Berman and me through the association account, @marealtors