Tuesday, August 11, 2009


This article appears in slightly different form in the July/August 2009 issue of
IEEE Micro © 2009 IEEE.

The Twitter social messaging service is simple, but hard to understand, at least at first. I poked around its edges for a while, until I found the Twitter Book.

The Twitter Book

The Twitter Book by Tim O'Reilly & Sarah Milstein (O'Reilly, Sebastopol CA, 2009, 240pp, ISBN 978-0-596-80281-3, www.oreily.com, $19.99)

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media. I have never before reviewed a book that he wrote, but I have been reviewing books that he published for about 20 years. Starting with a few how-to books for Unix users in the 1980s, O'Reilly Media has become the leading publisher of books about hot software topics. In recent years, Tim O'Reilly has become a leader in the open source and web 2.0 communities.

Sarah Milstein started out as a freelance writer and editor. She was a regular contributor to The New York Times. Later she joined O'Reilly media, where she led the development of the Missing Manual series. She now travels around the country, lecturing and teaching about Twitter. With fellow Times contributor Marci Alboher, Sarah is cofounder of 20slides.com, which will soon launch a series of career-related online workshops.

The Twitter Book has been my gateway to Twitter. It contains solid basic information about all aspects of Twitter and provides context for a large number of pointers. By following those pointers, I learned everything I know about Twitter. If you invest a few hours reading this clear and comprehensive book, you will be well on your way to understanding how Twitter fits into your life.

Basics of Twitter

To begin using Twitter, go to twitter.com and sign up. Supply your full name, and pick a username that is short and to the point. My username is xrmxrm, which includes my initials and echoes my email addresses and Facebook ID. No username that includes a significant indication of my full name would be short enough to be an effective Twitter username.

Next, set up your profile. Twitter allows you a picture, a 160-character biography and a location. My biography is:

Technical communicator specializing in documentation for programmers -- APIs, web services, programmer guides. Columnist for IEEE Micro.

My location is Berkeley, CA.

Your name, your location, your biography, and your contributions are all that a person considering following your contributions has to go on.

Before using Twitter, you should understand updates, following, @references, retweeting, hashcodes, and searching.

Updates, also called tweets, are your contributions. You can enter a message of up to 140 characters, and everyone who has signed up to follow you will see that message, with your picture, among the tweets that come to them. Anyone can follow your updates, unless you protect updates, which few people do, because there is little point to doing so. You can send updates from a browser or a third party Twitter client, on your computer or your cell phone.

Following is an easily established asymmetric relationship between you and another twitter user. You simply go to that user's page (twitter.com/their_username) and click the Follow button. You can follow other users without their permission and without their following you. Twitter will, if you choose, notify you by email when other users choose to follow you. If you like, you can view their pages and decide whether to follow them. Many people automatically follow people who are following them, but there is no need to do so. Some people follow you as a form of spam. Obviously, you should not follow them. Twitter provides an easy way for users to report spam.

The most interesting uses of Twitter are conversational, so you need a way to refer to other people's tweets. Twitter interprets content of the form @username as a link, called an @reference, to that user's page. By a quirk of Twitter, if you begin a tweet with an @reference, most Twitter users who follow you but do not follow the user referred to in the @reference will not see the tweet. As a result, if you want to pass a tweet to your followers, a process called retweeting, you should place the @reference in the body of the tweet. The standard formats for retweets are to begin with RT @username or to end with via @username.

Twitter has a powerful search mechanism. In addition, it automatically brings to your attention the topics that are most popular at the moment. Search results can contain the tweets of users you are not following, so searching enables you to follow interesting trends and find interesting users to follow.

Often, a group of users interested in a topic choose a search term to include in tweets about that topic. Such search terms usually begin with hash mark (#). These are called hashcodes. As I write this, #iranelection and #michaeljackson are widely used hashcodes. Nobody assigns hashcodes. Users simply start using them. Different versions soon converge, and conflicts work themselves out.

Twitter Helpers

Twitter provides a certain amount of pushed summary information. In addition, a number of third parties follow Twitter, massage the flow of tweets, and make the information easily available. They can notify you about matters of interest to you, so you don't need to read millions of tweets each day. For example, TwitScoop shows hot topics as a tag cloud, in which terms appear in larger or smaller font sizes, depending on their recent frequency.

Another difficult problem for most new Twitter users is deciding which users to follow. Sites like MrTweet provide personalized lists of Twitter users for you to consider following.

If you want others to find your tweets worth reading and retweeting, you should link to interesting material. URLs can be long, and Twitter's limit is 140 characters for your entire tweet, so you need to find a good URL shortener. Such services (for example, TinyURL, Bit.ly, is.gd, and Twi.bz) replace a long URL with a unique, permanent short one that points to the same place. Different shorteners provide different advantages. For example, some give you some control over the resulting URL, while others make it easy for you to track clicks.

Pictures are a compelling component of many tweets. You can post a picture to a site like flickr.com and use a shortened URL to point to it. Others can leave comments at the site or retweet the link with their comments. The twitpic.com site integrates especially well with Twitter.

If you interact with Twitter solely through twitter.com, the primitive user interface soon becomes limiting. You must refresh the page to see new tweets. Simple tasks like replying and retweeting entail tedious manual steps that cry out for automation. Because Twitter provides an application programming interface (API), many third parties have created programs to put a different front end on Twitter. Most such programs run on computers, but others work on smart phones. I have tried Twhirl, SeesmicDesktop, TweetDeck, and DestroyTwitter on my laptop. Each provides improvements over the twitter.com interface, but I keep coming back to twitter.com because I feel more comfortable and less restricted there.

One drawback of the clients I've tried is that they provide little in the way of accessibility. I like to change window sizes and enlarge the text and graphics on my screen. This is easy to do in most browsers. The clients I tried, however, all use Adobe Air. If Air provides that sort of control, these clients haven't figured out how to make use of it. Or if they have, they haven't made it clear to me how I can use it. For that matter, the same criticism pertains to Adobe FrameMaker, which uses Air as the delivery environment for its online help.

What Twitter Is and Isn't

Twitter enables people to share facts, opinions, news, and commentary about everyday life or extraordinary events.

Recently Scott Williams posted an article at http://bigisthenewsmall.com/?p=2170 called Seven Things Twitter Is Not. He makes the point that Twitter is like a river. You can stand on the bank and watch the tweets go by. They are not piling up in your mailbox. Nobody expects you to answer them. If you do toss a tweet into the river, it flows away quickly. Someone may retweet it or reply to it, but the reply floats away too. It may include some context, but 140 characters soon become inadequate to contain an ongoing chat.

Another interesting metaphor is that of a great collective consciousness. As you watch the river, a subject may suddenly attract your attention. For example, on November 26, 2008, reports about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai spiked suddenly on Twitter, drawing worldwide attention before the news media could react.

One frequently asked question about Twitter is, "How can I use it to make money?" Twitter does not seem to have answered that question for itself, but many businesses have found ways to integrate Twitter into their ongoing relationships with actual and prospective customers. The Twitter Book devotes a substantial section to the do's and don'ts of using Twitter for business. No business should jump into Twitter until its management understands the principles that O'Reilly and Milstein lay out there.

You may not understand Twitter at first, but if you try it patiently for a while and get a sense of how others are using it, it will grow on you. Go to twitter.com and give it a try.