Oct 16 2009

Confessions of a Twitter addict

Twitter is my new addiction, twitter is an elephant described by a group of blind men.

Instructions for using twitter:
1. Sign up here: www.twitter.com (It’s worth selecting a short username)
2. Follow @stephenfry
3. Start twittering like a monkey

After a while things might start to become clearer.

Twitter all depends on who you follow; I started off following a bunch of people around Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) (who writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian), so naturally I ended up with a load of skeptics and science journalists. I therefore assumed that twitter predominantly contained skeptics and science journalists. But that’s not true, twitter contains many groups and subgroups and they’re invisible unless you go looking for them (or more precisely, follow them).   So finding people to follow is key, if you’re not following anybody, twitter will be awfully quiet. It’s also worth remembering that by default everyone can see everything you write.

Here are a few strategies for finding people worth following:

1. Keep an ear out for the rich and famous announcing their twittery-ness – don’t expect them to say anything back to you but it does give you something to read. @Stephenfry has something like 750,000 followers, if he points to a website and says “Look at this”, a large fraction of his followers simultaneous click the link….and the website falls over. @Stephenfry then tweets “Oh bugger”.

2. Follow a hashtag and follow people you find there. You do this by searching for something like #xfactor or #electricdreams – if you follow the hashtag for a TV program whilst it’s on then you get live commentary, which may be a good or bad thing. I was introduced to this with the debate between Lord Drayson(@lorddrayson), science and technology minister, and Ben Goldacre on science journalism (#scidebate). Twitterfall is rather good for tracking a hashtag, it automatically updates a search in real-time – new results fall from the top of the screen.

3. I searched for scientists under “Find People”, birds of a feather flock together. David Bradley (@sciencebase) is compiling a list of scientist-twitterers to which you can add yourself.

4. Once you’ve found a few people, have a look to see who they’re following and who is following them, services such as twubble or MrTweet will help you do this.

5. Try out a directory service like wefollow.

So what are they up to once you follow them?

Chatterers – some people are pretty conversational.
Linkers – some people just drop loads of links, sometimes this is automated, other times it’s just what people do.
Pimpers – famous people pimp their newspaper columns and TV progs, the riff-raff like you and I pimp our blog posts. So overwhelming is this meme that I felt obliged to kick the old blog into action, in order that I would have something to pimp!
Proclaimers – some people are proclaimers, they produce a long stream of one liners. Some of them do it in the style of a historical character:

@KingAlfredRex Pærværted Skunke Signor Bærlusconi bemoanes hys Posytion as Moste Vyrtuous Manne yn Alle Ytalie… through noyse of Bangyng Head-Board.

Robots – some people aren’t people, they’re robots. Try a tweet with tea, oblong or wasp in it (prize for making any sense). I suspect a Monty Python fan wrote the @stoningbot. I’m scared to try putting two robots into a loop…
Britney and her sausage – the less said about this one the better, suffice to say if said lady starts following you best block her.

I must admit before I tried twitter I thought the 140 character limit was ridiculous (particularly since most people are not posting over SMS – which is where the limit originates). However, having used it for a bit – it’s actually really neat. How many people can bore you in 140 characters? And fitting a thought into 140 characters is an interesting exercise. Some people do seem to be able to start an argument in 140 characters (but very few) – my twitter is very civilised.

The strengths of twitter are it’s flexibility and simplicity; communities can coalesce around a hash tag or an individual very rapidly. Applications can coalesce around it’s simple messaging and following system. If you don’t like how your twitters looking, treat it like a big soft pillow – push it around until it’s comfortable.

Basic twitter functions

There are five routes to seeing tweets on your twitter homepage:
1. Home – shows the tweets of those you are following
2. @[username] – shows tweets mentioning your username (Mentions)
3. Direct messages – shows direct messages (only you can see these)
4. Favourites – shows favourites tweets
5. Search – search for tweets containing a word or phrase

When you are posting a tweet:
@[username] directs a public message at someone. They’ll see it as a mention, along with anyone following both of you. (Not realising this in the early days caused me some embarassment). If you put a character before the @ i.e. _@[name] then all your followers can see the tweet.

d @[username] sends a private message to someone (but doesn’t work if they’re not following you).

#[label] is a hashtag. Clicking on a hashtag will bring up a list of all the tweets containing the hashtag

If you like a tweet, you can retweet it, RT @[username] is the usual form for doing this although it’s just convention and doesn’t fire up any special behaviour.

With only 140 characters to play with you’re not going to want to post full length links bit.ly and other similar services squash your links down to minimum size (and allow you to compose your tweet at the same time).

If you want to break the 140 character limit then you can use twerbose, although I suspect this violates the spirit of twitter.

There are loads of twitter clients around I use hootsuite  it’s a web-based service and supports tabs so you can collect twitters and searches related to one area on one tab. To be honest, the twitter homepage does a pretty good job. If you’re interested in getting more stats on your followers then tweepular is okay.

For the data visualisation fans here’s a list of twitter visualisations, and trendsmap is fun too.

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