Micro-blogging on Twitter: a few thoughts and tips

Micro-blogging on Twitter: a few thoughts and tips

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As I posted a few days ago, I’m now micro-blogging on twitter as well as regular-blogging here. One week or so into the experience, I can tell you that it looks a lot different from inside :-)

Angles 

First of all, there are many angles on micro-blogging. Some use twitter just as new kind of IM, sharing messages that are meaningless without a specific context and probably too personal to be posted publicly. Others will be able to provide interesting, self-contained insights in their 140-character-long posts, often with a link that provides additional information. There are a number of celebrities that basically cater to their fans. Many companies have formal ambassadors that just tweet PR blurbs in a very automated way. I’m pretty sure at least a few are actual bots, although the good ones are not.

News organizations are usually great at twittering, since they have great sources and headlines resemble tweets so much. My initial assumption that twitter could replace my traditional news sources proved correct so far. Most of the web sites I used to visit (CNET News, a few select blogs, Slashdot, etc.) are on twitter now. I still visit them for their stores, but now prompted by a tweet. They are no longer on set of home page tabs. I feel very well informed and I usually can break the news to my co-workers around the coffee machine.

Start by following 

I believe one should start on twitter by being a follower and try to understand what look interesting to you. Listen for a while before you say anything is usually good advice. I have started following a few friends that also twitter, some news sources, other twitters from Microsoft, some Microsoft partners, a few competitors. Over time I also stumbled upon a handful of individuals (who wouldn’t necessarily fall into any of my original categories) that really can put a good spin on things. Since the lists of who is following who are public, you can find a few people you know and check who they follow, maybe follow them as well. Needless to say, this is a time consuming process. However, it has been an interesting (dare I say entertaining) exercise.

I am currently following around 60 other twitters, a truly strange mix of characters that probably tells a lot about me. I had more but dropped a few, since it was becoming hard to follow too many. I don’t understand how others manage follow hundreds of people. There sites to analyze your profile, look at who you follow and check if they follow you back, like twitual.com. I wonder if these will evolve to suggest new people to follow based on others similar to you. Probably not trivial to do, but certainly useful.

Posts 

I have posted over 70 updates in the last 10 days, which is probably on the high side. For me, it’s been mostly about my blog post announcements, things I am working and a few technologies I have been looking at. I also do quite a few retweets, which are directly related to select to following the right set of twitters, keeping the list short enough that you can keep up and being easily impressed :-). I did end up deleting some of my tweets that seemed irrelevant after the fact and it’s a good thing you can do that. I also find myself sharing a few personal things, which I generally try to avoid on my full-size blog. I guess there’s really no way to keep things like twitter entirely impersonal, so I’m not trying too hard. When I first started I posted every tweet on Facebook and vice-versa. Recently I’ve been posting some on both and some only on one side. They are different things with some overlap.

Trending (what’s been twittered the most, recently) is something people watch a lot. However, beyond trending, there is something else I have found myself doing with twitter. I will sometimes search on twitter for other people doing the same thing I’m doing, possibly even before tweeting about it. Say you’re watching Sunday Morning on CBS. Is anyone else doing it? Should you even admit to it? Well, it turns out there were a quite few people watching it, some even defining it as a guilty pleasure. Some with a particular interest on Charles Osgood’s bow ties. Some more concerned about a specific topic being covered, like the importance of learning how to use the dishwasher properly. I have done that multiple times and it does give a an interesting new angle on things. That’s a type of search that cannot be satisfied by your traditional search engine, although Bing is indexing Twitter now, at least partially. I wonder if there’s some site or tool out there doing something like this kind of twitter self-trending…

Clients 

Speaking or that, Twitter clients will define a big part of your experience. You could live entirely off the twitter.com web page, it would be a very limited life. I have tried a few different clients for my Windows PC and settled on TweetDeck (which also shows Facebook status updates and TwitScoop trends). For my Windows phone I also switched a couple of times and I am now using PockeTwit.

They both offer unique, somewhat unconventional user interfaces, but they have been doing the job well for me. They are 0.x releases offered as free downloads. Again, you can learn from others in this area, since tweets tell what tools are used to post them. I might try some of new ones, but once you find a good enough one, a certain inertia settles in. Free as they are, it does take your valuable time to install/uninstall these things.

Issues 

Twitter is not without its issues, though. One of the main ones I see is spam. You get a few followers that are clearly spammers trying to get attention to their sites. You can block them, but that’s definitely a waste of your time. I looked up the Twitter developer pages and they seem to be doing all the right things. Twitter does use a CAPTCHA during the signup process, but spammers are apparently taking the time. Once they’re in, there are limits on how many API calls you can make within a certain time limit. I guess the “bad guys” will always try to outsmart the system. Not sure how they do it, but they are trying hard. At some point I just gave up on blocking followers that did not seem legit. I am certainly not following everyone that follows me (some people seem to do that). A tool to point out who are the likely spammers would be useful.

The other main issue it that the constant flow of small bits of information can be overwhelming (similar to a large sets of RSS feeds). I tried keeping TweetDeck open all the time, but that simply didn’t work for me. You get randomized and you can never concentrate on anything you’re doing. I learned to open the tool only when I have some free time, like early in the day for “reading the news”, when waiting for an event to begin or while waiting in line. My TweetDeck is also configured to “hide previously loaded tweets after restart”, so I can see just what’s new since the last time I checked. You can also "clear your timeline" manually pressing a button.

Tweet-vs-Blog 

I am trying to keep my Twittering and blogging in sync with each other. I added some code on my blog page here to show my recent tweets (see the column on the left, below the “News” section and above the “Archives” section. This way my Twitter profile links to my blog and my blog links back to my tweets. I also made a point of always posting on Twitter when I have a new blog post. In a related topic, while trying to distinguish tweets and regular blogs, I tried to outline the main differences. Here’s what I got so far:

  • Writing 140 characters is way easier than writing a few paragraphs or pages
  • Sometimes 140 characters just aren’t enough, even with acronyms and abbreviations
  • Blog readers do not need to learn tweetspeak. Stuff like # @ ^ RT via
  • I don’t need an approval process for my work-related tweets (yet?)
  • Blogs are spread all over the internet, tweets are just at one place
  • Retweets are fine. Re-blogs, not so much
  • You can tell who is following you on Twitter
  • It’s not so easy to find recent trends in the blogosphere, like TwitScoop does...

Overall, I think twitter has proved to be a useful tool for me so far and there’s a lot behind the hype. However, most of it will only become more apparent as you start using it.

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