Thoughts on Twitter

High MacLeod cartoon Twitter logo: a stylised bird of some sort

In just two months, Twitter has become one of my core communication tools. Non-Twitter instant messaging and Facebook have all but disappeared from the mix. Here’s why.

Actually, before that… If you don’t use Twitter, or if you’ve taken a look but don’t “get it”, watch this 2.5-minute video Twitter in Plain English from those wacky Canadians Common Craft. Love their style.

OK, back?

Like the character in the video, I was sceptical about Twitter. Why do people need to know every little detail of my life? Who cares? I said as much to Perth’s Twitterati late last year. But then I actually tried using it — and I “got it” immediately.

It’s not about what people need to know, but what they want to know. And, as the video, says, the people who care about you are interested in what you’re doing.


Screenshot of Twitter client Twitterific for Mac  OS X

Calling this service “Twitter” was genius. Listen to real birds twittering, especially during their dawn chorus, and you’ll hear a constant stream of status messages. “I’m alive and healthy.” “This is still my territory, stay clear.” “I’m hungry, feed me.” “I’ve found some food over here.” “Storm coming! Quick! Quick!”

None of these messages necessarily requires an answer — just like typical tweets on Twitter. But you can act upon them or reply if you want.

  • I’m hungry, going to lunch” can elicit “Hey I’m around the corner, I’ll join you.”
  • “Firefox has just crashed again” can elicit “Have you tried clearing your cache? That worked for me.”
  • “Stuck in traffic on the M4” lets you know that another person, also coming via the freeway, could be late for a meeting — even if they don’t use Twitter themselves.
  • “Finishing an article before 4pm deadline” tells you not to interrupt that person.
  • “Finished!’ means you can now ask that person if they’d like a beer.
  • “Great blog post about Julia Gillard [with a link here]” could lead you in a whole new direction. Beer or no beer.

Or not.

Twitter is, almost literally, the background clucking of so many chickens.

If you need to concentrate on work or a TV program, just tune out. It’s a permanent window onto my world — but that doesn’t mean I need to sit and watch what’s out the window all the time.

I also have tweets coming from ABC News, BBC News and 37signals (which tell me if there’s a problem with Basecamp). One courier company uses Twitter to inform customers of any delays.

Why Twitter works for me

The key factor is that Twitter adheres to the philosophy of small pieces, loosely joined. It’s a clear, simple tool that’s easy to connect to other tools.

  • I can send or view tweets from the Twitter website, the mobile version at, the Twitterific application for Mac OS X (that’s what I use most of the time), via SMS or via other instant messaging services. Whatever’s handy at the time.
  • Ditto for the people following my tweets. They choose whatever’s handy for them. I don’t have to think about where they are at the time.
  • Everything’s interconnected by RSS, which means I can do things like plug my tweets into this website.

Permanent versus Ephemeral

Twitter helps me distinguish between the things I want to publish for all time, like my longer essays, and the random day-to-day stuff which might be vital at the time but meaningless the next day.

OK, I’m still having trouble with that, because some tweets are worth keeping. But this is experimental stuff.

What do you think? If you already use Twitter, does your experience match mine? If you don’t, please join Twitter and follow me, and let me know how it goes.

[Credit: Cartoon Twitter-bird courtesy of Hugh MacLeod. Like all of Hugh’s cartoons published online, it’s free to use.]

11 Replies to “Thoughts on Twitter”

  1. I’d say that my experience closely matches yours, and I feel that many social networking sites will be streamlined in future, to enable people to be more discerning and be more effective in time management. Sites like Facebook are cumbersome, no real dialogue occurs, and there are too many damned applications and quizzes that take place, leading to an overload of e-mail notifications for inane quizzes. I think Twitter aims to put the user first by way of its format. For me, on days where I don’t update my blog, I use it as a micro-blog. If I want to announce something related to the magazine, I can use it, and not sit there typing paragraphs of information. It alerts writers to my whereabouts or activities, and it leaves me with more time to complete tasks. I’m still getting acquainted with it, that’s not to say, but it is definitely more user friendly than Facebook and MySpace.

  2. @Kate Carruthers: Yes, excellent example — though I can’t help but thinking the real magic is that a network of friends was there to help.

    @Anastasia: In this piece I focused on the positives of Twitter. I’ll come back to the negatives of Facebook another time. But you’re right about one key point: Twitter is all about what the user wants to do, while Facebook is all about what the advertiser wants to do, i.e. maximise the time you spend on the site.

    It’s in Facebook’s interest to waste as much of you time as possible — at least in the short term. Long-term, that loses out. But long-term, who cares? It’s that grow-fast, cash-out strategy for the investors’ gain deal again.

    @jason: There is much goodness in that piece you link to, thank you. I daresay I’ll riff of that in a future post.

  3. Yes and! I think one of the joys of Twitter is that it is actual discourse in real time. I still use IM a lot but it is not community based. Twitter is. The joy is you can jump in and out. I can ask a stupid question about what colour to paint my toenails and expect short replies. If I IMd friends last night it would have led to lengthy conversations about what I had been up to.

    I do wonder what we will be using in 5, let alone 10 years time though!

  4. @Fiona: I think predicting even 2 to 3 years ahead is tricky. while underlying technologies like SMS, RSS etc will be there, the way they’re packaged up into services will change very fast — particularly when the Web 2.0 Bubble bursts in (my prediction) early 2009 at the latest.

  5. “It’s not about what people need to know, but what they want to know. And, as the video, says, the people who care about you are interested in what you’re doing.” — Stil.

    I’ve tried it and in general I don’t want to know.

    “At the bar until 9:15”

    “Saw a dog wearing a hat on Smith St”

    “Breathed out. Breathed in again”

    Do you say everything you think? Who’s pausing to write this stuff down? And why would you care that anyone cares?

    That’s not twitter’s fault of course. I’ve just got to make sure I only follow people with a life.

    If everyone in my project groups at work all indicated what task they were working on and what the key issue/problem in front of them *right now* was then that’d be cool.

    Perhaps some sort of keywording or tagging of a twitter post (and filtering) would help those of us who actively avoid kitchen-sink chatter and how’re-you-doin’s?

    Or is that already in there and I haven”t found it?

  6. “Do you say everything you think? Who’s pausing to write this stuff down? And why would you care that anyone cares?” — Mat F.

    Not targetted at Stil! Just general questions. Replace “you” with “one” where applicable. 🙂

  7. @Mat F: Yeah, I know you’re not targeting me. I’m not quite that paranoid… or self-absorbed.

    Twitter doesn’t allow you to sub-divide messages streams yet, no — though actually I think that simplicity is one of its strengths. It’s really a matter of what people choose to do with it, and you don’t have to watch everyone’s stream of tweets. 37signals use it in the work context you describe, but groups of friends and family use it precisely for that disposable status information you loathe.

    I can see Twitter replacing those stupid phone calls, “Hi, I’m on the train and will be home in 10 minutes.” Though that said, why people just can’t wait 10 minutes until they are home… perhaps that’s exactly why Twitter works. People do want to update their loved ones with their status immediately.

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