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The life and times of james Hart: his family, his music, life in Luton and his occasional escapes onto the internet.

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Saturday, 7 March 2009

What do people use Twitter for..?

I've been wanting to write a blog entry/essay thing on Twitter for a little while - it's probably my favourite example of social media, mainly because of its combination of brevity and versatility, and I've not yet found a site or blog post that analyses the site and the people that use it.

Putting aside (mostly) Twitter's business model, its future development and the psychology of why people 'tweet', here's my list of what I believe are the ten most common uses for Twitter:

  • 01. microblogging
    It's quick and, although sometimes quite a challenge to remember, convenient to use Twitter to keep track of the things that go on in my life - certainly moreso than writing a longer blog entry, where I feel the need to enrich the content with pictures, sounds and video. More often than not, the time I get back to my computer, I've forgotten what I was going to write, anyway!

    There were (and perhaps still are) issues with looking through Twitter's archives, but I've removed my reliance on it by writing a bit of shellscript that downloads a list of my daily Tweets and posts them to a quiet corner of my website.

  • 02. link sharing
    I share common interests with many of my twittermates(?) so Twitter is an excellent way of sharing links to sites that have caught my eye; it's not quite to the scale of such social bookmarking sites as Delicious or Digg but it's certainly a way to propagate a cool new thing - the "retweet" (prefixing a copied tweet with 'RT @{username}') is an excellent tool for publicizing a website. Now if only http://www.dramaticchords.com could go viral...
  • 03. photo sharing
    There is a growing collection not just of Twitter clients (for all platforms - TweetDeck for Windows, Mac and Linux, Twitterfon for iPhone/iPod Touch and ceTwit for Windows Mobile), but of add-ons, enabling multimedia to be shared. Examples of this include TwitPic, to which pictures can be uploaded to accompany an update, and the rather unusual www.bubbletweet.com, which enables a little pop-up video to be displayed with a tweet (like this).
  • 04. social interaction
    Starting a post with "@{username}" indicates a response to a tweet; Twitter has now become sophisticated enough to be able to link responses to any earlier tweet, not just the user's most recent one. This gives rise to conversations that can range from domestic discussions to entertainingly amusing exchanges. Direct messages ("d {username} ") mean that users can communicate privately with each other; services like the excellent www.twe2.com can send these messages to a mobile phone.
  • 05. information gathering
    With a substantial number of followers - especially those with expertise in all kinds of subjects - it's possible to request advice, solutions or links to help with various situations, both on-line and in the 'real world'.

    I've found there's always someone who is willing to offer help - Twitter has a wonderful community spirit, and people can be very supportive.

  • 06. celebrity spotting
    There's little doubt that Stephen Fry is one of the most conspicuous 'twittercelebs', with over a quarter of a million followers. Many celebrities who tweet do read their @replies, even from those whom they don't follow, and twitterers like actor Robert Llewellyn and comedy writer Graham Linehan often use it as a means to interact with their fans.

    Certainly when these famous folk write their own tweets (many like Britney Spears and Barack Obama are run by their agencies) it brings them much closer to the 'punters'. I admit to following Stephen Fry, @RobertPopper and the hilariously quite amusing @JonHolmes1 off of from BBC's 6music radio, among others..!

    There's a fairly recent list of twittercelebs on The Guardian's Technology site.

  • 07. news reporting
    Since Twitter is accessible through something as quick and simple as a text message (mobile costs can vary and service operators can end up charging more than you think), it can be the first way that a news story can emerge, especially in conjunction with TwitPic (for which many mobile clients have integrated support).

    The greatest example of this was in January, when an airliner crashed into the Hudson River. Sky News now has a Twitter correspondent (@RuthBarnett) who seeks out news stories from the site, and I'm sure it won't be long before they get a scoop from Twitter...

  • 08. cathartic outbursts
    As I mentioned before, the community spirit on Twitter is amazing, and it is possible to express frustration, sadness or even grief to the 'world in general'. Even if replies of support and encouragement haven't been desired (or even forthcoming), I think most of the folks I follow have written from the heart; I have read moving tweets about the death of a parent, the apprehension of a job interview and - oddly more often than any other - despondency about house moves!

    If I'm having a bad day at work - or a fantastic weekend - it feels good to share it, and even if nobody acknowledges my tweet, I don't really mind... it's a little self-indulgent, but another use to which Twitter can be - and is - put.

  • 09. another media outlet...
    I'm not sure RSS feeds have caught the imagination of the public, and I'm fairly sure they never will. You can subscribe to a podcast by clicking on a link that opens iTunes; next to the often-ignored orange RSS (or XML, or that little radar thing) icon on many websites is an "Add to Google Reader" button; on occasion, I've had to explain that 'subscribing' doesn't mean having to spend any money. In short, most people don't know what Really Simple Syndication actually means.

    Many sites - especially those that deal with current affairs - also automatically update Twitter with their main stories; I subscribe to The Guardian's @GuardianTech tweets and a number of radio-based news feeds.

    News sites such as @BBCNews (helpfully provided from the BBC's data feeds by a third party developer) and @SkyNews also update Twitter.

    Many bloggers (myself included) automatically send tweets when a new entry has been published - it's a useful additional way to spread the word that another missive is complete! To take this full-circle, there is a little box on my blog which displays my latest tweet... which may well be simply that I've updated this blog!

  • 10. popularity contest / marketing strategy
    I guess the nature of Twitter is that it's a two-way medium; it can be used to gain information (often to the point of overload, and I find myself clicking links at the most inopportune moments when something interesting turns up just as I have to leave the house!), and it can be used to communicate to a social network of friends, family and on-line acquaintances.

    Considering the number of people who are now using Twitter - it must be well over a million by now - I know of some twitterers who have made it their objective to gain as many 'followers' as possible. This can have more benefits than just ego-stroking; someone who has a small business (like @FreyaSykes or @BaristaOnDuty) can create a potential market for their product or service, making use of local information from something as simple as a Google query.

    Companies like @innocentdrinks and @VirginMedia have already embraced Twitter as a means to interact with their customers, announcing competitions and even dealing with queries. Many believe the future of Twitter (certainly in terms of its financing, since it doesn't employ advertising or sponsorship to support it) is that businesses will be encouraged to pay for publicity on Twitter, such that large businesses like Dell can use it as a sales tool.

It's not so long ago that Friends Reunited was the 'flavour of the month', as an opening gambit into this social internet world; the likes of Facebook, MySpace and Bebo have all turned up since then, but I think Twitter offers something slightly different. It's simple, yet versatile, and has already evolved from my early assessment as "blogging for extroverts with a short attention span" to something which, with the help of @wossy and @stephenfry, has entered into most people's consciousness as part of the social networking revolution.

Many people, I'm sure, have had a bit of a look and then moved on, but for those of us who fit into any of the ten categories above, it will remain a useful tool even if it fades to become a niche site, or - which is more likely - begets descendants that fulfill a need that develops as the internet evolves.

For now, though, I'm going to keep on tweeting... and to those who read what I write, and whose tweets I follow: thank you!

Posted by james at March 7, 2009 8:20 PM

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