The Twitter Phenomena

I’ve been using Twitter for a while and several things have converged to cause me to put my thoughts on Twitter in a blog. The first was a request from a professional society of which I am a member for thoughts on using Twitter, the second was a request from my employer on using Twitter in the workplace and the third was a comment by a reader on NPR to Scott Simon that Twitter was the CB radio of the time. I think this analogy is wrong but will discuss that later.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is an electronic messaging service that limits you to a message, called a tweet of 140 characters or less. When you send a tweet, it goes to anyone who has chosen to follow you and when anyone you have chosen to follow sends a tweet you receive it. In this way it is like CB radio in that tweets are broadcast however unlike CB Radio you only hear the people you have chosen to follow. You can send tweets directly to individual members, effectively making them private and there is a way to see all messages that mention your Twitter name. Twitter has a sister site, Twitpic, that enables tweeters to upload pictures for others to see. The key reason for the Twitter explosion is that clients exist for most cell/mobile phones. Twitter can be thought of as a variation of Instant Messaging &/or an RSS agregator for cell phones.

How do I use it?

For Twitter I have a split personality. One personality is my professional personality and the other is my personal life.I work for JPL which requires that all public communication be approved before release. This means that I almost never tweet about my work except in the most general sense or when doing so in an official capacity as happened at our recent open house. However I use Twitter in place of an RSS agregator to get news from organizations of relevance to my professional activities. Such organizations include the House Science and Technology CommitteeThe National Academies Press, my employer’s official tweets (multiple tweeters) and professional societies such as the Optical Society of America.In my personal life I follow a number of friends and tend to tweet about items of interest to me ie mostly my girls, astronomy, archery, photography and nature. Most of the people I know socially are not on Twitter at this time.

Privacy issues

I’m not in the mass-media business, my friends and I use Twitter as a convenient mobile messaging service and so I have developed a few strategies to control who can read my tweets.The most important tool on Twitter is the ability to block people so that even if they want to follow you they can not see your tweets. I always look at the profile of a new follower. Unfortunately, given the recent hype about Twitter, some are clearly just trying to promote themselves or dodgy schemes or look to be collecting information – these I immediately block from following me. I never start following someone who starts following me unless I know them personally. I give people I don’t know who start following me a grace period to see if their tweets are of interest, if they are I will eventually follow them. This provides me with considerable control over who reads my tweets. It should be noted that anyone can read my public tweets by looking at my page on Twitter I therefore try to be careful as to how much personal information I divulge.Twitter has a feature called “Trending Topics” and this used to contain interesting items when I first joined but with the explosion of membership it only shows lowest common denominator topics which are almost never of interest to me. It seems that whenever you put the mass into media it results in the same types of tabloid topics independent of the medium amd this presumably is what the NPR listener was referring to when he made the CB radio comparison. However the ability to control which tweets you see and who can see your tweets puts a simple filtering screen on this noise and clutter so you only see what interests you. Incidentally whoever comes up with a good algorithm for capturing the definition of “interesting” on a personal level and then implements it successfully in a general search engine can count me in as a user of their services.

The Future?

The popularity of Twitter is based on its ready availability on cell phones so that it is effectively everywhere – as an example I can now tweet over a 3G connection from the middle of the Mojave desert several miles from the nearest paved road at one of my favorite dark sky astronomy spots. The 140 character limitation is a key to Twitters success in that by forcing short communications it encourages frequent communication – look at the prior posts in this blog to see how hard I find it to get free time to type my thoughts these days .

As cell phone data connections and applications get better I’m sure something better will come along but for now Twitter works for mobile, everywhere communication.