twitter for curmudgeons and noobs

After holding out for a couple of years, I’ve become a full-on twitter convert. I wasn’t avoiding twitter on principle or anything. I just couldn’t understand why twitter was remotely interesting to anyone, or what it could possibly add to my life. Now that I’ve been on board for little while, I don’t get hung up on questions about twitter’s mainstream-ness, cultural significance or cognitive side effects. I’m simply exploring, and adopting the bits I find useful.

Recently, a few friends of mine have started twittering, and plenty others dismiss twitter like I once did. So – for the noobs who’ve been asking me for it – I thought I would write about some of the ways I use twitter, and – for the curmudgeons who have not asked – I’ll start with a bit about why

I use twitter to…

Keep tabs on real-life friends – Many of my friends are married, or live far away, or they’re busy people like me. In short, I don’t get to see them as often as I want, and even with email, communication tends to lapse. A fair number of them use twitter, and I actually enjoy hearing about the small droll peaks of their day-to-day lives – from random observations to pithy opinions to parenting foibles.

Keep tabs on people I admire – For example, I like to read Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times. I admire his perspective and efforts on behalf of places like Darfur. But he’s also on twitter, posting from the field about things as he experiences them. This kind of unfiltered stuff can be really compelling, depending on the source.

Get real-time information – A couple weeks ago a helicopter was circling above downtown San Francisco, near my office. It appeared to be trying to land on the roof of a nearby building. This went on for what seemed like hours. Medevac? A quick search revealed a consensus among twitterers that it was a TV shoot for Monk. Google can’t do this. And when US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson, I was on my lunch break from work. I happened to check my twitter feed, and I heard about the dramatic crash landing there first. A variety of witness reports were rolling in in real time – many with cell-phone pictures. This isn’t a substitute for actual journalism, but it provides an immediacy and a texture that complements it.

Follow my favorite blogs and news outlets – Some of my favorite blogs are on twitter, so instead of going to in my browser to read the Planet Money blog (and then doing the same for every other blog I like to read), I used to open up Google Reader a few times a day to scan the latest headlines across all my favorite sources. But now that some of my favorite blogs are on twitter, their headlines and more are pushed to me in my twitter feed. I don’t have to go anywhere unless there’s a story I actually want to read.

Discover new and interesting things – As with any venue where you congregate and chat with like-minded people, my twitter friends and their friends talk about the books and articles they’re reading, the music they’re listening to, the products they use, the shows they watch, etc. And when they tweet about these things, they often include links.

Update my Facebook status – I like the simplicity of twitter, and I prefer it to Facebook for doing all the things I mentioned above. More of my friends are on Facebook than twitter, however, so I still use both. Instead of updating my status in both places, I useĀ this little trick to synchronize my Facebook status with my twitter updates.

What is twitter?

I was going to use the last bit of this post to talk about the ways I use various twitter features and tools, but I’ve just had a couple people ask me to explain the basic concept of twitter to them, so I’ll save the “how” for a subsequent post.

Microblogging – Twitter is often referred to as a “microblogging” platform. If a blog represents an easy way for anyone to post stuff on the web, then a microblog is simply a blog that limits the amount you can post at any one time. With twitter, the limit is 140 characters.

The basics – You can read what any person is saying on twitter by going to (where “username” is the person whose updates you want to read. For example, I’m metapede). You can also use twitter search to see what people on twitter have been saying about a particular topic over the last couple of months or so (it doesn’t save anything older than that). Finally, you can see what everyone is saying on twitter by checking out the public timeline.

Following – This is really the heart of how twitter works. Once you sign up for your own twitter account, you can “follow” anyone whose updates you want to read, without their permission – as long as their account is not private. They will receive an email letting them know you are now following them. If they reciprocate, you will get an email too. This way, you always know who’s following you and reading your updates. When you visit someone’s page on twitter, you can see a list of their followers, as well as the people they are following.

This is where twitter is fundamentally different from a social network like Facebook. On Facebook, relationships are two-way things. You request to add someone as a friend, and they need to accept your request before you can see each other’s activity. On twitter, however, relationships can be asynchronous. For example, I can follow Times columnist Nicholas Kristof – along with thousands of other people who enjoy his column – but he doesn’t have to follow everyone back.

Privacy – You can keep your twitter account private, which means people can’t read your updates when they visit your page. They have to request to follow you, and you have to approve them. Your updates also won’t show up in twitter search if your account is private.

Posting updates – Once you’re signed up, you can post updates by going to and typing in the box at the top of the page. You can also make updates by text message, once you enable this feature in your twitter settings, under “Devices.” There are also twitter apps for iPhone and other devices, plus a variety of browser plugins and desktop apps. As for myself, I rarely visit, opting instead to use theĀ TwitterFon app on my iPhone.