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Getting Beyond the Simple Stream

Aug 24, 2009 In Design By Tim Aidlin

For me, there are two particularly magical things about Twitter: The open API and the immediacy of use/feedback/interaction. Twitter's programming engine is open to developers to use, which has spawned countless applications which harness the Twitter database and features. Check out the suggestions for apps and workflow with Twitter

I was talking with @Streetfire the other day over some pizza and beer at our favorite pizza place in West Seattle. @Streetfire's responsible for maintaining a pulse on the community for http://streetfire.com, which focuses around customized cars and hot-rods — StreetFire's audience. We got to talking about how we use Twitter, and the tools we use to maintain the potential waterfall of information to which Twitter provides access.  I brought up Joshua Allen’s recent article on “Twitter’s "Failing" Adolsecence” and I realized that @streetfire and I use Twitter in different ways and have pretty different concerns with the service.

I’ve found a lot of articles that discuss Twitter, but only on the very high-level (use Twitter for Marketing / *Don’t* use it for marketing, for instance, or “Twitter is a new service that uses 140-word statements to convey ….”) I hope to get a little deeper here. I thought I'd provide a little light on how I use the service as an integral part of my job as a designer here at Microsoft.

Generally, the first way most people get involved with Twitter is through Twitter's main user-interface at twitter.com. From here users can view the Tweets of the people they are following, gain access to their account, find other people and other actions. This is where most people stop. They follow a few people, tweet about where they are, what they’re doing, or share links with friends.

I think this is the very start of where Twitter becomes interesting. For me,there are two particularly magical things about Twitter: The open API and the immediacy of use/feedback/interaction. Twitter's programming engine is open to developers to use,which has spawned countless applications which harness the Twitter database and features. MIX Online, for instance, has created two prototype applications, Flotzam and The Archivist, which both interact with Twitter. As well, both the MIX09 and PDC09 conferences feature a window that graphically displays tweets in the main user-interface (during the time of the conference.) During these conferences, using both Flotzam and the website to view their tweets, conference attendees will broadcast their messages to other attendees. This creates an interesting sense of community. Parties spontaneously happen as someone will tweet their location and about a great conversation or session they recently attended. As MIX is held in Las Vegas, it's easy to get around, so it's easy to meet up with other developers and designers … community from the Internet to “Tweetups.” Wonderful.

Since the attendees are tweeting about the conference, those of us who are behind the scenes get to see in real time what the attendees are thinking is interesting or problems attendees are encountering ("No wi-fi! Epic Fail!"). This enables us to react very quickly to problems that sometimes arise and keep things moving as smoothly as possible. I wrote a longer Opinion on this last April, entitled Zeno 4803 (which is the room we were holed up in during MIX09.)

We also use Twitter in a very similar fashion when we release a piece of software, like Flotzam or The Archivist, mentioned above. By following a few simple "hashtags," — which I'll discuss in a moment — we're able to really get an interesting and immediate gauge on the reaction in the Tweetsphere. For instance, when we saw some users were having problems with Flotzam for a time, we saw their tweets about it, and were able to help them solve a problem and get up and running. We also got invaluable feedback into how we could make our product better.

As well, Twitter allows searching of their database, which provides an endless wealth of information that can be accessed via search.twitter.com. To do those searches you can easily just put in a generic term like Microsoft, and you'll get, as you can imagine, a lot of tweets back (up to 1500 to be specific.) The second way to search is with using a hashtag (#) before your search term. This will give you fewer results, and only those results that are specifically "calling out" Microsoft, rather than a simple mention of the company or product. This can be very useful, especially when you're searching on a term that is, for instance, a product named Glimmer, but you did not want to see a billion tweets mentioning "a glimmer of hope." Those in the know will generally write something like "I love #Glimmer, a tool for #jQuery," for instance, and that way those interested Glimmer know someone's mentioning it.

One problem, as you can imagine, is tracking multiple searches at once, including all of the people you follow. It's certainly possible to fire up a bunch of web-browser windows and monitor search.twitter.com. That's pretty inefficient, though, especially if you have lots of things you'd like to keep tabs on. To do this, you have a few software options, but, personally, I use TweetDeck on my desktop, laptop, and mobile device, and find it really easy to synch the data between the three instances. Once I'm signed in, I immediately get a few columns of information that I might be interested in monitoring: my friends, mentions of me, direct messages, and a few others. From there, I can simply click the search icon, and start searching the Twitter database for subjects that I'm interested in. Right now for instance, I'm monitoring:

  • my friends
  • Direct Messages
  • mentions of me
  • PDC09
  • Flotzam
  • HTML5
  • visitmix
  • #gestalt
  • MIX09
  • "The Archivist"

"Once you have all these Tweets in your TweetDeck, what can you do with them? I mean, really isn't it all of your friends talking about what they ate for lunch?"

Well, sometimes they your friends do, in fact, tweet about what they had for lunch. Sometimes, perhaps, that leads to great new experiences at restaurants to which you've never been. You see someone had a great lunch at "Little Bistro," and it's more likely you'll go there. This is a good illustration of one of the powers of Twitter: the ability to find information that you wouldn't normally find, from strangers around the world that share some common interest. In addtion to the Tweetups (where Twitter followers and friends meet up in real life) I mentioned before, Twitter can be an amazing place for the cultivation and aggregation of knowlege. For instance, over the last year I've been getting more interested and fluent with jQuery. I owe much of my jQuery education to links provided by @elijahmanor, who has been tweeting a lot of great jQuery resources. By running these "streams of tweets" information *comes to you,* rather than you have to go find it.

Again, there are a lot of blog posts out there that can help get you started figuring out a strategy to use Twitter either personally or strategically for your marketing and business needs. One particularly useful and deep resource I’ve found is the blog http://www.twitip.com/ written by Darren Rowse at http://problogger.net. What I wanted to do here is just give a brief overview of how one dude at Microsoft uses Twitter in his daily work.

How do you use Twitter for work or social-networking? Or perhaps you find Twitter overblown and a passing-fad. Let us know by leaving a comment below of, of course, following us on Twitter at @mixonline

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2 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Elijah Manor said on Aug 24, 2009

Thanks for the shout out! Glad you enjoy the tech tweets.

I''d love to make it to Mix someday... maybe I can convince my company to foot the bill :)

I am always on the lookout for a better twitter client, but I seem to always go back to TweetDeck.

You''re blog article will be tech tweeted in the morning ;) It should get better traffic if I do it then rather than now.

Tim Aidlin said on Aug 25, 2009

Thanks for the note, Elijah. Yes, your "tech tweets" have been super-useful, and have really helped direct me to good info for projects that we''ve worked on over the year(s).

I appreciate your getting the word out about this article, and hope you find useful/interesting some of the projects here on MIX Online ... Glimmer might be of most interest to you, as it''s a "jQuery designer."

Cheers.