Why I use Twitter

3D Fail WhaleI have to explain this one a lot. As often as mass media is beginning to refer to Twitter as the next web phenomenon, I meet a lot of people that are positively baffled by it. From my experience, these folks are easily split into two categories:

  • Those who have never heard of it
  • Those who think it’s stupid
If you’re in the first category, you should stop reading and go take a look at Twitter. Seriously, go take a look.

Back? Formed an opinion? Fantastic!

If you think Twitter looks pretty cool, you probably shouldn’t waste your time with this post. Instead, I would suggest visiting my profile and following me. Trust me, there is no better way to enjoy the service than to get yourself a constant stream of design, tech, music and geek thoughts. Would I lie to you? Of course not. The rest of you should keep reading.

I need to make a confession. I enjoy Twitter in spite of itself. It’s true; I think there are some serious problems with the service. In no particular order:

  • The interface is obtuse and ill-suited for conversations
  • It is almost always slower than you’d like it to be
  • Despite recent improvements, the site out-and-out fails way more than much larger services
  • They impose strict API limits despite the fact that it is nearly unusable without third-party applications
So why do I stick around? Because it is the largest service dedicated to the concept of mass-messaging.

Twitter started as a sort of micro-blogging platform, and the current interface is still very much catered to this behavior. I guess the idea was that, if people loved blogs so much, maybe they would love blogs that were really, really small. As in, limited to 140 characters a post. Amazing.

Then something really cool happened. Twitter users wanted a means to converse through their miniature updates. So what happened? They appropriated the ‘@’ symbol as a means of identification. Now, Twitter users could talk to each other through their status updates by referring to the intended recipient as @username.

blue_128Although Twitter has direct messaging for one-on-one conversations, @replies are much more significant. Their introduction transformed the service from a dwarf blog network to a vast, communal conversation stream. This means that Twitter no longer appeals solely to egomaniacs wishing to hurl 140 more characters into the abyss; it’s useful for anyone wishing to join a potentially ever-expanding conversation.

I have landed commissions, arranged real-life meetups, compared media center solutions and forged friendships through this service, all thanks to its aptitude for spontaneous, micro-viral thoughtstreams.

I don’t consider myself an expert of the service (in fact, I’m a rather casual user in comparison to many), and I typically frown upon articles promising seemingly lucrative Twitter tips, but here are lessons I’ve learned that have made Twitter much more enjoyable:

  • Ditch Twitter.com. The default interface is fine, but not very helpful when it comes to conversations. I would recommend TweetDeck for power users, and Twhirl for more casual users. They work on all platforms, update regularly and make it much easier to segue Twitter into your day without disrupting anything.
  • Talk with, not at. It’s perfectly normal to tweet statements and questions throughout the day, but make a point to join threads in progress which you find interesting. You’ll develop more meaningful interactions if you resist the need to moderate every conversation.
  • Don’t follow everybody. While it’s important to build a nice, big group of Tweeple to get the updates flowing, resist the urge to reciprocate every follow you get. Take a moment to look at their profile and decide whether or not their content appears meaningful. Once you feel your Twitter profile is at the brink of being manageable, you might start requiring folks to @reply you before engaging. What better way to get to know someone?
  • Follow people different from yourself. Of course you want to have a focus on topics you’re interested in, but don’t write off folks who appear uninteresting at first. Who knows if that single mom and scrapbooking aficionado from the East Coast has some really interesting wisdom to share? Only one way to find out!
  • Self-promote, in moderation. If someone follows you, it probably means they’re interested in you, so updating your profile with the occasional blog post or project launch is perfectly acceptable. If you begin bombarding your followers with nothing but plugs, do them a favor and launch separate Twitter accounts for each project. Those who are interested will gladly follow the additional account.
  • Be positive! Seriously, who wants to listen to a sourpuss all day? If you have trouble maintaining followers, there’s a chance you could be depressing them. Besides, everyone knows Livejournal is the place to let loose your cranky, emo demons!
The fact remains that Twitter isn’t for everybody. It certainly does not reward private people. Your investment is participation, and you get out of it what you put into it.

Ready to get started? Follow me, then send something @tylersticka. I’d love to hear from you!

Update (5/9): I still love Tweetdeck on the PC, but I must profess that Tweetie has taken over my Twitter usage on both Mac and iPhone platforms. Give it a spin!