Twitter: don’t be put off by the name

Do you connect to the internet? If you don’t then you might not want to read on. Like a tongue worrying a broken tooth, I’m off on another of my social computing themes. This time it’s Twitter.

Twitter, for those unfamiliar, is a place to say whatever you like in 140 characters or less. A bit like phone texting except that anyone can read what you say and you can tune in to whoever or whatever interests you.

The value of Twitter, if you get it right, is that a sense of community emerges and people of similar interests (however niche) are able to reach out to each other and share insights or useful web links. It can also be a one-stop-shop for news.

The theme of Twitter is supposed to be “what are you doing?” and a lot of people come out with stuff like “off to make coffee”, or “watching the cat”. They answer the question, but it doesn’t usually enrich the readers’ lives. Apart, I suppose, that they learn that someone they follow likes coffee and the other has a cat. But there’s an ‘information overload’ price to pay for this sort of information. Frankly, other things are more interesting and/or useful. Especially from a business perspective.

When I was at Lotusphere in January, I met an enormous number of people who had taken various social computing initiatives to their hearts. Most of them were from medium to large enterprises. I wondered how they managed what was potentially an infinite number of information sources and ‘buddies’. The thought that stayed with me long after the event was ‘focus’. It is far too easy to try and keep up with too much, with the result that you don’t keep up with much at all.

On my return, I ruthlessly hacked away at my social sites: Netvibes’ RSS feeds; Skype’s IM list; Facebook’s ‘friends’; and Twitter’s ‘followees’. It worked. I’m much closer to staying on top and in control. I generally know what the people I care about are up to and I have a reasonable grasp of the news that interests me.

Speaking of news, where news used to flow into Netvibes, I’ve discovered a lot of news feeds in Twitter: BBC; ITN; The Register; and the New York Times, for example. In fact, 1205 Tweeters have ‘news’ in their name. Type ‘business and news’ in the search box and 17 focused feeds appear. ‘Environment and news’ turns up three. It seems that the BBC and The Register (at least) are feeding Twitter directly from their regular posts using a program called Twitterfeed. Good idea; two birds with one stone.

Rather than log in to Twitter in a browser, some people run programs like Twhirl or Twitterrific. Then they can post and read feeds without leaving the desktop.

So, with care, you can reach out to those people and information sources that are relevant to your life. A useful way to find relevant people to follow is to see who the people you value are already following. If the list is short, it’s likely to be hand-picked and therefore valuable. If it’s long, take it with a pinch of salt. Mine was long, until I realised that following people just because they were following me was a bit of a silly idea. It seemed like a courteous thing to do, but not if you want to retain your sanity.

Apart from keeping your ‘followee’ list focused, the most important thing with Twitter is not to feel you have to read every posting. If you’ve been away and you really need to know everything that a particular person has tweeted, just visit their home page.

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