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November 27, 2007

What’s twitter?

If you’re a hermit, you’ll hate twitter. In fact, if you aren’t a gregarious super node, you probably won’t like twitter or see much use for it. But – with you or without you – it’s growing quickly and has the attention of very communicative and well-read bloggers. As part of my new technical gig, I have to understand sites like this even though I’m more a reclusive type. This post is about what I’ve learned: you may want to skip it if you already twitter but you’re also welcome to stay and join in the discussion.

Best thing about twitter is it has a simple purpose: it provides you with a way to find out in 140 characters or less what you’re twittering friends are doing right now and to tell them what you’re doing. You can get the stream of 140 character messages, which are called tweets, as text messages, as instant messages, or in a simple web application. You can create them on a cell phone, in the simple web application, and in a couple of other ways which begin to get interesting and which I’ll get to below.

You are a “follower” of those people whose tweets you want to see; you only get tweets from those you follow unless you elect to look at the “public timeline” which has a gush of every public tweet – can’t imagine why you’d want to do that unless you’re in sociology or marketing.

Unless you make your tweets private, they’re both part of the public timeline AND visible to anyone who wants to follow you. Of course I immediately made my tweets private meaning I had to OK would-be followers (or insult them by not OKing).  That’s not the true twitter experience so I gave in and made them public. I do get the screen names of new followers in email and a chance to become followers of theirs as well.

If you are a twitterer, you can follow my infrequent tweets under my screen name of tevslin. My last tweet is from 3:45AM this morning complaining that I was up for an early flight. Don’t know why you want to know this; don’t know why I wrote it; but that’s what social people do.

One use of twitter I do understand is facilitating spontaneous meetings of people who’d like to see each other and now have a way to know when they’re both in the same place at the same time. Lots of nice stories about friends waiting for delayed flights at different gates of the same airport and getting a chance because of twitter to have a drink or a meal together.  Two weeks ago in my pre-twitter days, I was in NYC and missed a chance to see a friend who was also in town; maybe we would have gotten together if we twittered.

Some people – Jeff Pulver is a good example – use twitter to say that they’ll be somewhere and happy to meet people with certain interests. Jeff has lots of followers (and follows lots of people); this works for him.

You can send direct tweets to someone else; I don’t think the facility is used much but it does have an advantage over texting: the tweet will get to the recipient (assuming the recipient twitters) on his or her cell phone or computer depending on which they happen to be using at the moment for messages – you don’t have to guess what device they’ll be on.

Twitter spam is, in a sense, impossible. No one can make you follow them. You can stop following anyone who is boring.

Applications are growing up around twitter which take advantage of the fact that it’s a good way to notify people of things they may want to know – especially expanded versions of the answer to the question “what are you doing now?”

An application called seesmic (still in closed alpha) makes it easy to take short videos of yourself with your screencam or webcam and post them to the web. An option is to have a short description of the video and the link automagically appear in twitter so your followers can see and hear your latest status with a single click.

Dave Winer has created twittergram which makes it easy to post audio from your cellphone or PC and have a tweet with a description and link appear to your followers. Twittergram can also do pictures posted to flickr. (had tip to Fred Wilson for his post on twittergram).

Twitter’s happening, even if it isn’t your cup of tea.

Quick note to nerds: twitter streams are xml. Makes it easy to write web apps both to feed them and to view them.

Full disclosure: I’m a minor indirect investor in twitter through Union Square Ventures.

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