Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why Twitter?

A couple of questions keep coming up during Web 2.0 sessions when I talk about Twitter:
  • How is this different from email and email lists?
  • How is this different from RSS feeds?
Email vs. Twitter

The first difference from email is that you're limited to 140 characters in a twitter posting. So, you'd better be able to make it brief. Even URLs are routinely shortened. The good thing is you don't have to wade through pages of prose to try to figure out if this is something you need to know. Some people attempt to get around this limitation by sending out tweet after tweet. But I think the preferred procedure if you want to wax eloquent is to do it in a blog post and just send a link via Twitter.

Another difference is that Twitter posts are ephemeral. They're usually gone after 48 hours. They don't clutter up your inbox. Of course the downside is that if there's something you're interested in pursuing further, you'd better bookmark it or else you're going to have a hard time tracking it down later. But I was able to track down by a graphic I'd liked but neglected to save by contacting the person who'd sent it out. Within an hour, I had it.

Finally, email contacts tend to be fairly limited. Even if you subscribe to wired-mt, there are a lot of people on the list you never hear from. And while there are ways to check, most of the time you don't even know who's out there reading the emails you send to a list. With Twitter you know who's following you and getting your tweets. You decide who to follow based on your interests. In many cases, whoever you follow will also choose to follow you. And vice versa. So you can end up with people on your Twitter network that you didn't know at all before you started following and being followed. You can make some useful contacts. And, once again, using the principles of social networking, you can make a lot more useful contacts by seeing who others in your network are following and following them too.

RSS vs. Twitter

I think the biggest difference between RSS and Twitter is that RSS is really just one way communication while Twitter can be more two-way. And those who really use it effectively set it up as a two-way communication tool.

Say you're in a library looking for new ways to promote your new acquisitions and/or activities. You have an RSS feed from your catalog of new acquisitions. You can use a tool like TwitterFeed to take the RSS feeds and make them into Twitter posts. You can do the same thing with RSS feeds from your library's blog. If nothing else, this can be a fairly easy way to reach additional potential library users. And you probably will get some followers especially if you promote your Twitter page. You can also set up two way communication by following your followers. If these are library users, you can find out about their interests. You can also get feedback to your RSS enabled posts or to any questions you may direct toward them.

Let me give a recent example of what I think is the great potential of Twitter. When I initially signed on, I started following a number of libraries to see how they were using Twitter. Some had accounts but weren't using it at all. Others tweeted about an occasional event at the library. I found one library would send out 20 or more tweets in a day each referring to a new book or DVD. I thought this was overkill and used this library as an example of how you might not want to use Twitter in a couple of recent Web 2.0 sessions. But I felt bad about using them as a negative example without telling them so. This library wasn't following me, nor could I find an email address on their website. So, I used Twitter. I was soon contacted by their branch manager. I learned how they were attempting to use Twitter. He was interested in the feedback. And I've made a new contact who's experimenting with a lot of interesting social networking applications in his library in Arizona. Might we have connected sometime without Twitter? Possibly, but this was definitely faster.

It really is all about making connections. And Twitter seems to be one of the more useful tools for doing that at this moment in time.

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