UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Twitter Friday

Posted by Brian Kelly on 21 Jan 2008

The Background

Friday turned out to be a day of experimentation with Twitter for myself and some of my Twitter friends including Andy Powell, Pete Johnston, Paul Miller, Owen Stephens and Josie Fraser.

Friday actually began with an email discussion with fellow members of the Internet Librarian International advisory group over the theme for the conference. I expressed some reservations that the suggestions, which focussed on tangible benefits and return on investment, although important, could detract from the needs for experimentation and intangible benefits. I feel these points were accepted, and the conference organisers will shortly be announcing details of this year’s conference.

In contrast, the discussions held on the Twitter micro-blogging service appeared to cast me in an alternative role in which I argued the need for guidelines on best practices to support use of Twitter. In response I received tweets (Twitter posts) along the lines of “The day we have best practice for Twitter will be the day I stop using it!” and “Global order is …boring. And massively unhelpful, sometimes“. So is it time to start developing guidelines or is it too early and will such attempts stifle innovation?

Facebook Status DisplayI feel that there are some areas in which mistakes can easily be made and everyone would benefit from understanding the problems and solutions. One good example comes from Owen Stephens’ recent experiences in trying to integrate his Facebook statuses with his Tweeter posts. As Owen describes on his blogWhat I actually wanted was to allow Twitter to update Facebook AND Facebook to update Twitter“. As can be seen from the image, this had an unfortunate side-effect – if you try and do this in both direction, you get a loop.

Architectural Issues

That was a simple and easily understood and easily resolved problem. But on Friday the Twitter discussions led to aspects of the Twitter architecture which may be more difficult to resolve. Although a tweet may be a very simple resource, based on up to 140 characters, possibly including a hyperlink, tweets may have dependencies now only on the Twitter service, but also on the service used to provide the short force of URLs which are often needed to keep to the 140 character limit. So an individual tweet may have a dependency on two services, and if the TinyURL service is not as sustainable as Twitter in the long run, it may not be possible to resolve the hyperlinks. A problem, then, if future generations feel that Twitter records provide useful information on the topics we are talking about today. This is an area of concern which has already been identified in the blogging community, with one blogger having posted on URL Shorteners List and Why It’s a Mistake for Twitter.

And as we look at the different ways in which Twitter can be used, we can spot other limitations in its architecture. Most tweets I have encountered use the Tinyurl.com service but the client I use, Twitteroo, uses the Rurl service: multiple dependencies on URL resolutions, then.

Such concerns may be legitimate, but they are not specific to Twitter: these issues simply reflect the complexities of a Web 2.0 environment. Perhaps of greater interest to the majority of Twitter users and potential users are the ways in which Twitter is being used.

Twitter Usage

Andy Powell recently drew attention to his Twitter followers in a tweet which pointed out that the emerging usage pattern amongst his Twitter friendswas infringing the Twitter Ten Commandments. In particular I think it’s fair to say that we were using Twitter like a private chat room. As I have 80 followers and follow 38 others (Andy has 92 followers and is following 120, Pete has 21 followers and is following 24, Paul has 186 followers and is following 182, Josie has 227 followers and is following 128 and Twitter newcomer Owen Stephens has 9 followers and is following 10 others) I would question the value of our use of Twitter for public messaging especially when most of the followers are likely to see only half of the conversation or when the messages are based on in-jokes.

I do feel that we need to start to discuss the patterns of usage, why Twitter fans find it so useful and to be able to identify potential problem which may lead to Twitter failing to be sustainable in the long term. But I also realise that it is very early days for Twitter and attempting to mandate particular ways of working may stifle innovation. And there’s a denager that focussing on Twitter’s potential in a work capacity could lead to missing out on the informal banter, jokes and discussions which can improve the quality of the work place – for example, the tweet I’ve just received from my colleague Paul Walk “off to Nottingham. No.1 Son is concerned that I don’t run into that old Sheriff….” made me smile.

I feel that the compromise position is to document experiences and encourage debate – as this post aims to do.  I also feel that it would be useful to explore ways in which Twitter can support our professional activities.

One area  in which Twitter experimentation is taking place is to support conferences. Indeed Robert HC has blogged about JISC’s plans to use Twitter to support their conference. As he describes “so that we don’t all feel mega stupid about it, the Comms team is slowly turning into Twitterers (sigh) – with the fabulous results of us now knowing if we’re sitting on trains, waiting for offspring or having slugs creep under our kitchen doors – no doubt this will all be a prelude to something more useful and productive and we are just getting used to how it works…

I think encouraging members of the organisation to use Twitter in this way is useful. It can help to gain an understanding of the issues and also of the things that can go wrong, prior to more formal use. From my experimentation, for example, I know that delivery of tweets via SMS can cause problems if there’s a lively Twitter discussion. On Friday evening, for example, I received an influx of 35 text messages – too many!

But perhaps delivery of tweets to conference delegates via SMS can be a useful  application for Twitter. In previous IWMW events we have invited delegates to provide their mobile phone numbers on the booking form, for use in case of emergencies (this decision was made after the London bombings on 7/7, which took place midway through the IWMW 2005 event). Might Twitter have a role to play as the delivery channel, I wonder?  And could this be used for other purposes (e.g. notification of changes to the programme). And I think it would be fun, after the welcoming talk which asked everyone to set their mobile phones to silent mode, to send a tweet to check that everyone has done so :-)

Your Thoughts

I’ve given some suggestions for use of Twitter in one particular context. And I’ve suggested that Twitter users need to reflect on the strengths and weakness of Twitter, but that we need to have an open debate before rolling out rules for use of Twitter – and, like others, I would be worried if organisations required editorial approval before tweets could be sent.

But we need to have the discussions.  What are your thoughts?

20 Responses to “Twitter Friday”

  1. James Clay said

    For notifcations and letting the world know, Twitter works.

    For conversations and posting concepts for discussion then you have to use Jaiku.

    On was there on Friday and I missed half the conversation as I wasn’t following the people you were following.

  2. i think you are right to question whether using Twitter for one-to-one or few-to-few conversations is the right approach. i (eventually) stopped Twittering on Friday cos it felt like we were mis-using it.

    having said that… one of the more compelling Twitter use-cases is where it is used to ask the same question of a wide bunch of people (“anyone want to meet up in London on Friday?” or “anyone got a wireless router i can borrow in the Bath area?”) kind of thing – which is definitely not simply an answer to ‘what am i doing now’ (the original idea behind Twitter).

    as you say, we’re still learning what works best and reporting/sharing experiences is useful. i think there’s a fine line between right and wrong here – and natural selection will decide, since presumably people will stop following those who abuse. no-one has stopped following me yet… phew!

    i suspect that one of the rules for what makes a good tweet has to do with it being self-sufficient from the thread of which it is a part. i.e just because i am only getting part of a conversation shouldn’t make the part i see meaningless. something like that anyway! :-)

  3. We’re surrounded by a range of tools, all of which are used to varying degrees by different groups of people.

    Twitter, for example, currently offers some fraction of our existing Network of contacts with a way to lightly touch one another. It’s not about persistence, and it’s not about robust web-scale resilience over the long term.

    I, for example, use a tool called Twitterrific on my laptop and iTweet on the move. I glance at one or other at various points during most days… but rarely (if ever) scan back through archives to follow chatter that took place when I was offline or concentrating on something else.

    It’s the networked equivalent of a quick chat by the kettle, or a ‘good morning’ as you pass a colleague’s desk. It’s not email, it’s not a meeting, it’s not a formal record. To project enterprise-scale requirements upon it is, perhaps, to miss the point?

    Twitter is useful for the odd juxtapositions and coincidences that it throws up across a network of peers and/or friends. Twitter is useful for lightly touching those that you rarely see in person… it makes it easier to pick up where you left off, last time you physically met. Twitter is great for following along (as I am just now, courtesy of JP Rangaswami at BT) with proceedings at an event of interest.

    That is enough.

  4. ajcann said

    I’ve been struggling with the question “What is Twitter for” for a while now. Paul’s response is very helpful. It’s about presence, not persistence. Analogy with phone calls here? We only get into trouble when we start recording them…

  5. The persistent dereferenceability of TinyURL, RURL et al (in this context at least) doesn’t bother me because I don’t worry about the persistence of my Tweets.

    As Paul says above, Twitter is a lightweight, informal, channel for small chunks of “disposable”, ephemeral content (or at least that’s how the huge majority of its users treat it), and to try to turn it into something else seems to be missing the point.

    Yeah, yeah, “cool URIs” and all that. But with any URI I coin (or someone else coins on my behalf) there’s some balance between the costs and the benefits of persistence. The most important thing (it seems to me) is that there is a reasonable match between provider commitment and consumer expectation. As long as both I and my readers treat my RURLs as ephemeral, no-one gets hurt; if I treat ownership of my personal domain name as transient but my consumers think I’m in it for the long haul, then we have a problem. That’s why I think the important thing is to be explicit about policies for the URIs you coin, so that consumers know what to expect.

    And I notice that you continue to mis-cite my “personal persistent identifier” in your posts. Or is your misspelling my name (after I’ve commented about it here before!) your response to my “brainkelly” ribbing? :-)

  6. A key point from Pete, about shared ‘consumer’ and ‘provider’ expectation…

    Twitter (and external URL services) are what they are. We (mostly) know that. Do our ‘customers’ ?

  7. D’oh. Sorry Pete – have corrected my misspelling of your surname.

    Thanks to all for the prompt responses. Interestingly the suggestion that tweets should be regarded as “lightweight, informal, channel for small chunks of ‘disposable’, ephemeral content” relates to a post I made some time ago about disposable data (which was regarded as heresy in some circles, I think).

    I was conscious of the informal nature of Tweets when I wrote my post – is it, for example, permissable to cite comments made on such informal channels, or should they be regarded as informal briefings, and it would be bad form to attribute them?

  8. David Harrison said

    Interesting thoughts Brian – they complement ones we’re “considering” at Cardiff at the moment. Difficult to consider whether Social Web Applications should have “advice” applied to them, but upon reflection probably should for “appropriate” (or should I say “productive and useful” use within the “enterprise” (however defined). So folowing upon sorting out a third strand of work on “email guidance” which hopefully we’ll put to bed shortly – it’s still amazing how much bad practice in email there is out there – we’ll be addressing IM, as well as Blogs & Wikis (you know about that work) and perhaps also consider how social bookmarking eg del.icio.us as well should be used to advantage. Not in a prescriptive way, but just in ways that encourage others to join in rather than get driven away – which is your issue with FB, I suspect. [I must read your other posting when I get the time.] So keep on twittering – I’ll keep following you!

  9. Brian – I don’t see any actual barrier to citing tweets… provided there’s some implicit awareness of context and a healthy dollop of caveat emptor… They’re certainly attributable… even if not necessarily deferenceable in perpetuity.

    There’s almost a danger in going the other way, and assuming that a tweet is an ephemeral and ‘safe’ way to share off the cuff remarks with close friends/colleagues. Most tweets show in the public feed. Most tweets are indexed by Google. Twitterers shouldn’t forget that. Most of the time, of course, that doesn’t matter… and it can be useful.

  10. shaidorsai said

    Steve Rubel found out just how unsafe Tweets could be. As far as notifications go – I follow @dsearls and @scobleizer amongst others, and turn notifications off & on depending on volumes.

  11. Hi Shaidorsai – the post you cite is most informative. A trvial remark leads on to a huge debate:

    No Peter, it is not speaking with a “forked tongue.” It is the recognition that the first thought that pops into our mind isn’t always the right one.

    That sounds reasonable, but then later on the arguments begin:

    “Amanda Chapel” appears to be a simple thug-like troll.

    His/their client must’ve asked them to “make it go viral” and “use Web 2.0 tools”, but the campaign failed, so now we hear anti-Cluetrain rantings.

    Let “Amanda Chapel” and others who fear some “cult” of the “amateur” persist in their Luddite frenzies. Yawn. Slightly underwhelming.

    and escalate:

    Shut up Alice. I’ve been a harbinger of this Cluetrain Wreck. Don’t you dare hang it on me.

    Listen, a least Rubel has the sense to open his mind and reconsider. Your comment Alice is the stuff of what got him in trouble.

    I fear such misunderstanding may also occur with the digital library development environment, unless we’re not careful.

  12. I’ve thought of an interesting educational context in which to use Twitter: before sending students off on work placements, ask someone at the workplace (a mechanic, a florist, etc) to Twitter regularly throughout the day. This gives the learner some idea of what someone in that job role has to do throughout a day, and it gives them the opportunitiy to ask some questions. When the learner goes on work placement, they could use Twitter to log their tasks and thoughts. Hoping to try this out with a college where the targetted group of learners are in Foundation skills courses (Entry level) to raise communication skills and social skills.

  13. Agreed with some that I’m really not sure about all this best practice and conference stuff use in many ways. Well I guess twitter’s out there and it’s a free country. Yes some folk have lots of followers but these may or may not be ‘solicited’ and an aspect of twitter is snooping anyway. Jaiku probably is better but it seems to have missed the boat. Betamax was better than VHS. The conference micro-blogging I’ve seen tends to be “suchabody now speaking on something” or “suchabody mentioned something or other”. Too brief, generally non reflective and largely useless.

    Surprised and disappointed that Andy feels we were mis-using twitter and so stopped. The use is what it is right now. Even this comment makes me a little more reticent to tweet (I know it shouldn’t) which is a shame.

    So my emerging use pennies worth is quite like Pauls I think. Especially now as a ‘remote’ worker, Twitter is my office and you folks (like it or not) are my office mates. I work for a bit and then stick my head over the monitor and mention the footy results, ask if anyone can recommend some good headphones or have a dig at an inveterate name mis-speller. You can ignore my naff jokes if you want.

    Twitter has been great for me in this way and I get the impression from some of Josie Fraser’s tweets that it’s the same for her. Not fussed about persistence or one-sidedness. All adds to the snoopy frisson. Please, no rules.

    Ta, The Twitterrorist

  14. […] Twitter Friday […]

  15. […] fascination with various “lifestreaming” tools continues apace. Brian Kelly has been getting particularly excited about the regulation (or not, as his fellow Twitterers are shouting) of these tools. “We should […]

  16. I have to say I agree with Mike Butcher on Twitter killed Status Star – Twitter is far more useful as a conversation than as a status update service.

    Incidentally, I’m noticing a divide between those people who use Twitter primarily through SMS, and those who use it primarily through a computer. The former group tend to talk more about things ‘out there’ in the real world (invites to the pub, meetups, etc), whilst the latter group tend to talk more about web-based things (blog posts, funny links, etc). I fall firmly into the first group.

    Frankie

  17. Just catching up with your blog…

    I think there is a lot about context here. In many instances we may not be interested in the persistence of tweets, or in following a complete conversation. I don’t really have any ‘right’ to participate in a twitter conversation between someone I know, and someone I don’t – although it can be frustrating, I don’t go round complaining that you are talking to X down the pub and not including me in the conversation. That said, I think it would be nice if Twitter had some better ways of tracking conversations where they are ‘public’

    If Twitter is used in a different context – let’s say teaching – then perhaps there is a need for some different ‘rules’. These aren’t Twitter rules – any more than the way you use email in teaching are ’email’ rules – they are perhaps more about good practice in communication in teaching. If I wanted to interact with a cohort via Twitter (or similar) then I’d probably want to know that there was someway of tracking the whole conversation – otherwise there would be a danger that some students would miss out.

    Also, there are examples of students requesting all emails relating to them from a University – what if they want all the Twitters as well (how would this work – the University presumably doesn’t ‘own’ the Tweets in the same way that it owns institutional email, but perhaps it is responsible).

    So, to summarise – if we are going to use Twitter (or Jaiku etc.) in an institutional context, we may need to think about best practice – I don’t think we need rules as such.

  18. […] than discussing how such services might be used (a topic I raised recently) I would make the observation that the development of these services is based on lightweight […]

  19. […] and work placements Lilian Soon posted  a comment on the UK Web Focus blog  about using Twitter to help students on work placements: “before […]

  20. […] fascination with various “lifestreaming” tools continues apace. Brian Kelly has been getting particularly excited about the regulation (or not, as his fellow Twitterers are shouting) of these tools. “We should […]

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