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Ivan's picture

If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written You a Shorter Letter

This is an introductory post about Twitter, for newbies and beginners, but I hope seasoned Twitterers will also find some interesting points.

Why Twitter?

Twitter is the typical service which you think is useless until you start using it. Only then will you discover the true potential. It's hard to explain why Twitter is cool, but I'll try. In a few words it's condensed and instant communication, which is increasingly more valuable as we get closer to singularity.

What's Twitter?

Humans never stop thinking. People think from the time they wake up till they go to sleep all day long. Sometimes you feel like sharing your thoughts and observations. Twitter is a service that allows you to say a few words about anything that's on your mind with a limit of 140 characters at a time. It only allows you to post text and links. You can post these tweets from many different platforms and devices.

The most important feature of Twitter is the ability to subscribe to other people's tweets. If you follow somebody you will be able to read his tweets instantly as he posts them. If people follow you they will read what you post. You don't have to mutually follow each other.

The 3 types of Twitter users

There are mainly 3 types of users on twitter depending on the number of people they follow and the number of followers, which usually go hand in hand:

  1. Up to 100 friends — beginner phase. Because you only follow a few dozen people and friends you are able to read what they are up to. This is fun, stay in this phase as long as you can. This experience feels like you dropped in to your fav bar and get to know all the latest gossips.
  2. 100-1000 friends — intermediate phase. You follow more people than just close friends. But you still have association with these people based on common interests. You can't really follow everybody's tweets anymore as there are too many, but you still pick up interesting bits here and there. Your twitter account transforms into a tool where you are able to direct traffic to topics of your interest and crowd source information. It feels like a school or office bulletin board to give an off-line example.
  3. 1000-up friends — advanced phase. You follow more than 1000 people which makes it virtually impossible to read all the tweets. Every link you drop will generate dozens of clicks. At this stage your twittering may become a business. You have to be considerate about what you post. You're talking to a large public with people of different cultures, tastes and beliefs. It feels like you're talking to a crowd of people who are not focused on you, but if you say something interesting they will all turn to you.

Instant flow of information

Many people aren't twittering themselves, but they selectively read other people's tweets. Twitter search allows you to get instant updates on any event that is happening in the world. It's real time and coming from many sources at the same time.

For example if your gmail doesn't load you can search for "gmail" and find out if others have the same issue, and if you're lucky you also get hints for workarounds, or tips on when the service is expected to be back. No other source I know of can compete with the speed of twitter at this moment.

Other example: Few days ago I was in an amusement park and while I was leaving I suddenly saw ambulances and firefighters arriving at the gates. I opened my phone and searched for the place's name on twitter and voila I knew what was going on, with increasing precision by minute. I arrived home 45 minutes later and there were still no updates on traditional news channels about the event.

Twitter lingo

Twitter has it's own language that you don't have to use, but it's useful to know. Besides the usual smileys you can use this Twitter syntax:

  • Public addressing. Example: @creativebitsorg When will you have rating for comments? — including an at sign with a username sends a public message to that specific twitter user. This message will be visible on your account page, and be visible for him, but not publicly. He will know he's been addressed and he can tweet you back the same way.
  • Re-tweeting. Example: RT @creativebitsorg Life's short, get your updates on twitter and move on — RT stands for Re-Tweet. You add RT and the name of the source to tell your readers you're reposting somebody's tweet.
  • Tagging. Example: #jobs Looking for a talented art director in the SF bay area for a small ad agency — The hash tag is a way to group tweets. It's a good idea to use tags because people will be able to find your relevant tweets easier.
  • Tag campaigns. Example: #3wordsaftersex Dammit, a puncture! — There are waves of trends on twitter with a common theme defined by a hash tag that thousands use for a short time. People run games, campaigns, protests, etc. this way.
  • Follow Friday tag. Example: #followfriday @creativebitsorg @adsoftheworld @brandsotw — Every Friday, thousands of twitter users suggest users worth following within the event of #followfriday.

Extending Twitter's basic functionality

You can post images, sort your followers, find top tweets and do dozens of other different things with Twitter that are not available on Twitter through third party twitter sites. There are literally hundreds of such services, so let me list just a few to give you an idea, and please do post your favorite Twitter tools.

  • TwitIn allows you to mass manage and find followers.
  • Tweet Later lets you auto reply with a direct message to those who newly follow you.
  • Twitterfeed as you probably guessed posts RSS feed items as tweets automatically.
  • Just tweet it helps you find people to follow in specific subjects.
  • Twitpic gives you the power to post photos.
  • Many more

Twitter interfaces

Primarily you can update your Twitter through the web interface, but most people will find Twitter desktop applications to be easier and more powerful, especially if you have more than one account. For Mac OSX there are at least 3 excellent applications: Tweetdeck, Tweetie and Nambu. There are several Twitter applications for the iPhone. You can also update your Twitter account through IM or SMS.

Fail whale

twitter fail whale
Twitter is famous for not being as reliable as you would expect from a site of such popularity. It's highly likely importing your friends or setting up the design of your account will take a few tries before it works. When Twitter is down the now famous fail whale is displayed.

Condensed language

SMS brought this phenomena to life at first with it's 160 character limit and Twitter keeps it alive. Twitters not only shorten word like people to ppl, they also shorten long urls that would otherwise take up a considerable amount of the 140 characters. You can use one of the many url shortening services with different features or just rely on the default that twitter uses on the web interface.

hemingway twittering

Some feel this trend of shortened language is destroying the English and other languages because it cripples free expression. I don't think it's the case. I think limits are good for creativity. Being able to express yourself concisely and as clearly takes effort and creativity. Short communication is a value for all readers.


Did you know that the famous twitter bird is a freely available vector graphic you can download for 10USD?

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

JimD's picture
2626 pencils

First, if you're new to Twitter, check out Twitip - the site offers a ton of advice for new Twitterers.

Second, follow a lot of people that Tweet about your interest area. If you're really into design or the Mac, you can find a ton of people who Tweet about those subjects. You can find them searching for Hash tags, or find one person (such as my Twitter account and look at who the person follows. You'll see a list of people that person follows. In my case, it's a few hundred other designers and Mac users who I think are interesting.

Once you have a bunch of people you're following. Sit back and see how it works, how other people use Twitter. Once you've got a handle on it, you can unfollow the folks you're not interested in. But don't get caught up in how many people follow you - it's a numbers game that serves no purpose other than to boost your ego - and eventually catches up to you.

And finally, DO NOT simply use TwitterFeed to post your latest blog post links on Twitter. The whole point of Twitter is to interact with people. If you do nothing but post links to your own site, people are going to unfollow you.

I'm not saying you shouldn't post links to your own content, but if that's all you do with Twitter, it's not going to further your goal of getting more readers in the long run. You MUST interact with people on a personal level. This is what gets you more Twitter followers.

Visit The Graphic Mac for graphics and Mac OS tips, reviews, tutorials and discussion.

Ivan's picture

Great advice! Thanks Jim!

JimD's picture
2626 pencils

Great article, Ivan!

Visit The Graphic Mac for graphics and Mac OS tips, reviews, tutorials and discussion.

plugz's picture
1245 pencils

But this section...


Public addressing. Example: @creativebitsorg When will you have rating for comments? — including an ampersand with a username sends a public message.. incorrect, it's an 'At sign' not an ampersand

Ivan's picture

Oh, of course. Thanks! I'll fix it.

ItalianMike's picture
303 pencils

I just have to say that I think Twitter has been completely overhyped and sold by the media and especially the likes of CNN, which lately is guilty of trying to be hip and cool instead of reporting the news.

I've tested twitter for a couple of months and I have found very few people that post interesting messages on twitter. In my opinion It's nothing more than a glorified marketing tool used by people that want to drive traffic to their blogs.

I've come to see it as an inferior version of RSS, inferior because once you begin following a sizeable amount of people the service starts to show it's flaws. If you don't continuously check twitter you will find links to articles being lost in the shuffle of incoming messages. RSS is vastly superior in that sense.

I'd also like to point out that some surveys say that 60% of Twitter users leave after a month. In my opinion this affirms my suspicions that Twitter is a glorified publicity service without any other real value to it.

It might work for some, but I found that most of the people I follow are already in my RSS feed. The others post silly comments that aren't of any real value, like small details about their day.

For the sake of the supporters, I did discover a woman that tweets cooking recipes, which I thought was really clever. You need a key to decipher the recipes because they are so condensed. Also I have been lead to the occasional interesting article. But still it's too few and far between for me to really hop on the bandwagon.

print wiz's picture
20 pencils

Thanks for this article, Ivan. Helps me to understand a bit more what's going on there. However, from my point of view Twitter is a movement in the wrong direction, 'cause anyhow we're flooded with information. I too gave Twitter a try (obviously I didn't get beyond the beginners phase ;) and I found that sometimes there where very interesting tweets with links to stunning sites, helpful services and articles I enjoyed reading. In total, however, like ItalianMike said, most contributes where of now value. It takes time to do a selection, it takes time for the twitterers to write them and I regard it as precarious, how much of our time is bound in using such a service.
Okay, some of the information you get there is interesting, but is it vital? And even if from time to time it provides inspiration for your work, do we have to push ourselves even more and more? As I see it, Twitter is a kind of vortex which, as also JimD said, at a certain point plays with the ego and keeps us from being conscious what life is REALLY about. I don't say that all this time passed on twitter should be used for meditation, but..... wait, this idea isn't that silly :DDD
What I really don't understand is how twitterers with demanding jobs find the time for all these tweets. I wouldn't.

print wiz's picture
20 pencils

Ivan, I guess I have to eat humble pie ;) I talked to my German colleague and we gave Twitter another try. It's useful, yes, if you know how to use it, and in fact we've now substituted our corporate chat by Twitter, but yet I still have to say that it's also a "time killer". You can really can "lose" yourself on Twitter. On one hand it's an interesting tool, but on the other hand it's questionable.

steveballmer's picture
653 pencils

I hate twitter myself and I am always right about these things.
I am not Steve Ballmer pretending not to be me!

Anonymous's picture
141 pencils

To twitter, by definition, is to talk rapidly of trivial matters. Birds twitter too.
There is a perception that instant information is needed in today's life as opposed to well researched, considered information (albeit delivered slightly more sedately). As humans continue to evolve, I predict it will be those who absorb quality information and make better informed decisions who will out perform those who twitter. The obsession with being 'instantly' connected is at the expense of being 'well' connected. For example, the thousands attending my lectures in person get the real deal, whereas the ham-radio enthusiasts and facsimile machine advocates who get only the sound-bites from these oratory masterpieces (the audience's words, not mine) subscribe to a necessarily inferior product.

Write a wise saying and your name will live forever – Anonymous.

3dogmama's picture
1990 pencils

I'm not a twitter fan myself...

"Art -- the one achievement of Man which has made the long trip up from all fours seem well advised." - James Thurber

pub3abn's picture
22 pencils

"...which is increasingly more valuable as we get closer to singularity."

What??? is that good news or bad?

Personally I tried Twitter, but despite my interest in new communications technology, I've found it to be mostly a time waster. It's like filter feeding, when there are tools that take your straight to the good stuff. RSS is much better. RSS is how I found your post. With RSS you get the link and the content and the source. If you have a flexible RSS reader, like Safari, you can easily change your view -- from just the headers, to the whole shebang.

Ivan's picture

Singularity is bad news. People will not be able to keep up with the fast advancement of technology and overflow of information.

I'm not saying Twitter is a solution at all. :) But you can't really sort millions of RSS feeds as well as you can sort millions of twitter feeds.

Jake Y's picture
2 pencils

Thanks a lot for this information. Twitter doesn’t only help the users to make their own twitter site Creativity is one of the defining traits of humanity. It's important for a person to stoke their creativity and harness it to useful ends. Every now and again you need to recharge a little bit. You could try meditation or go to the park with the dogs. There's a quick thinking solution. Perhaps you could look into other ways to make money for a little extra folding cash. (Hey, make more money if you don't make enough – a novel concept.) Even if it only applies to your finances, definitely in other areas, doing things to boost your creativity are short term loans to your brain.

Chez A's picture
89 pencils

I've always been thinking about creating a twitter account myself but I wasn't sure if I should or not. Personally, I think it's a clever idea and fun if you'd just keep it to following a certain number of people you know that you think might be interested of what you're up to.

sidesey's picture
280 pencils

Great article Ivan, as usual, useful points too JimD. With twitter lists now twitter makes it much easier to follow and find the people and info you need. Tweetdeck and other apps made a start, but once mobile apps are available it will be a lot easier to find tweets on the go. Can't wait! For the time being is a web app, which allows you to access your twitter lists.

Some interesting thoughts on lists here too: When using the BETA of lists I kept everything private, but then I saw people sharing lists and thought I should do the same, but in hindsight not sure if its the right thing to do. I have a private list called local, which is for people around me, but if this was public, is it my place to tell the whole world where these other followers are? Not really IMO. Then again if you follow someone you want to appear on their lists, don't you, but it is a dilemma really.

Another tip is, if you favourite tweets that enables you to find someone quickly too - for example I follow local travel info and get immediate updates on twitter, normally quicker than listening to the radio - and it doesn't interrupt my music either!

Creativebits is a blog about Creativity, Graphic Design, Adobe, Apple and other related subjects.

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