BY ROB MORRIS
On April 17, Oprah began using Twitter. Some saw Oprah’s adoption of the service as a milestone that Twitter had gone mainstream. Others decried it as a sure sign that the Twitter fad was about to flame out. Asked about Twitter criticism (Is it redundant? Is it trivial?), co-founder Biz Stone said in the New York Times on Sunday, May 10, 2009 “That’s like people saying, ‘Why would I
ever carry a phone around when I have one in my kitchen?’”
On April 23, UK’s new basketball coach, John Calipari joined Twitter, and had 1,000 followers within one hour (over 20,000 now). So, why all the fuss about Twitter?
I have to admit that I just didn’t get it. At first. In Part 1, I’ll talk about how I learned to love Twitter. In Part 2, I’ll explain why Twitter matters. If you feel like a Twitter pro, then skip on down to Part 2.
How Twitter works
Twitter is a microblogging service which allows users to post messages of 140 characters or less. These messages — called ‘tweets’ — chronicle what the user is doing / reading / thinking in that moment. You can follow other users, and
they can follow you as well. [Note: There are privacy settings in Twitter which allow you to protect who sees your tweets.]
Twitter shorthand has developed to convey key concepts. Responses to other users contain an ‘at’ sign (@) before their user name — so, for instance, other Twitter users respond to my posts with an ‘@robmorris2’.’ When discussing a particular topic, users often apply a hashtag (a pound sign: #) to their post. (Ace’s hashtags for #swineflu were #hamthrax and #HamaGeddinIt.) Local trending hashtags are #CPLex and #UnElect for example. Many users want to share stories or blog posts with their followers — using URL ‘shorteners’ to compress a web address.
So, many links on Twitter are from the bit.ly, is.gd, tr.im, or similar odd-looking domains. When users want to share someone else’s tweet with their followers, they often ‘re-tweet.’ They do so with ‘RT’ and the user’s @name. So, when I saw a Dave Winer tweet that I thought was worth sharing, I shared it this way:
“RT@davewiner: Why NPR is Thriving (They’re Not Afraid of Digital Media). http://tr.im/jH5o.”
Twitter gives you some basic tools to help you find and add other friends who use the service. When I first started using Twitter, I added a few close friends. I twittered something about what I was doing, careful to use my 140 character allotment.
And nothing happened.
I really wondered what this Twitter fuss was all about…. Only one of my friends really used the service more than a few times a month. And he (@billder — well worth following) was in Portland, used a bewildering array of #’s and @’s; he was talking with folks I didn’t know; and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all.
I posted to Twitter once or twice a week through January. And then I drifted away until April. After listening to an audiobook of What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis on Twitter), the prominent blogger of the BuzzMachine blog, I decided to give Twitter another try.
I followed many more folks the second time around: local and national news sites; favorite authors, bloggers, and personalities; technology sites; interesting companies and their executives; and whatever else I found interesting. When I got up to about 50 people, Twitter started to get really intriguing. With more and more interesting people sharing more and more interesting thoughts, links, and retweets, Twitter suddenly became much more vibrant.
But there was something which still didn’t work for me: the Twitter web page. As a static page with maybe 20 tweets on it, I had to keep reloading. If a lot of folks were tweeting, I often missed important tweets from friends in the flurry of tweets from other, more prolific users.
It was (and is) all a bit chaotic.
But there are solutions. Twitter has allowed software developers to graft their products onto the Twitter platform (Seesmic, Twhirl, TweetFon, Tweetie, and many others). My current favorite is desktop software called TweetDeck. With TweetDeck, Twitter finally came alive and started making sense for me. In other words, I finally ‘got’ Twitter.
There are four key features of TweetDeck which make it work for me.
First, TweetDeck auto-refreshes. This means that I get nearly-live updates as soon as they happen. Second, TweetDeck lets me create groups of people that I can follow. This means that I can group folks according to how important they are to me or by which parts of my life they belong to. Third, the software made tweeting easier. TweetDeck has a lot of built ins and lets me shorten a URL right inside the interface. Fourth, TweetDeck has a search function which allows me to monitor what anyone in the twitterverse is saying about a particular
topic (like, say, “Toyota”) live. So I can get a sense of what is happening with things that are important to me right now.
Making Twitter Work
What made Twitter ‘work’ for me was 1) making sense of its shorthand, 2) following a critical mass of other users to make things interesting, and 3) using a ‘live’ interface (for me, TweetDeck) which catapulted the service from a website into a manyto- many conversation.
Why Twitter matters
I’m certainly not the most prolific or most informed user, but I’ve come to gain some insights about Twitter. These are by no means exclusive to Twitter, but I think it is the platform which most embodies these characteristics today:
1. New kinds of connection. More than any other medium I’ve come across, Twitter enables new kinds of social interactions. Conversations become multilateral public events, instead of one-way or two-way forms of communication. And those conversations can coalesce around personal, local, or topical interests.
2. The new news. As a news junkie, I used to troll blogs and websites for the
latest information on what was happening in business, in technology, in Lexington, and in the world-at-large. Now, Twitter serves as my news station. What is best is that this news is already vetted by folks I respect and
trust. Further, Twitter’s hashtag convention allows me to follow what topics are ‘hot’ through tools like TwitScoop, which is enabled by default in TweetDeck. The news on Twitter often unfolds long before mainstream media picks it up. Kakie Urch (@ProfKakie) put together an excellent analysis of how Twitter acted as the new news in the #amazonfail case, including how long it took traditional media to even notice, while the twitterverse was exploding
in outrage. (As I write this, a friend of mine, @JasonOney, has a campaign to save the NBC series Chuck, using the #savechuck tag. And he’s got friends marching with him. Look out NBC. A Chuck decision is expected: May 19.)
3. Twitizenship. What the #amazonfail and #savechuck cases (among many thousands more) demonstrate is a new form of online citizenship, characterized by immediacy, openness, and cause-centered organization. In this new ‘twitizenship’, groups and conversations spontaneously form around
causes within minutes. Before Twitter, such formations may have taken days to fully gel. Twitizens expect speed, transparency, and action from both businesses and civic leaders.4. Hyperlocalism. These three aspects of Twitter (connections, news, twitizenship) come together most effectively at the local level, where the virtual Twitter community meets the physical world. These hyperlocal physical gatherings (some- times called ‘flash mobs’ or ‘tweetups’, depending on the event) reinforce the communities initiated in the twitterverse.
My favorite recent example: Kickeball at CentrePointe
Parque. Using Twitter and Facebook, a flash mob formed
around the idea of playing a kickball game on the pit of rubble
where CentrePointe is not currently being built. So, April
24, 5:30 PM, they had a game — and a wonderful bit of public
theater and civil disobedience. You can see video by Mick
Jeffries (@mrtoastey) and running commentary from Keegan
Frank (@KeeganFrank) on the Ace blog
You should check out
these accounts, because the
local media completely
whiffed on coverage over
the ensuing 24 hours. I left
work to go to the pit and
witness the game (but not
to participate —I was
chicken, and didn’t want to
Since I became more
active in Twitter, I’ve seen
similar patterns of virtual
and physical gatherings
unfold several times. Last
week, as the CentrePointe
developers addressed the
Urban County Council,
there was a live (and lively)
metadiscussion about the event on Twitter, consisting not
only of folks who were in council chambers, but also from
citizens who were watching live video from GTV3 or over
the web. One twitizen (@mrtoastey) was inspired enough by
the discussion to leave the comfort of his hammock to go to
council chambers to see the occasion first-hand.
Other examples: @Mother_Tongue organized attendance
to a preview for the new Star Trek movie.
@TransformLex (and others) convinced @AceWeekly to hold
the first Front Porch Friday Forum in May (instead of waiting
until June). A huge group of UK students formed a flash
mob in the W.T. Young Library during dead week (this was
one of the only such events traditional local media covered).
Twitter also chronicled the quest for funnel cakes in the runup
to MayFest in Gratz Park last weekend, and the resulting
despair when none were to be found (#funnelcakefail).
These are fun examples, but I hope my main point
shines through: Twitter allows citizens to form into and disband
from interest groups at lightning speed. Sometimes the
groups form around light, fun activities. Often, they form
important movements which are vital to our community’s
future. These groups have higher expectations of their leaders
and of businesses, who must respond with greater speed
and openness. Those who fail to respond will surely #fail.
Twitter’s platform allows for new social formations
which are important, and will be changing the way we interact,
the way we get our news, and the way we create a better
city, state, nation, and planet. Governments, businesses,
and citizens must adapt to this changed world, or they will
be left behind.
Those are just my thoughts on why Twitter matters.
What are yours? ■
FayetteVILLE on Twitter
Ace has been on Twitter for one year (as of Friday, May 8, 2009) and at first, it was pretty lonely.
We’re not lonely anymore.
More and more Ace Readers join us there everyday, and it’s Ace’s first look at local news.
It’s just one cog in a much longer, more thoughtful sequence, but it’s an important one. Writing starts with Twitter. From there, we move on to the blog (and Facebook, and this summer, our new website). And then — like right now — you see the print edition for longer stories, in larger context.
Last week’s heated May 5 LFUCG Council Work Session unfolded on Twitter.It was old news by the 6 o’clock newscasts, and Ancient History by the time the Herald-Leader put it on their front page the next morning on May 6. Twitter was the story. The medium became the message. For example, check the hashtag #ChiaPointe. Or #hoodwinked. Or #bluefish. Twitter is what made it a dialogue. It gave government a life, a participatory life.
If you had an opinion (and as in life, not all opinions are equally interesting or valid), you could share it, limited only by 140 characters.
Ace’s blog headline, by 5pm, was “Jim Gray admits he didn’t have crystal ball — just an ability to read a newspaper.”
LEXINGTON AND UK ARE WOEFULLY BEHIND on using the microblogging service to keep the citizenry apprised. Especially after the Mustache Audit [you can click on Ace blogposts about that], everyone could use a little reassurance. High hopes abounded when @UKCoachCalipari embraced the forum (amassing 10,000+ followers in his first few days, and topping 20,000 at press).
An imposter posing as @UKPresTodd surfaced on Mother’s Day Weekend but was immediately outed (does anyone think Dr. Todd speaks in “big shout-outs?”) The REAL President Todd wasn’t on Twitter as we went to press, but he might be now. You can read the Ace Twitter to find out.
The City Elders checked out Austin last year for its role model potential, and they’re headed to Madison, Wisconsin now.
But it’s Fayetteville, Arkansas that’s ahead of Lexington on this. (Cleveland is too; and Mayor @CoryBooker in Newark, NJ is, as usual, an early adopter. )
In the Northwest Arkansas Times, Robin Mero reports: “One Fayetteville alderman believes Fayetteville should use Twitter.com to disseminate
information and is using Tweets to share what’s happening at the council table
Alderman Matthew Petty first sent and received Tweets on his laptop computer during the March 17 council meeting. Television is a one-way conversation, Petty said. Tweets are short and quick, and are a truly open form of communication as they’re posted on Twitter.com for all to see, even those without a Twitter account.
Some cities are embracing the method, such as Cleveland, Ohio, which sends updates on city council actions and reminders about upcoming meetings and events … Tweets were also useful during the ice storm for spreading information and updates, and Petty said he would like to see the city embrace the method.”
In Lexington, email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for Twitter Transparency.
Twitter is where you’ll find an ongoing CONVERSATION
about where we go next as a city.
You’ll read about Lexington’s evolution on the Ace blog every day (aceweekly.com), and in the Ace print edition — but you will see Ace’s “first drafts” on Twitter 24/7. Literally. Because Ace never sleeps. You already know that if you read the Twitter. ■
“Jim Gray admits he didn’t have crystal ball — just an ability to read a newspaper.”
—Ace blog headline Tuesday May 5
Follow Ace & Ace Writers on Twitter
These are their Twitter screen names, preceded by the @ symbol.
Ace Friends on Twitter
(a small sampling of who we follow):
@AMartinDesign (social media)
@Ale_8_One (official sponsor of Ace’s
front porch Fridays)
@AllanThinks and @AliThinks (Best of
Lex Power Couple 2008)
@Churchill Downs (Ace Advertisers are
often disclosed in Tweets as #productplacement)
@DavidKitchen (United Way)
@DMohney (Lex DDA)
@DVS (new media)
@GoTreadGo (if you follow only one
person on Twitter, make it Tread)
@KellyFlood (state rep)
@KYSportsRadio (Matt Jones)
@LexingtonDD (distillery district)
@PeterBeattie (“What exactly IS an
@SustainLex (Jim Embry)
@TrickyDoc (Ace 20th anniv. board