In and of itself, Twitter does nothing. Twitter is simply a platform, or framework, that allows communication to occur. That communication is based partially on you alone, but also on the interactions between you and your “followers” as well as the people you follow and their followers. During the part of the day that I’m not a PhD student, I’m the technical director of an interactive media company; one of our services is consulting with businesses on their social networking strategies, including the use of Twitter. We use the following example when explaining Twitter to clients who are, let’s say, “skeptical” about the whole thing: Twitter is not about standing on a mountain shouting “I just had coffee!” into the valley and hoping someone hears. Instead, Twitter is about standing on that mountain and hollering to the person standing on the next mountain, and hoping that they’ll relay the message over to the next person on the mountain or maybe in the valley, and so on and so forth until your message is heard throughout the land.
Sometimes people stand at the bottom of the mountain and shout up at you. Sometimes you’re that person at the bottom, shouting up to someone else. Your position in the communications relationship may change, but you’re still communicating. When using Twitter, everything you say affects your followers, because you’re adding to their incoming information stream, and everything said by the people you follow affects your incoming information stream. Twitter itself has nothing to do with that communication except to enable it; Twitter’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness has little to do with itself and everything to do with your control over your incoming and outgoing information stream and the community of friends and followers that you cultivate.
How exactly you control that stream—which can be overwhelming—is the topic of this post. Namely, this post introduces you to the use of third-party client applications to interface with Twitter and what to look for in those clients. That’s right—there are more ways to access Twitter than just through the Twitter web site.
Mashable and ReadWriteWeb—both focused on web technology and social media—are good places to start when looking for current trends in Twitter access methods, how-to guides, and general overview posts regarding different aspects of social media. In a recent Mashable post, “Twitter for Beginners: 5 Steps for Better Tweeting,” step four is “Get a Desktop (or Mobile) Client.” This advice is offered, and I wholeheartedly concur, because once you start following a number of people, and commit to immersing yourself in the information stream from the community you create, you will want better management tools than the Twitter web site has to offer.
You might not know there are better tools, or better options for managing the information stream. There are. Third-party clients tend to feature all of the functions you get from the Twitter web site, but with these added advantages (among others):
- See more tweets at once. At the Twitter web site, you get to see 20 tweets before you have to manually press the “more” button to see 20 more. With a desktop or mobile application that number increases—your stream could be one, two, three hundred tweets or more right in front of you, available with simple scrolling and no lag time.
- Visual difference between mentions (@ replies), direct messages, and regular tweets. Depending on the client, you could see your mentions, DMs, and regular tweets in the same column or window pane but with a different visual indicator such as a different background color or outline. This information might be available in different columns or panes but accessible with one click, or you could have both options. For instance, with twhirl, I can flip to the mentions pane, or DM pane, but I can also see those messages in my information stream but with different background colors.
- Sharing images or videos without accessing a separate site. Many Twitter clients have direct integration with photo/video hosting, URL shorteners, and other features that allow you to perform different tasks directly from within the client.
- Manage multiple accounts. Many third-party clients will allow you to login to several different accounts at once, making the task of checking multiple accounts quite simple (image you have a personal account, a professional account, an account for each class, and so on)—typically one click will open a new window or a new pane. Compare that to logging out of the Twitter web site and logging back in for as many times as you want to check your accounts per day.
- Groups. Many third-party clients allow you to create groups as well as saved searches, so you can quickly and easily filter your information stream. These groups and searches are typically available within one click, integrated into the current view.
The first step in managing your information stream is knowing that there are ways to manage it. Overall, the top Twitter client is still the web, with somewhere around 65% of all tweets coming through the web interface. Once I started following more than a handful of people, and once more than a handful of people started following me (my following/follower numbers are currently 365 and 318, respectively), the web interface simply did not work for me as I find it too limiting and with too many latency issues. Your mileage may vary, but I urge you to think about the features of third-party apps that appeal to you, and then find an app that has those features. Check out Mashable’s recent post, “19 Twitter Desktop Apps Compared”, and consider the following as well:
- Of the 1570 tweets I archived that used the #dh09 hashtag (conversations around the Digital Humanities 2009 conference), the top Twitter client was TweetDeck (39.8%), followed by twhirl (23.5%), the web (22.98%), Tweetie (3.69%), and Nambu (3.11%).
- Of the 3308 tweets I archived that used the #thatcamp hashtag (conversations around THATCamp 09), the top Twitter client was TweetDeck (38.7%), followed by the web (17.04%), Tweetie (13.2%), twhirl (9.8%), and TwitterFox (5.17%).
New Twitter clients are popping up every day; everyone is trying to build a better mousetrap. Two mousetraps-in-progress that I like in particular are Brizzly (web-based, and developed by some of the same people who developed Google Reader) and Mixero. Both are in beta; Brizzly’s private beta is invite-only, and Mixero’s private beta is invite-only but you can get an invite by following @mixero.
Take some time to figure out how and why you use Twitter, how you would like to use Twitter, and what you could achieve with Twitter if you interface with it in the most comfortable manner possible. There is a client out there for you. Finding the right client to suit your needs, and then spending some time cultivating your community and streamlining even further will help you to see the power and usefulness of Twitter (if that’s a question for you).
A recent study has provided some interesting statistics regarding Twitter use, all of which point to Twitter being used as “a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.” In my Twitterverse, that’s not the case; my Twitter use has been a transformative peer-to-peer communication experience. I attribute that directly to using third-party applications to maintain a happy and healthy stream of information.