Twitter is one of the most misunderstood new technologies to emerge and therefore a common refrain I hear from friends, family and colleagues is, “I don’t get it.” So I decided to do a primer with commentary on how I currently use Twitter (July 2009), which will no doubt change. But I hope to help more people – even many prominent people I talk with – get it. Here is the link to the whole outline that I’m calling Twitter 101. This is the first post in the series.
The first way to think of Twitter is as a way to get the news from the same sources you already get on the Internet or in print. So why should you get them on Twitter if you’re already happy going to the website and just typing in the URL for your local newspaper?
There are a few reasons. The first is aggregation. I read from a wide variety of news sources. For current events I read the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and the Economist. For tech news I read TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Alley Insider, GigaOm and others. For venture capital / private equity news I read PE Hub, Venturesource, WS Journal venture blog and others. And then I read many personal VC blogs including Fred Wilson, Brad Feld and Bill Gurley.
It would be a pain for me to constantly remember to visit all of these sites on a regular basis – especially since there are probably another 15 that I read regularly and didn’t list. So the first solution to emerge to this problem was a standard known as RSS (real simple syndication) that almost all news sites now use. They “push” their information out on RSS and users can read it all in one place called an RSS reader (provided by multiple companies but most commonly Google. Click here if you’re interested in getting Google Reader). A newer version that I really like that automically curates the “best of” sites on the web by topic is provided by AllTop and is here. They’ve done all the heavy lifting for you.
The beautiful thing about using RSS readers is that you can very quickly scan the headlines of the news or blog posts and only click on items that you find interesting – sort of like scanning the paper and only reading articles of the headlines that interest you.
Using Twitter for news goes one step further. It is also a “push” news source and by definition it is only the headline (since you can only use 140 characters). But Twitter is both “real time” and is “distributed” so that I can read it on most any device / any time I want. So I use Twitter as my real time RSS reader. When I’m on the road and have my Blackberry with me I read my Twitter feed through a product you can download on your Blackberry called UberTwitter (my Twitter “reader” if you want to use the analogy). For iPhones some people use a product called Tweetie but there are others. On my computer I can read these posts using Twitter.com or I can read them through a downloaded application like TweetDeck or Seemic Desktop. My favorite new way to use Twitter on my computer is by using the Seesmic Web App. Since Twitter is a service “in the cloud” I can use any end device that pulls my feed in and the information will be the same whether I log in from my Blackberry, my computer or the computer at a friend’s house.
So when a breaking news story hits and if it is one that the NY Times is reporting on I will get it pushed to my Twitter feed. It tells me when there is a new story that I might want to read and I don’t have to constantly be scanning the journals. I’m not constantly reading Twitter – I tend to read it in the morning before I go to work, a bit at work in the day to see what’s going on and then more heavily in the evening when I have more free time. So if too many stories came through when I wasn’t watching – no big deal. I still have my RSS feed to summarize things at the end of the day and still can visit my favorite websites whenever I want. If any more experienced Twitter users are reading this they’ll be thinking that I really haven’t done justice to the real-time nature of how you get news on Twitter – I’m saving that for a future post.
I like to tell new users of Twitter that it’s OK to start as just a consumer of information – you don’t need to tell your friends or the world what you’re doing unless you want to. You will still gain much by consuming Twitter. Just start by following your favorite news sources. To do this you log into Twitter and click on the “find people” link, which will give you a search bar. You can then start typing in news sources like: NYTimes, TechCrunch, Financial Times, LA Times, Perez Hilton, TMZ – whatever. You will find most of the sites you’re interested in this way.
You might also choose to follow famous people that you’re interested in to get the latest scoop from them: Oprah, The White House, or your favorite sports teams or stars. If it’s a famous person make sure that the top of their Twitter page says, “certified”, which means that Twitter has verified that they are really that person. In the early days of MySpace, blogs and even Twitter this was a real problem because you never knew if it was the real person or not. Twitter has now solved this elegantly. But beware just become it is the “real” person doesn’t mean that they don’t have staff or ghost writers posting on their behalf.
Another great way to find interesting news sources on Twitter is find a few of your friends or prominent people that don’t follow a lot of other people and see who they follow. You can do this by clicking on their profile and then clicking on the “following” link. A blogger I really like is Paul Kedrosky. You can locate him through “find people” and then click on his profile you will see that as of today (July 14, 2009) he is following 213 people and 8,043 people are following him (that ratio tells you that he is likely a pretty good person to follow). Clicking on “following” reveals that he follows David Pogue (a great journalist at the NY Times), Bill Gurly (a respected VC with Benchmark Capital), googlenews, drudge_report, Nouriel Roubini (a very respected, currently very bearish economist) and many others. There are some new ideas of who to follow if you are interested in world affairs, economics or tech stuff.
Before subscribing to any news source check to see whether they have many “updates,” which is an indication of how often they post. If they only have 12 updates they probably don’t write often enough to be an interesting source of information for you but if they have 1,000+ they probably write frequently enough to be interesting.