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Nick Plante

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

A Year In The Twittersphere

December 20, 2008

I've been using Twitter on a daily basis now for almost a year. Initially, I'd written it off as yet another mindless social network time-waster. And it turns out, that my first gut feeling wasn't entirely incorrect; Twitter is, indeed, a massive waste of my time. But in a (mostly!) good way.

Allow me to explain...

Twitter to me provides that sweet spot between a regular blog and instant messaging. Like a blog, there's a lot of tremendously valuable information conveyed through it if you follow the right people. You'll learn about interesting technology trends, upcoming events, libraries, open source projects, controversies, religious wars (ha!), and so on. The exact topics and quality of information depend on the people you follow. Like IM, this information is immediate and unfiltered; there is no waiting for a properly formulated thought, tutorial, or chapter synopsis. 

This is both a blessing and a curse, of course.

The key to using Twitter as a techie communications and networking tool is following and forging relationships with the right people. Sometimes you'll meet these folks in person at a user group or a conference. Sometimes you'll find their Twitter handle on their blog (which you're presumably already reading). Most often, after seeding a few friends and colleagues, you'll stumble into the middle of tweeted @-reply conversations that they're having with other friends or collaborators, investigate the profiles of this heretoforth unknown person, and end up following them after discovering the cool projects they're working on and tweeting about.

Unlike IM, the ensuing conversations doesn't have to be a two-way (although it's often beneficial if it is), which makes the barrier to 'networking' very low. You don't have to ask for permission to follow someone -- unless they've marked their profile as protected, which is, imo, quite silly. I'm very choosy about who I hand my IM information to, but with Twitter I'm happy to just put my thoughts out there and whoever wants to respond can. It's simply not as intrusive and serves as more of a broadcast conversation, an invitation, filling a niche that originally required blog or tumblelog posts. Unlike a blog there is less emphasis on formality and a far better chance for instantaneous conversations to erupt and propagate. It's just so much easier. The 140 character message constraint is probably the single greatest innovation that Twitter has to offer.

Over the last year I've met a bunch of locals who are interested in non-technology things; people I've since met at parties and other local events. But mostly I've used Twitter to find and follow other techies working on new and interesting things, people solving problems that I've been struggling with and other people that have introduced me to some bizarre but thought-altering concepts. It's really quite amazing how well-connected we are as programmers, systems administrators, marketeers, and other people working with bleeding edge technology. And learning from one another and staying abreast of the latest developments is something that can't be undervalued in this distributed age.

That said, anything that brings us closer together is bound to have both positive (information, collaboration, feedback) and negative (tangents, pointless arguments, mindless link propagation!) effects. But sometimes it's the so-called negative effects that are really what spurs on the most interesting conversations, right? It's all good. Trying to filter the good from the bad is a difficult task, and it's often easier just to trust that the stuff being babbled about from a core group of friends or respected colleagues is worthwhile overall, whether it be 'good' or 'bad'. Having the right tools also helps.

My advice is to find a good Twitter client (like Twitterrific or Tweetdeck or Twhirl) and keep the number of people you follow to a fairly small core. Sure, not everything they tweet is going to be interesting to you -- I live in New England and we're getting massacred by a snowstorm at the moment, and I don't pretend that is of interest to anyone but myself and other locals -- but it doesn't have to be. You just need to have faith that the benefit of the signal outweighs the noise, and it certainly does for me amongst the people I follow. Thanks guys.

@everyone happy holidays (stalk me!

PS Don't be afraid to turn off Twitter and miss a few tweets either; if the information or laugh-worthy links propagating around the Twittersphere is really all that awesome, it'll be discussed for quite some time ;-). 


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