The Value of Twitter for the Technical Professional

| Editorial

Some highly technical people have a hard time getting their heads around Twitter. At first, Twitter seems like a demand to be entertaining or a social networking phenomenon. These notions don't seem compelling for technical professionals. In fact, Twitter is a powerful tool when used correctly by technical people. All that's necessary is a subtle shift in viewpoint.

I've had the same discussion over and over with highly technical colleagues who are not yet on Twitter. They say to me:

  • "Isn't Twitter for kids?"
  • "I don't do social networking."
  • "It's a waste of time."
  • "I'm a boring person. I can't think of anything to say."

timeline

A Technical Timeline

All these notions are derived from a misunderstanding of Twitter combined with misconstruing Twitter's mantra, "What are you doing?"

Here's what Twitter really is. I'll cast the description into technical language for the geeks who have ignored this powerful tool so far.

Twitter is a communications technology that creates a subspace network amongst individuals with common interests. Think of it as a military message with "Flash" level precedence.

Tuning In

The most important thing to know about Twitter is that it's not about you being an entertainer. Your first blush reaction is correct: no one cares that you're gorging yourself with Cheerios cereal while watching a Stargate SG-1 rerun.

Instead, think of Twitter as an information and communication feed from a collection of people, and the quality of that information and network is defined by who you follow. That's because there are many personality types out there, and many of those technical colleagues, some you know and some you're going to get to know, pass around some really useful information.

Followed

Some People I Follow

As in the military, you have to learn to follow before you can lead.

"So how do I figure out who to follow?" you may ask. You can start by figuring out what subspace frequency or frequencies you want to be on. For example, it may be novelists or Mac technology writers or Cocoa developers or auto restoration or UNIX or salesmanship. You may already have some friends who are on Twitter. Check to see who they follow. (You can do that at the Twitter Website, after you create a free account, and look people up.) Check to see if your favorite authors in your selected area of interest are on Twitter. Then see who they follow. Finally, go to search.twitter.com and search for key technical terms of interest. See who's talking about those topics. You might meet some experts worth following.

Bingo. You're tuned in.

Absorption and Reflection

A powerful feature of Twitter is the identification of tidbits of useful information that relate to the frequency you're on. URLs are often imbedded in a tweet, and you can just click on the URL in your chosen Twitter client to instantly go there in your chosen Web browser. This information might relate to local disasters, traffic jams, weather, national events, computer security alerts and so on. Or they might be simply entertaining YouTube videos or flickr photos that bring a smile to your face.

However, most of the information that's worth passing around will be related to the kind of community you follow. The nice thing is that you can tune your group by unfollowing people who don't prove useful and adding people who are. In my case, I follow a lot of very smart and experienced writers on the Mac Web. It keeps me informed.

You may argue that an RSS feed does the job for you. However, RSS feed blasts everything out from the feeds you subscribe to. That's useful to be sure, but Twitter augments that by having the people you follow pre-filter a lot of information and direct you to the really good stuff.

In time, as friends and colleagues start to follow you, you will learn how to post tweets that conform to your own personality. In some cases, you may simply Retweet. That is, pass along interesting and useful tweets with good information to the people who follow you. Can you see the leverage involved there?

It's useful to watch and learn how people who are experienced post so that you can form your own ideas of how you will tweet -- when you're ready.

Now I will admit that a lot of people use Twitter for other than technical purposes. Some people feel the need to have a large following; it makes them feel good. Some people like to tell you what they're up to. These are the people you may wish to ignore because we're focusing on the technical uses of Twitter for technical professionals

Monitoring

To make Twitter a useful tool, one that doesn't fritter away your time, it must be used like any other tool -- with discipline and a philosophy. For example, I use a client (Syrinx) that allows me to turn off the alert sound so I can write in peace. I don't try to read every tweet in the timeline. I often read tweets based on who it came from, an additional level of visual filtering over and above filters that are available in clients. For example, many clients allow you to show a timeline just from friends -- filtered down from all the people you follow. (Your definition of friend is up to you.)

Another technique I use is to do a search on the string "http:". That winnows down my timeline from all those posted to just those that have imbedded URLs. Again, I scan, based on experience, who might have posted useful URLs by looking at their photos.

I try to get away from my work on the weekends. I miss a lot of tweets, and probably annoy my followers, by not being very active on Twitter on the weekends. So be it. It's a life choice.

Conclusion

Twitter is just another communications tool. The value is derived from how you exploit it. The only limitations are based on preconceived notions or irrational attitude you may have already formed.

Networks are important. We all have our professional networks. It could be professional conferences, e-mail lists, personal e-mail, LinkedIn, phone conversations with colleagues, and technical publications. All of these methods are useful, but Twitter has a fresh sense of immediacy. You're in touch with people in a constant, conversational, immediate fashion.

Twitter is a fabric, a subspace network of people with common interests. If you turn away from it, you're just tuned out, oblivious to the subspace chatter as if you were stranded on a South Pacific island, with no radio, deprived of the radio traffic from search and rescue planes miles above that, nevertheless, permeates your body.

Resources

  1. How to Get Started with Twitter
  2. Review: Syrinx is a Capable Twitter Client
  3. The Eight Twitter Personality Types
  4. Twittering Your Life Away (One User's Revelation)

You can follow me on Twitter at: jmartellaro

Comments

geoduck

” If you turn away from it, you’re just tuned out, oblivious to the subspace chatter as if you were stranded on a South Pacific island, with no radio, deprived of the radio traffic from search and rescue planes miles above that, nevertheless, permeates your body.”

Or not.

I’ve noticed a subtext in your last several Twitter articles. A implication of ‘what’s wrong with YOU if you don’t love Twitter as much as I do’.

Now while some may just reject Twitter, cast it off as silly and childish as you say without even giving it a chance, I’m not one of those.  I’ve tried Twitter and found it useless and pointless. I’m not a luddite, nor am I lost in the wastes and missing the hum of subspace all around. I looked into the Twitter universe and found it empty of anything I was interested in. After a couple of weeks of following this lead or that Twit, I found that at best it just duplicated RSS feeds. Mostly it was vacuous.

But you’re entitled to your opinion.

I would suggest one possibility. In your article about Twitter personality types you listed the people who Twitter for various reasons. I would offer myself as an example of another type; those that don’t Twitter. The Free Spirit. I’m a contrarian investor. I don’t read the best sellers. I tend to go to art-house films rather than the blockbusters. I follow my own path.  As such, I am automatically dubious of what ‘everyone’ is telling me I ‘have to try’. Sometimes I do what others are doing, but only on my own terms. Sometimes I do my own thing. Regardless, I do it for my own reasons and after looking critically at the options. I’ve done this with Twitter and I just get stuck on one undeniable truth; 140 characters, and no attachments is just not a tool that I got any benefit out of. I tried it and discarded it.

And that’s my opinion.

John Martellaro

It’s certainly not my intention to say,

  ‘what’s wrong with YOU if you don’t love Twitter as much as I do’.

Rather, I’ve spent so much time converting technical friends who had a mistaken view of Twitter that I took all my thoughts and formed them into one reference article.  Now, all I have to do is point to the article.

-JM

geoduck

I appreciate that, and this is a good article covering how to get started (though I do have to mention a certain discomfort the concept of ‘converting’ your friends to Twitter). Right now I have no family, friends, or coworkers that Twitter. My interests are satisfactorily covered with the tools I have. Maybe over time Twitter will grow into something I will use. But it isn’t there yet.

ctopher

And I feel some cognitive dissonance when I read concepts like pre-filtered subspace network, and then see a picture showing 4 tweets, the middle 2 of which have no useful information at all! That’s some bad signal to noise.

Also, do I really need “Flash” level precedence on technical news? If I really like Cooliris, I’ll find out when it matters to me that it has local file support. Right now I need to finish these TPS reports.

Now, TMO is in the business of pre-filtering Mac news and as such, it makes sense that it’s contributors know what’s happening RIGHT NOW, but my very colloquial concerns better not be on Twitter.

Oh, and that cognitive dissonance you’re feeling right now comes from the fact that by posting this comment I undermine the points above.

John Martellaro

“Oh, and that cognitive dissonance you?re feeling right now comes from the fact that by posting this comment I undermine the points above.”

  John smiles.

rhazelrigg

Twitter is only as good as the people you follow and/or follow you.

I only follow the people in the tech/media genre. Tweets about breakfast meals bore me to death.

If I want fluff I go to Facebook. That said, I do spend much more time on Facebook. I enjoy sharing the in the everyday of people’s life’s that way.

Not only is Twitter is not for everyone, it’s not for most. The media loves twitter because it feeds id. And yes I think twitter will continue to grow for a while as people check it out but it too will soon join the relics like “Second Life”.

I’m already over twitter.

iJack

You go, John.  Smack these arrogant Twinkies around!  The intent of your article was clear enough.  They just need to prove how smart they are.

rhazelrigg

I’m not arrogant nor a twinkie wink. Twitter is just not for me. Moreover, I think it is for most people. I’m still not yet sure if it’s nothing more then a passing fad. I follow some really cool people including Mr. Martellaro. I just don’t get that much from twitter.

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