From the Actrix Online Informer July 2009

by Rob Zorn

Twit or tweet

I have to confess I am enjoying my Facebook account more than I thought I would, and still poke my head in most days, even now that article has been written. It's good to have even tentative contact with some old friends and acquaintances (even some old students from back in my teaching days), and even though we don't say much to each other, it's fun to see what they're up to by reading their occasional comments.

Next on my list of modern applications to try was Twitter, which hasn't been as much fun, but I can see its value and uses.

Twitter's another free social networking application that seems to be taking the net-world by storm. You can create an account at Once you've done that you can type an update about what you're currently doing or thinking, or ask a question as long as it's 140 characters or less.  These little messages are called updates or "tweets". Those tweets go out into the twitter world and can be read by anyone searching either for you or for the topic you tweeted on.

But the way it's supposed to work is that you build up a network of people you are "following". The tweets of anyone you're following will automatically be posted to your account so you can read them when you log into Twitter. Your tweets will be posted to the accounts of anyone following you.

If you want to send a message to just one person, you can do that by typing an @ sign and then their user name before your message.

To find people you might want to follow you can use the Find people feature and just click the Follow button that appears next to them in the search results.

To help people find you, it's important to fill in Account Information under Settings. This lets you enter who and where you are, write a bit about yourself, and a link to your website if you have one. But people still won't be able to find you until you put out your first tweet.

The thing to remember about Twitter is that there is not much privacy. For example, if someone finds you in a search they can read everything in your archive of tweets even if they don't decide to follow you (including the ones you sent to just one person). They can see what you've tweeted, and who you've tweeted it to, and then they can look at the tweets of your followers and who they're following. You can delete tweets manually from your archive, but that's the sort of thing most people forget to think about.

This open way is how most people seem to operate and it's the most fun. If you want to make it so that only followers can follow your updates, you can do that too, under settings. It also means you get to personally approve people who follow you. Doing that, however, seems to be missing the point of Twitter, which is supposed to be like an enormous chat room. If you're that concerned about privacy, you should probably avoid Twitter and use MSN or some other private chat tool. If you do use Twitter, just remember it's not the sort of place you want to go and pour your heart out or confess your sins.

Individuals can be blocked from reading your tweets, however, so if you want to keep a public profile, but want to avoid someone pestering you, look up their Twitter profile and click the Block link.

If you're interested in a topical event, such as what's going on in Iran at the moment, click Search in the bottom menu to see what others are saying about that topic. The Trending topics box to the right tells you the most discussed topics currently going on. You can click those to get a list of the latest that's being tweeted.

Twitter has a number of uses. You can follow New Zealand's Ministry of Health, for example and get the latest updates on swine flu. News services like CNN use it to broadcast real time news developments. Lots of famous people and celebrities use it (or I suspect pay people to tweet in their name because they're so busy being awesome somewhere else). Barack Obama announced his running mate in the US election simultaneously via text, email and Twitter. Ashton Kutcher has gained a new level of fame by being the first on Twitter to have one million followers.

Beyond keeping up with the developments of their favourite celebrities and staying informed, most people just use Twitter as a fun way to socialise and network. You can set it up to work with your mobile phone so you can also send and receive tweets by text. That's free as far as Twitter is concerned, but your phone company would charge for the texts as per usual.

There are also programs out there you can download that act like Twitter interfaces, and can even co-ordinate them with Facebook for you (so you post to both at the same time). If you find you're really getting into the Twitter spirit, you could try Tweetdeck, for example.

There are various Twitter settings you can play with, found under the Settings tab. There you can add your mobile phone if you want to, upload a picture of yourself to your homepage and to accompany your tweets, and set alerts so that you get emailed each time someone tweets or follows you. You can customise your homepage by uploading a background image etc.

It's very easy to use Twitter and you get a feel for it pretty quickly. Under the Help menu there's a neat little four-minute video that talks you through the basics step by step. Also under Help is a section of resource pages, such as "Getting started".

So why not tweet yourself and become a twit?


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