Why Twitter will change the way business communicates

October 30, 2007

By: Robert Scoble

Hard to believe that only 10 or 15 years ago we interacted with coworkers and colleagues with memos and phone calls. Email and instant messaging changed all that. Now there’s a new communications revolution coming. These services mix contacts, instant messaging, blogging, and texting, and they’re poised to make email feel as antiquated as the mimeograph.

The best known of the new services is Twitter. Since its debut last spring, it has been one of the fastest-growing apps in the history of the Internet. The best way to describe it is as a microblog service in which you tell people what you’re doing or thinking at any given moment. The hook is that you’re limited to 140 characters. “It’s strangely addictive,” says NBC videographer Jim Long. “Evidently, people are interested in what I’m doing, and I genuinely care about what they’re doing.”

Twitter’s basic idea has proven so popular that others have copied its premise and added features. Jaiku lets me include blog posts, my link blog, and more along with my mini posts. Pownce users can send files to one another, as well as calendar events. At Facebook, I can add such information as my favorite music and the syndicated Web feeds I’ve shared in Google Reader.

All this adds up to a new way to share information about yourself. Although the content of the messages can vary wildly from voyeuristically interesting to terribly dull, a frequent stream of updates can strengthen your brand. My 4,000-plus Twitter “followers” can get my blasts online or via text message, and each one is also its own Web page, which means that Google can see it and let people search for it. When you’re traveling frequently and working from coffeehouses or the backseat of a cab, these services are great to keep in touch with coworkers back at the office and with customers nearby. “I post where I travel and arrange user meetups,” says Betsy Weber, an evangelist with software firm TechSmith.

The professional intimacy these services create–hey, if you know someone’s whereabouts and musical tastes, you’re halfway home–can also win you clients. “People won’t do business with you until they like you or have a sense of trust,” says Cathryn Hrudicka, a consultant who uses Facebook, Jaiku, and Twitter. She has already gotten referrals from people she has met online because she has shown she’ll be available when clients need her.

Sales and marketing are lagging in seeing the potential here. When I used all these services to tell the world that my wife and I were expecting a child in September, I anticipated hearing from the world’s largest consumer-products companies begging me to try their latest diapers, food, car seats, and financial instruments. What came back? Nothing. Where was Procter & Gamble? Given what it and other companies spend acquiring new customers, there’s an untapped gold mine in Twitter and Facebook because we’re volunteering so much information about what we’re doing right now, whether it’s working on a project or eating a chicken-salad sandwich. Learning how to tap it correctly–both to sell to me directly and in seeing major trends in the millions of daily public posts–will be the next major challenge for these companies.

If we revisit this conversation again in three years, I suspect that we’ll have found all sorts of little uses for these services, and they’ll simply become what email is today: something we must do just to participate in the heartbeat of business.


The Best Tools for Social Microblogging

October 22, 2007

At some point, it became clear that blogs just weren’t cutting it for some social-networking addicts. Connect-o-philes across the globe couldn’t be satiated just telling you what they were thinking or doing in a few (or even many) blog posts a day. They had to let you know what they were doing right now! Overnight Internet celebrity Twitter stepped in to fill this desperate need in October 2006. The “social networking and microblogging” site, which lets you read quick takes (up to 140 characters) both fascinating and mundane, such as, “ate a piece of cherry pie for dessert” or “I just had a great workout,” has spawned a crop of imitators that add new capabilities to the original concept.

Many of my colleagues trash-talk these sites because of the triviality of the sorts of stream-of-consciousness posts mentioned above, but there are benefits to be reaped from sites like Twitter. First, private group lists let you alert your friends and coworkers about what you’re doing, and you can see their activities—which may actually be of interest to you. Second, you can get good ideas on sites to visit, stuff to buy, or activities you’d enjoy doing yourself by seeing what the savvy, connected users of these services are up to. For example, on one such site, Jaiku, I found this link to a YouTube video of an incredible project: Building the Liverpool Philharmonic in Second Life, complete with orchestral music. Third, they satisfy our natural human voyeurism: Admit it, who doesn’t like occasionally peeking into others’ lives? Finally, some of these instant-post blogs have served more critical purposes, such as helping reporters communicate breaking news to their organizations. And at least one fire department has used Twitter to alert fellow firefighters about the onset of emergencies.

Here I round up five social microblogging sites, including the archetypal Twitter itself. There are a lot more of these things than those I’ve included, but I selected those that add unique twists to the basic concept of jotting down short ponderings. The category is still in its infancy, and it shows: None of these passes muster yet for designation as a PC Magazine Editors’ Choice.

Pownce adds some nifty file-, video-, and appointment-sharing features, while Yappd adds pictures. Jaiku has some cool mobile-phone location capabilities, but those only work with a very limited number of phone models. Tumblr is a somewhat different sort of beast, falling somewhere between the true microblogs and their fuller-featured forefathers, blogging services like LiveJournal and WordPress.

These services do make some sense as communication tools—giving you the ability to send an update to a Web page via your cell phone. Another of their purposes is that they offer notifications—via e-mail or cell phone. I can’t see that it makes much sense for one person to send a Twitter post using his phone and then another to be notified by a text message on her phone. Why the middleman? Just send a direct text. Text messaging would, however, make sense if a group was involved.

Another drawback is that messages may appear in any language and different alphabets; it would be nice if you could limit them to tongues you understand. And these sites don’t have a moderated option, that is, they don’t offer a way for an actual human to filter out the junk and just display comments of value. This would take away the immediacy that’s a key part of the phenomenon, so maybe there’s an opportunity for an offshoot social-wisdom category of sites. Another feature I might suggest adding to these sites is a number showing how many users are online—so that exhibitionists know how many people are watching.

One caveat about using Twitter and its ilk: Don’t post your location or contact info on the public message area. You don’t need to give potential stalkers an edge. Read on to see what Twitter can offer you—and whether its challengers will give you even more microblogging goodness. Note that this isn’t every player in the space; it’s just the ones that look the most interesting at the moment. As always, click on the links below to read the full reviews.


The alpha dog of microblogs, Twitter has inspired a cottage industry of helper apps and has the largest following of these sites. It’s not the most powerful, best designed, or intuitive to use, but it’s the one people know.

Yappd (beta)

This new arrival is a good-looking Twitter clone that adds the ability to upload pictures for your postlets and lets readers easily add comments.


More feature-rich than other microblogs, Pownce also has comments. On top of that it adds the ability to share files and events, and integrates nicely with video and picture-sharing sites. But Pownce won’t let you blurt out your message on a public timeline, though your own page is visible to all on the Web.


Like Yappd, Jaiku is a pretty straightforward clone of Twitter, though its design is slicker. It adds a comment feature, RSS feeds, and some location-based mobile features available only to a limited group of phones. Posts also have the smallest limit of any of these sites: 100 characters.


This one’s a bit of a different animal from the others in this roundup. It’s more of a “miniblog” than a microblog—a lighter-weight version of LiveJournal and its ilk rather than an expanded version of Twitter. There’s no public timeline, though you can post from a mobile device with e-mail capability. Posting is easier than with a full-fledged blog tool, but you don’t get quite as much customization. If you want something approaching a blog but don’t want to go through the setup, Tumblr’s a good bet.

Source: PC Magazine

Tumblr – Reviewed by PC Magazine

October 22, 2007

Situated somewhere between super-lightweight microblogging sites like Twitter and full-fledged blogging services like Vox, Tumblr gives you a very easy way to disseminate your thoughts, links, pictures, and videos quickly and in a pleasing format.

Good-looking, clean, easy-to-use interface. Prebuilt page themes. Mobile posting aannd viewing. Support for video and several types of feeds.

Help could be better. No comment feature.

More of a “miniblog” than a microblog, Tumblr offers some of the instant gratification of Twitter and some of the richer formatting and media capabilities available in standard blogging services such as Blogger, LiveJournal, or Vox. Tumblr goes deeper than true microblog sites, adding richer goodies such as photos, video support, and feeds. With it you can create a “tumblelog,” which the company describes this way: “If blogs are journals, tumblelogs are scrapbooks.” These are usually full of prominently dated posts that are short on text and long on clipped pictures, video, quotations, and other Web artifacts. The archetypal example is Projectionist.

Tumblr combines the quick Web-posting and mobile-posting capabilities of Twitter with standard blog features such as a choice of page themes, rich-text formatting, and your own URL. Entries get their own pages, but they’re not longer than the post on the main page. These pages don’t have the comment capability you’d find on a fuller-fledged blogging service, so, if you’re looking for validation in the form of feedback, this isn’t the service for you. Unlike most microblogs, Tumblr doesn’t have a page dedicated to public posts, and the posting entry box isn’t on the same page as the entries themselves. I don’t think these are actually shortcomings, as the service’s aim is different from that of blogs and microblogs—but if you’re accustomed to those features, the lack may feel a bit odd at first.

To get Tumbling, just fill in the site’s simple sign-up. All you need is an e-mail address (which will be your account name), a password, and a title for your Tumblr Web address (as in title.tumblr.com). You’ll do most of your posting from the Dashboard, where there are options for Text, Photo, Quote, Link, Chat, and Video. Don’t be fooled by the Chat button—it’s just a text entry where you’re supposed to paste text from a chat dialog you had or saw: The post will be formatted to look like a conversation.


Are you ready to Tumbl?

Probably the most common type of entry is the text post. Tumblr’s simple WYSIWYG interface lets you do basic formatting (bold, italics, lists) and add images to the post. There’s also a spell-checker and an HTML code viewer. Though the site’s design doesn’t lend itself to very long posts, there’s no specific limit on length. After you’ve created the post, you can easily delete or edit it, and you can ascertain its direct URL with tools that appear to the right of each entry in your Dashboard.

Adding a photo post is a simple matter of browsing for the file on your hard drive or entering a hyperlink to an image. You have the option of adding a caption, which is done in the same edit box used for text posts. You even have the odd option of inserting an image into your image caption. I prefer the way Pownce handles links to Flickr images, creating a large thumbnail image and linking to the full-size image on the photo hosting site.

You can add videos found on sites like YouTube or DailyMotion to your tumblelog from the Add a Video page by entering the video’s URL or embed tag and an optional caption. The videos will be playable right from your tumblelog. This works with just about any video-sharing site, but you can’t upload your own movies directly to Tumblr. The Quote entry option merely gives you two text boxes, one for the quotation and another for the source, and formats the post appropriately based on your theme choice.

Along with regular RSS, there are ten tailored feed types you can add to your tumblelog, including Flickr, Last.fm and YouTube. For these, it’s just a matter of entering the username for the feed you want. I had no problem adding feeds from Twitter, Last.fm, and RSS. Since Tumblr can output an RSS feed from your entries, I wondered what would happen if I subscribed the tumblelog to its own feed. The service wasn’t biting, however, in my quest to generate an infinite loop of RSS. You should probably go easy on adding feeds, anyhow; remember, this service is supposed to be letting people know about your thoughts and activities.

Tumblr resembles Twitter and its ilk in providing the concept of a “following,” which users can sign up for to keep track of your posts. You’d really only want to use Tumblr for posts intended for the public, as there’s no way to designate your tumblelog as private, to be shared only among those you’ve selected—an option Pownce, Jaiku, and even Twitter offer. If you’re logged into Tumblr, other tumblelogs will display an “Add to friends” icon; if you click this, the friend’s icon will appear on your Dashboard but not on your actual page that’s visible to the rest of the Web. You can also opt to see your friends’ posts interspersed with your own on your Dashboard page. I would prefer that pages be able to display friends’ icons as a sort of blogroll so that you could let your readers know which tumblelogs you consider worth following.


Settings and Goodies

The Settings tab is where you can edit your tumblelog’s title, description, URL, and password, for starters. It’s also where you can upload your profile picture and choose one of the five prebuilt themes or enter your own custom CSS code. If you don’t want to get into the code, color pickers let you customize every page element.

You can choose whether you want to be promoted in the Tumblr directory, to “ping the blogosphere” or send it to Technorati and other blog aggregators every time you make an entry. These options give you a convenient way to drive traffic to your page.

On the Goodies tab, you’ll find four utilities offering more ways to post and view tumbles. A bookmarklet that you can drag to your browser’s toolbar lets you post content from the page you happen to be browsing to your tumblelog. It’s pretty clever about telling what kind of post is appropriate—link, video, photo, and so on.

Next, two mobile helpers: One lets you post text and photos from a phone using an e-mail address, and the other is simply the mobile-friendly URL for viewing your tumblelog on a phone browser. The e-mail address works from your regular e-mail account as well as from a phone, but the post won’t get a title. Finally, Mac users have the option of downloading the Tumblet Dashboard Widget. This is pretty basic, and doesn’t identify a post as, for example, a video, so it unfortunately won’t display the player.

Tumblr will make a lot of sense for many people who want to share Web content. It’s an example of a good idea well executed. Occupying the space between full blogging services and microblogging sites like Twitter, Tumblr offers an easy way to get your messages and images out on the Web without the hassle of setting up a standard blog. This innovative service combines a lot of power and features in an extremely easy and intuitive user interface.

Source: PC Magazine

Jaiku – Reviewed by PC Magazine

October 22, 2007

Jaiku is a Twitter microblogging site that looks good and works well, but the number of phones it works with is too limited, and some of the design choices seem contradictory.

Good-looking Web 2.0 design. Cool “presence” features let followers know your exact location. Easy to stream content to your blog.

Posts get their own pages but can be only 100 characters max. Very limited cell-phone support. IM-posting support very limited. Posting via text requires a European number.

This Twitter-style microblogging, moblogging site is a study in contradictions. It claims to be about letting your friends or coworkers know not only what you’re doing but also where you are (your “presence”) via its mobile component—yet phone support is pretty limited. And though posts have a smaller size limit than Twitter, Jaiku more closely resembles a real blog site in that posts get their own pages, where comments can be added.

Jaiku’s interface looks a bit more polished and more “Web 2.0” than Twitter’s, but in many ways the two are nearly identical. Standout differences in addition to the post page and comments: It lets you add RSS feeds from your blog or photo site and has some nifty location capabilities (if your phone works with it).

Getting going with Jaiku involves three main steps: creating your “mini-blog,” adding contacts, and setting up your mobile phone. If you just want to see all public posts without even signing up, click on Explore from the menu at the top of the Jaiku home page.

When you sign up for an account, the screen name you choose will be used for your Jaiku URL in the form name.jaiku.com. Right from the first sign-up screen, you can choose whether to make your Jaiku mini-blog visible to the public or hide it. If you choose to hide, only your accepted contacts will see your posts. It’s all or nothing: You can’t choose to have some posts public and others private.

Next you add a portrait of yourself—you can either upload your own, which can be any size—Jaiku will resize and crop it—or choose one of the animal heads provided by Jaiku to represent yourself. Oddly, at setup, you’re not asked for your location, only at the top of a right-hand sidebar for your main page. And you can change it at any time.

Then you’re asked for your mobile number. At this stage in the setup, you don’t get a Next choice, but only a “Send your activation message.” I’d have liked an additional choice to skip this and start adding contacts. Mobile setup is further complicated by Jaiku’s being based in Helsinki. U.S. users need a Nokia S60 series phone, a java smartphone (not common for U.S. phones), or a mobile Web browser. If none of these are available to you, there’s a European phone number you can text your Jaikus to after activating your mobile number. I can’t imagine many U.S. users are going to want to pay for international text messaging just for this service. At least Twitter has a U.S. text number.

What Can Jaiku Do?

If you are able to use Jaiku on your phone, you’ll be able to browse and add Jaiku posts, let others know your availability, and show your location, based on cell towers—pretty cool. Those Jaiku-ers who have Bluetooth can show their proximity to each other. For Nokia S60 series users, the Jaiku app integrates with your phone address book. If you have a phone with an actual Web browser, such as the iPhone, you can access the mobile version of the Jaiku Web site at m.Jaiku.com.

Jaiku can import your contacts from Hotmail, Gmail, or Jabber if you enter your log-in for those accounts. Alternatively, you can upload an address file in TXT or CSV format, or just enter a list of e-mail addresses. The service will check if any of the contacts are already signed up, and it will offer to send an invitation to join. A “Who you might know” option suggests contacts, but users in the resulting list seem to be randomly selected. One Jaiku suggested for me was in my location (New York), but the next was from South Africa, and another listed his location as “Space.”

Just like Twitter, Jaiku uses the concept of contacts and “followers.” Contacts are people you add and allow to see all your posts. You can choose to receive notifications whenever someone you’re following adds a post to his Jaiku stream. These can be sent to your cell phone, e-mail, or IM account—frankly, I’m not a fan of cluttering any of these inboxes with more sources. Though you can’t create separate groups of contacts for private group message boards, you can create or subscribe to “Channels,” separate Jaiku streams on a common topic. These are open for anyone on Jaiku to subscribe and post to (though this could change, as the feature is still in beta).

Posts are limited to a mere 100 characters and will display on their own pages, where other users can add comments. Comments? I thought these Twitter-type sites were comments. It seems mighty odd that comments on a post can be longer than the post itself. To be fair, this feature actually was useful to me: I asked a question in a short post, and someone from the Jaiku team responded in a comment, starting a little forum-type discussion. So one use for the service might be as a lightweight version of Yahoo! Answers, Answerbag, or Microsoft’s upcoming Live QnA Beta. Pownce also lets you add replies, but it doesn’t limit the length of the original post, which makes more sense to me.



You can send posts to Jaiku from an instant-messaging program, but this capability is restricted to Google Talk, LiveJournal, and Jabber—not very useful, as the list omits the biggies—AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger. To post via IM, you add the address jaiku@jaiku.com to your contacts and send it an instant message with your username and password to log in. After this, any IMs you send to it will become Jaiku posts. If you want to post via one of the more popular IM services that Jaiku doesn’t support, a neat Web service called IMified can help. (IMified is basically an IM robot that presents a text menu of options for posting to other sites with the requisite APIs.) Oddly, posting via e-mail is not an option. This seems like an oversight to me, but it’s worth noting that Twitter has the same limitation.

You can also set up a Web feed to create posts from your blog, your photostream on Flickr, or any RSS or Atom source. (Your Jaiku stream can, in turn, be subscribed to by others as its own feed, too.) I successfully added feeds from my Flickr account and my LiveJournal blog, the first using RSS 2.0 and the latter Atom 1.0, and posts from those sources soon appeared on my Jaiku page. With feeds from Flickr, a thumb of the first picture in your stream appears on your Jaiku stream; this links to your Flickr page instead of being hosted on Jaiku. I don’t really see the point of generating posts from a feed in this kind of site: If the point is to broadcast your presence and immediate activities or thoughts, it doesn’t make sense to have the stream filled with external RSS material. But I do prefer the way Jaiku (and Pownce) handle images—linking to the real photo site—over the photo capabilities of yappd, which shrinks your uploaded pictures and stores them on its own servers.

Keeping with its theme of using every connecting technology it can lay its hands on, Jaiku offers HTML code for badges, Jaiku’s term for the gadgets that let you add your Jaiku stream to your blog. Three options are available: Stream, Map, and Simple. Stream shows your latest few posts in a 330-pixel high window, Map shows your last post with your location on a world map, and Simple just shows your last post. In another backward-priority-seeming design choice, you can customize background colors for these with an even friendlier interface than the one used to customize your main Jaiku page: You get a choice of color schemes rather than just a text box asking for a hexadecimal color code.

Jaiku seems to have a bit of an identity crisis: It limits posts to 100 characters yet aspires to be more blog-like than Twitter by giving posts their own pages and allowing comments. It claims to be all about “presence,” while offering feed support, which will fill your posts with external (and often not very timely) content. It touts its cell-phone integration, yet support is limited to a very narrow selection of phone models, and there’s only a European phone number for sending posts from nonsupported phones. Still, if Jaiku can find a real, defined purpose, its admirable design and technology base will serve it well.

Yappd (beta) – Reviewed by PC Magazine

October 22, 2007

Yappd is Twitter plus pictures. You can add the images to your posts by e-mail, camera phone, or the Yappd site, but the small size of pictures on the site limits its usefulness.

Simple, pleasant, clear interface. Lets you upload pictures via e-mail or camera phone. You can specify users whose posts you want to watch. Automatically generates short URLs for long ones you enter.

No private groups. Limited picture size. Incompatible with Opera and Safari.

Just when you thought there were enough services that let you could spout off a sentence or two on your activities of the moment, the latest Twitter clone, called Yappd, arrives on the scene. The only real differentiator of this new service/site is that it lets you include pictures along with your nuggets of verbal inspiration. What’s more, you can append pictures to your text posts directly from your cell phone as well as from your e-mail account or at the Yappd site.

The simple, pleasing Web interface has six static menu choices across the top: Home, Search, Invite, Settings, About, and Sign Out. Unlike Twitter, Yappd seems primarily aimed at having you exchange posts only with people you’ve included in your “watchlist.” You can see all recent public posts by clicking the All Yapps tab on your home page, but the default when you click on Home is to see posts from people in your watchlist. Search lets you set up a watchlist of yappers, those whose every passing thought (and photo) you’d like to keep up with, by using a simple text box that looks for first name, username, or e-mail addresses. You can easily invite new Yappers by sending an invitation by e-mail after clicking on the Invite main menu choice.

At this point in its development, there’s no premium, for-pay version, and there are no ads. The designers want to keep it as clean and appealing as possible to entice users, but the plan is to include targeted ads later in the product’s development in order to remain in business. I should note that the site works just fine in both Firefox and Internet Explorer, but Opera and Safari unfortunately present rendering errors.

Until very recently, there was no way to insert a picture to your yapp via the Web site—quite an oversight for a service whose main claim to fame is picture adding—but the software’s creators added this capability as I was reviewing the service. Beneath the yapp entry box, you can now click on Yapp a Link | Picture to drop down two more entry boxes; one, as you might guess, for adding a link and the other for locating (via a browse button) and uploading a picture from your PC. The link entry does a little more than just enter a URL in your message: It creates a TinyURL link on the fly via a cool mashup with the TinyURL service, so any otherwise mile-long link will be terse in your resulting yapp.

Alternatively, you use your cell phone or e-mail, simply by sending a missive to yapp@Yappd.com, to include a picture. I successfully sent a picture through e-mail. A thumbnail of the inserted picture appears on the right of a post, and it’s not to be confused with the identically sized profile image to the left of the post. The difference is that clicking on the thumbnail at the right pops up a larger view of the picture, which includes only a caption and an X that closes it. If you want to download the picture or do anything else with it, your only option is to take a screenshot. The service scales down your pictures so that they’re not overwhelming its servers. In this day of mashups, it seems odd that Yappd would store the pictures on its own servers; I think it makes more sense to do what Pownce does and display a thumbnail in your post that links to a bigger version of the image on an actual image-sharing site like Flickr.

A very simple interface nicety missing from Yappd is a question before the entry box similar to Twitter’s “What are you doing?” or Pownce’s “Post a note.” Yes, it’s obvious where to type your thought or description of your current activity, but the question does add a psychological nudge that’s not there with an unprefaced blank box.

Yappd’s settings page lets you enter or edit the obvious personal info such as name, e-mail, and password, user photo, and phone number. But it also offers Notifications options, where other Yappd users can text your phone to remind you that you haven’t yapped in a while. These reminders are forwarded to your cell phone—which sounds like a horrible feature to me, especially for people who pay by the message. Still, it’s only an option, and some hard-core users might like it. There’s also an option to receive an SMS whenever someone on your watchlist yapps—horrible, too, for the same reason

I wish Yappd offered the ability to create private yapps, where a contact or a group of people you choose would receive the messages—not just any Yapper who finds your username and adds you to his watchlist. Pownce offers this, but with Pownce, you lose the ability to put your posts up on a public page containing all users’ contributions. As with other microblogging sites, you may see posts in any language on the public Yappd page, though limiting them to those you understand would be practical. Also, the page doesn’t autorefresh, which makes no sense for a site that has the goal of being up-to-the-minute. There’s also no way to yapp through IM or through your Facebook or blog (that is, there’s no gadget). And I did encounter site problems, where the service wouldn’t let me log in (even after requesting and using a new password sent by e-mail) or even sign up for a new account. I was presented with the cute but unhelpful message “OMG WTF MATE?”

Yappd is still in beta, so I guess I’m willing to cut it some slack despite the kinks. Perhaps it’s enough that it offers a way to share thoughts and pictures with a wide audience. But with Flickr’s ability to add comments and an RSS feed of a photo stream, and Pownce’s ability to link to photo sites with thumbnails included in posts, Yappd must pin its hopes on the narrow spot it’s carved out of being the only Twitter-like, fast-comment posting site that lets you upload pictures. It would be easy to say, “If I want to look through other people’s pictures, I’ll go to Flickr,” or “If I want to pore over other people’s bon mots of the moment, I’ll go to Twitter.” Yappd is hoping enough people will want both together.

Source: PC Magazine


October 22, 2007

by Michael Muchmore

The first big microblogging/moblogging site, Twitter boasts the largest audience among sites of its ilk. But some of the finer points of its operation, and its help, could stand some improvements in usability.

The original microblog with the largest audience. Easy to get started.

Some interface elements unclear, as is the help. No search for posts.

Twitter’s overnight Internet fame stems from one simple question: “What are you doing?” You have 140 characters of text to answer, and as soon as you hit Update, the site’s millions of users can see what you’re up to. This small idea has blossomed into a hugely popular phenomenon, with its users covering the entire Earth, developers creating scores of helper apps for it, and a raft of imitation sites. This is the “social-networking and microblogging” site where you can read fascinating and mundane quick takes such as “ate a piece of cherry pie” or “just had a great workout.” But despite the service’s seemingly trivial function, which causes many to snub it and can at times make it akin to listening to other peoples’ cell-phone conversations, Twitter fills a gap left by other forms of communication.

After a simple sign-up involving the standard username, password, e-mail, and CAPTCHA entries, you can join the conversation, adding text to the “What are you doing?” box. Each Twitter entry, aka “tweet”, is followed by a time stamp and its source. Clicking on the time stamp brings up a page of the tweet alone. If you don’t want everyone in the world to be able to see your tweets, you can make them private and visible only to people you approve by checking the Protect my updates box. It’s all or nothing: All your posts will be either public or private. I’d prefer to see more options that would let you make some posts public and others private. It doesn’t seem as if this would be particularly difficult to implement—blogs have had this ability for years.

But posting via the Web site is hardly the whole story. Since the post size limit fits within the SMS 160-character limit, one of the features that adds immediacy to Twitter is the ability to update your posts from a cell phone. You can do this by sending a message to the service’s short code, 40404, after you’ve verified your phone number. (Short codes should be familiar to you from TV promotions that ask you to vote via text message—these are reserved numbers that work just like telephone numbers.) Finally, you can make a post through AIM, Jabber, Gmail, .Mac, or LiveJournal instant messaging. This misses a couple of the big IM names—Yahoo! Messenger and Windows Live Messenger—but it still covers a lot of ground. Oddly, when I sent a post from IM, it was marked “from Web” at the end. If you send from your phone, the tag says “sent from txt.”

Once you enter a tweet you can’t edit it, but you can delete it by clicking the trash-can icon. A star next to every post lets you designate it as a favorite, and you can access all your favorite posts by clicking the Favorite link under Stats on the right sidebar. There’s no way to search posts based on text—something I think limits the usefulness of the site—but it’s a limitation shared by Jaiku.

In addition to being able to view everyone’s public Twitter posts, you can “follow” another user, which means his or her posts will appear in your Home page timeline, and you’ll have the option to receive text messages or IMs to alert you of your followed one’s posts. To find people to follow, you can click on Find & Invite at the top of the page. From here you can search for Twitter users in your Gmail address book, invite new friends, or search existing Twitterers. Once you find other users you can opt to follow them. You can also add people to follow on your phone. The icons of all the users you’re following will appear at the bottom of your right-hand sidebar. If there’s someone in cyberland that you don’t want to be followed by or don’t want as a friend, you can go to that person’s page and choose the Block link.

To respond to a post that strikes a chord in you, there are two options: You can reply publicly or Direct Text the original Twitterer. To reply publicly, Twitter uses another fairly counterintuitive method: You have to begin your response with “@” prefixed to the username of the Twitterer you want to reply to. This will be familiar to posters on non-threaded discussion boards, but I’d prefer a simple “Reply” link. Jaiku’s Comments feature handles this better, despite the argument that everything posted in these microblogs is a comment, so why the need for a separate comment feature?


The Twitter Phenomenon

Twitter has been taken up so exuberantly by the connected community that it’s now used by the MTV Music Video Awards, presidential candidate John Edwards, and even some news organizations and fire departments to communicate their urgent messages. Its own vocabulary has even emerged: As mentioned earlier, a Twitter post is called a “tweet,” and “tweetups” have taken place where “tweeps” have met up in the real world for social gatherings. You can find a glossary of Twitter terminology at the Twitter Fan Wiki.

Twitter’s API has engendered a bunch of interesting mashups and third-party software integrations. A couple of these show a world map with live updates: TwitterVision and TwitterFaces. And though Twitter’s own “badges” (Twitter’s name for widgets or gadgets) give you a way to display your Twitter feed on your blog, MySpace, or Facebook page, third-party developers have produced many more ways to interact with the service. Firefox extensions, such as TwitterFox, TwitBin, and TwittyTunes let you add to and read your Twitter stream from that browser. Standalone apps—Twitteroo, Twitterific for Mac OS, and the Adobe AIR–based Tweetr—offer yet another way to interact. A service called TwitterMail, as its name suggests, gives you an e-mail address for posting and receiving replies.

Help in Twitter could be better. By default, if you click on Help, you get a bug submission form. You can get the mile-deep FAQ three clicks later from a second-level outline link. I also think the interface could be clearer. How about some tooltips for stuff like the favorites star? Tabs saying Archive, Replies, and Recent are almost clear, but what about “With Others” and “Previous” for a Twitter feed you’re following? And the whole “following” and “followers” concept could be better explained.

As far as compatibility goes, Twitter displayed and worked just fine for me in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Safari.

Twitter effectively started the whole “microblogging,” “moblogging” revolution, and it has garnered a tremendous following that includes presidential candidates, pop stars, news teams, and emergency units. As the first of its kind, its interface and capabilities are somewhat limited compared with those of some of its imitators: It doesn’t have the picture support you’ll find in yappd, not to mention the file- and video-sharing capability of Pownce. But Twitter can expose your activities of the moment to the largest audience of any of these sites, and its cottage industry of third-party software tools offer the most ways to participate.

Source: PC Magazine

Is Twitter Here to Stay?

October 19, 2007

By Wade Roush

Last week I wrote about Jott, a useful tool for capturing thoughts that occur to you when you’re away from your computer and unable to write them down. You call Jott’s toll-free number from your cell phone and leave a brief voice message; workers at an Indian call center transcribe your message into text and e-mail it to you or to specified friends or coworkers.

Jott made its first big splash at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference in Monterey, CA, in early March, and it has already gained thousands of enthusiastic users, who “jott” everything from shopping lists to song lyrics. But in the competition for consumer and media buzz, Jott has been up against another free service that also uses cell phones and the Internet to capture moments in time, this one with a social twist. It’s Twitter, which essentially turns the one-to-one channels of instant messaging and phone-based SMS text messaging into broadcast media.

Twitter members use the company website or their own cell phones to compose missives up to 140 characters in length, almost always answering the trademark Twitter question, “What are you doing?” Once a member submits a message to the site or texts it to the short code 40404 (in the United States), it goes out to the phones and browsers of the people who’ve joined that member’s social network–his or her “followers,” in Twitter lingo. Every four minutes, the accumulated messages are also posted briefly to Twitter’s public timeline, which anyone can read on the Web.

Twitter had about 100,000 members as of late March, and membership has been doubling every three weeks, according to Twitter engineer Biz Stone. Members exchange an astonishing number of updates every hour, ranging from the maddeningly trivial (“Just placed a bid on eBay for an auction I won’t win”) to the mildly interesting (“Portrait of a writer on deadline: Staring into my near-empty fridge. Peanut butter, no bread. Cereal, no milk. Bottle of Veuve, no party”).

In that respect, Twitterers resemble bloggers, except that most updates have a rawer, more dashed-off flavor–which is to be expected, since they’re also far shorter and more ephemeral than blog posts. Members like the service, in Stone’s view, because it lets them stay connected with friends without having to think about technical details such as their friends’ instant-messaging handles or which cellular carrier they use. Twitter is “a sophisticated, device-agnostic, social message routing system that nobody realizes they need until they try it,” Stone says. “We’ve lowered the barrier to keeping in touch such that the only thing that matters is what you and your friends are doing.”

The guts of Twitter is a system that quickly matches new messages coming in from members with the followers who have signed up to receive them, then retransmits them using each follower’s preferred channel: instant message, SMS, or the Twitter website. Stone says the company completed a working version of the software in only two weeks using Ruby on Rails, a programming language and a set of prefabricated software modules widely employed by developers of the new raft of Web services known as Web 2.0. The hard part, he says, was “navigating the business aspects of the mobile industry. It took us months to get a short code and figure out how to play nice with all the major U.S. and international mobile carriers.” (SMS messages to Twitter incur the usual carrier fees of $0.10 to $0.15 per message.)

The company is also grappling with its own sudden growth, says Stone. The unanticipated storm of Twitters has resulted in occasional slowdowns and downtime. “We’re looking for a senior engineer experienced at developing large-scale systems,” he pleads.

Stone is a longtime collaborator of Blogger cofounder Evan Williams, who owns Twitter’s parent company, Obvious. But “obvious” isn’t the word some onlookers are using to describe Twitter’s utility. While it has some high-profile users, such as presidential candidate John Edwards and former Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble, many bloggers have dismissed Twitter as a giant distraction, full of news flashes about which variety of latte a friend just ordered at Starbucks.

Dedicated Twitter users defend the service, suggesting that the daily minutiae actually add up to something significant. “Asking ‘who really cares about that kind of mindless trivia about your day?’ misses the whole point of presence,” writes Liz Lawley, director of the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology. “It’s about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you’re doing. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is, ‘What are you doing?’ Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they’re working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days.”

But Twittering became such a fashionable pastime at TED and at the following week’s South by Southwest interactive technology conference in Austin, TX, that other observers wonder whether it is more than a fad. “Twitter was impossible to escape at South by Southwest,” says Jamais Cascio, an independent “foresight consultant” and cofounder of futurist news site WorldChanging. “I think it went through the entire hype cycle–from nobody knowing about it to ‘What do you mean you don’t use it?’ to ‘Twitter? Do you still have that?’–in about four days.”

But at least a few independent Web developers are still enamored with Twitter, and they’re using the programming interfaces provided by Obvious to build mashups that give messages more context. If Twitter users send a specially formatted message to the service giving their current location, all their subsequent Twitters will include that information; Maryland-based developer David Troy took advantage of this feed to build Twittermap, which displays each new message above the user’s location on a Google Map.

Later, Troy introduced an animated version called Twittervision, which comes as close to embodying the phrase “global conversation” as anything on the Web. The Twittervision screen depicts the entire earth (again, using map data from Google) and slides east and west to highlight the latest geocoded messages from Twitterers around the world. Say you’re in Tanzania and you see an interesting Twitter pop up over Tokyo. You can respond via phone or the Web, and within 60 seconds your own Twitter will appear over Africa.

Nat Torkington, a New Zealander who runs open-source conferences for technology publisher O’Reilly Media, comments that Twittervision is “a hypnotic glimpse into the lives of people around the world.” He calls it “a complete waste of time”–but “in the same way that conversation, casual sex, and reading are wastes of time.”

Source: MIT Technology Review

Friend Spam

October 19, 2007

By Jonathan Abrams

Five years ago, I imagined a website that would show how people were connected to each other in real life, so I built a prototype called ­Friendster. I decided that one of its central features would be a friend confirmation process. When you wanted to add someone as your friend, an e‑mail notification was sent with your request. If–and only if–the person approved your request, you were both listed as each other’s friends. Five years later, I am paying the price for this innovation as I face an avalanche of friend spam. I get several friend requests per day from Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, and also from social-media services such as Yelp, Flickr, and Pownce.

What is Pownce, you ask? Let’s take a step back. The “micro­blogging” site Twitter was launched in 2006 by Blogger cofounder Evan ­Williams to help people update their friends via phone or Web with short messages about their current whereabouts or thoughts (see “What Is He Doing?“). Twitter was all the rage at March’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival, seemingly supplanting a predecessor called Dodgeball, but by May, überblog Techcrunch had proclaimed that people were already “making the switch from Twitter to Jaiku.”

I never even got a chance to try Jaiku before Pownce launched in late June. Pownce was billed as a file-­sharing service but looked a lot like Twitter. Still not open to the general public, it has received tremendous hype thanks to its association with the cofounder of Digg.

The press, bloggers, and the investment community are excitedly following every shift in buzz, from Dodgeball to Twitter to ­Pownce, or from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook. Since the launch of the Facebook Platform in May, the press and many so-called experts have finally begun recognizing the value of Facebook’s “social graph”–the map of connections between real friends. But ironically, as the tech elite have begun to deride MySpace’s seizure-inducing page designs and promiscuous friend seekers, Facebook’s clean user interface and focus on real friends faces an onslaught of new users and pointless applications where tattooed zombies buy drinks for your top friends.

However this all plays out, it’s clear that these sites are not going to go away. In 2004, VCs bemoaned any further investment in social-­networking companies, and pundits argued that social-­networking sites would not endure as stand-alone destinations. Today, they are some of the biggest sites on the Web, and we have an entire industry of widget and tool providers building on top of the social-­networking ecosystem. There are niche social-­networking sites for moms, dogs, pagans, and bodybuilders. Ten years ago I moved to Silicon Valley to work at Netscape. Today, Netscape cofounder Marc ­Andreessen has a startup called Ning, which helps people–what else–create their own social-networking sites.

So what advice do I have for dealing with the friend spam and keeping on top of all these new services? Every once in a while, turn off your computer and go hang out with your friends.

Entrepreneur Jonathan Abrams is founder and CEO of the events-sharing service Socializr.

Source: MIT Technology Review

Trivial Pursuits

October 19, 2007

By Jason Pontin

Minutes before beginning this piece, I twittered, “At home in Boston, writing about Twitter one more time.” Robert Scoble, author of the technology blog Scobleizer, wrote in Half Moon Bay, CA, “Life with Milan is definitely nuts. He wakes us up at 3 a.m. and we both look at each other and say ‘good thing he’s so damn cute.'” In San Francisco, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams wrote of cofounder Biz Stone, “Talking about Biz’s need to get better at twittering.” In Tokyo, someone named Shiru said, “I’m getting better at surfing. Okay, time to get back to work.”

On Pownce, Michael Owens, a 22-year-old graphic designer in Chicago, addressed himself sternly: “I need a way to force myself not to check social media and blogs and webcomics and all the other things that I get distracted by.” A short time later, he posted, “Holy Crap. The Care Bears Movie is on. That’s freaking awesome.” And over at Facebook, Ed Vaizey, an old college friend who is now a member of the British parliament, told his 233 other friends about his professional reading: “Just read Robin Harris’s biography of Talleyrand–superb; and Edward Pearce’s biography of Walpole, not so good, far too arch.”

These notes–terse, obscure, and endlessly self-referential–are all examples of a new phenomenon in social media called “microblogs”: short electronic posts, sent to friends or to a more general community, that deliver some information about the sender. Sending microblogs broadcasts, “I am here!” Reading microblogs satisfies the craving of many people to know the smallest details of the lives of people in whom they are interested. Already, new-media intellectuals have coined a term to describe the new social behavior they say microblogging encourages: they talk of “presence,” a shorthand for the idea that by using such tools, we can enjoy an “always on” virtual omnipresence.

As Kate Greene reports in her profile of Evan Williams, “What Is He Doing?”, ever since Twitter was named best blog at the Web Awards at the South by Southwest festival in March 2007, the number of people using the microblogging service has expanded swiftly. In March, Twitter had 100,000 members, according to Biz Stone; today, TwitDir.com, an independent Twitter directory, says there are almost 500,000 twitterers. But the most obvious signal of microblogging’s importance is the swelling number of Twitter peers or imitators. Recently, a Chinese blog counted around 100 “Twitter clones” in at least 12 countries. They all have cute, telegraphic names: Jaiku, Kyte, Plazes, Pownce, Yappd. Even Facebook has joined the trend. The smartest of the social networks now allows its users to send their friends short posts that describe their “status.”

Two services merit attention: Twitter, because it was the first and is the best known, and Pownce, because of its many features and the personality of its founder, Kevin Rose.

Twitterers use mobile phones, instant-messaging software, or Twitter’s own website to send and receive 140-character messages, called twitters or tweets. Tweets–which mostly answer Twitter’s prompt “What are you doing?”–are routed to individual friends, to networks of friends, or to everyone who registers with Twitter.

Most twitterers (or twits, as they are sometimes inevitably called) communicate with small networks of people they know, but the most loved have thousands of people who “follow” them (to use Twitter’s own jargon). Paul Terry Walhus, a developer from Austin, TX, had 2,421 friends as of late September. Robert Scoble, the technology blogger, had 5,880. John Edwards–the John Edwards–had 3,528.

But as Evan Williams told me, “Celebrity twitterers are really outliers, even though they get a lot of attention.” Williams believes that the service is best understood as a system that swiftly routes messages, composed on a variety of devices, to the people who have elected to receive them, in the media they prefer.

Twitter’s elegance lies in its extreme simplicity. Pownce is more complex. As with Twitter, one can send messages to friends or groups of friends as well as to the service’s general community. (Unlike Twitter’s messages, Pownce’s cannot be sent to mobile phones.) But you can also send your friends links, invitations to events, photos, pieces of music, or videos. In addition, you can finely discriminate which group or subgroup of friends will receive a particular post. It is this combination of private messaging and file sharing that makes Pownce seem so richly functional. Such features are more often found on fully formed social networks like Facebook; but Pownce retains much of the intimacy and directness of Twitter.

Pownce was cofounded by Kevin Rose, the cofounder and chief architect of the hugely popular news aggregation site Digg and the cofounder of Revision3, an online video production and hosting company that shoots ­Diggnation, a weekly news show that Rose cohosts. Much of the excitement that attended the launch of Pownce last June derived from Rose’s reputation for creating new-media companies that hypnotize their youthful audiences into cultish devotion. Pownce seemed especially cool because Rose decided that only those with invitations would be permitted to test the new site.

Most of the other microblogging services combine some features of both Twitter and Pownce. Jaiku, for instance, works with cell phones, as Twitter does, but like Pownce, it is more friendly to pictures and videos. A few have novel variations on the basic themes: Kyte grandly claims that it allows “anybody to create their own interactive TV channel on their Website, blog, social network, or mobile phone”–a kind of microblogging that bypasses the written medium altogether.

Critics of microblogging argue that the services are not sustainable businesses, because they merely float upon the speculative bubble of venture capital investment in Web 2.0 companies. More nastily, they complain that almost all microblog posts are stupefyingly banal.

Bruce Sterling, the journalist and science fiction writer (whose latest short story can be found on page 69), crisply articulated the latter argument when he wrote to me, “Using Twitter for literate communications is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite the Iliad.” The private-equity markets best express the first argument: while the micro­blogging sites could not exist without venture capital, the sums invested in them have been relatively small. (Twitter, for instance, reportedly received about $5 million from Union Square Ventures and other investors, a paltry figure for a company whose importance has been so hyperbolized by the media, bloggers, and its users.)

But it’s too soon to dismiss the microblogging services’ potential as businesses. Although all offer free registration, they could charge their customers and communications companies for premium functions. Pownce already charges its users for the ability to send large files. Perhaps the wireless carriers might pay the services to act as application providers for their customers; when mobile-­telephone users bought a plan, they could select Jaiku as an option. Another possible source of income could be advertising that is pertinent to a particular user; advertisers and the media buyers at advertising agencies, for all their disenchantment with print publications and broadcast media, will still spend good money for the type of effective, targeted advertising offered by Google AdWords and AdSense. Finally, the services could be used for direct marketing. Already, a few companies (including Twitter itself) are using microblogs to directly market themselves; since users don’t receive promotional posts unless they’ve chosen to receive them from the corporations they follow, the blasts are presumably welcomed.

My own experiments posting semiregularly on Twitter and Pownce produced mixed emotions. I quickly realized that decrying the banality of microblogs missed their very point. As Evan Williams puts it, “It’s understandable that you should look at someone’s twitter that you don’t know and wonder why it should be interesting.” But the only people who might be interested in my microblogs–apart from 15 obsessive Pontin followers on Twitter–were precisely those who would be entertained and comforted by their triviality: my family and close friends. For my part, I found that the ease with which I could communicate with those I love encouraged a blithe chattiness that particularly alarmed my aged parents. They hadn’t heard so much from me in years.

On the other hand, I strongly disliked the radical self-exposure of Twitter. I wasn’t sure it was good for my intimates to know so much about my smallest thoughts or movements, or healthy for me to tell them. A little secretiveness is a necessary lubricant in our social relations.

Jason Pontin is the editor in chief of Technology Review.

Source: MIT Technology Review