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