Most people who aren’t familiar with Twitter are eager to list the reasons why they don’t use this social-networking service. It’s for narcissists. It’s for teenagers. It’s for people who have nothing better to do. It’s a forum for oversharing. While all of these things may be true in some cases, I find Twitter’s 140-character messaging network to be an incredibly useful tool in my everyday life.
I use Twitter as my personalized news feed by following people who “tweet” (write updates) about things that interest me. In one glance I can read White House correspondent Mark Knoller’s tweets about President Obama’s activities, a recipe tweeted by Martha Stewart and WSJ.com tweets with links to news stories.
But Twitter works best with a little help from its friends, namely those programs that are designed to make it more customized and useful with minimal work on the user’s behalf. Here’s a rundown of just some of these helpers. I’m focusing only on ones that run on your computer, either in Web browsers or as stand-alone programs. There is also a plethora of Twitter applications that work on mobile devices like the iPhone and BlackBerry, too many to go into here. A few Twitter programs let you lurk and read tweets without a Twitter account, but in most cases these programs require a Twitter user name and password so they can better organize tweets of the people whom you follow.
To get a Twitter account in the first place, you will need to sign up with a user name and password at Twitter.com and start following people—or subscribing to read someone’s updates. These may be friends or people you simply find interesting, like journalists whose work you read (my Twitter user name is kabster728). You can see whom one person follows, and then opt also to follow those same people and the people those people follow and so on. Though it’s possible to lock your account so it’s private, very few people do so because Twitter encourages open communication throughout the Web.
That said, you can always choose to block someone from following you or stop following someone’s Twitter feed. You can comment on a tweet by sending the person who wrote it an “at reply,” named because the reply starts with the “@” sign followed by the user name of the person to whom you are replying. You can also send direct messages to another Twitter user as long as he or she is following you.
TweetDeck and Seesmic are two programs that do a good job of filtering others’ tweets and aiding the process of writing tweets. Both use Adobe Air, a tool that lets the program work in the background while continuously refreshing its content. This increases productivity because the programs can be set to display pop-up notifications whenever certain tweets appear.
TweetDeck (a free download at TweetDeck.com) organizes tweets into columns that you designate, such as a column of all tweets that mention your name, your company’s name or the word “Wimbledon.” It eases the process of writing tweets by building in ways to shorten Web links, post photos or translate a tweet into one of 35 languages. TweetDeck also integrates with Facebook so that one TweetDeck column displays your Facebook friends’ latest status updates.
The most recent version of TweetDeck enables synchronization of accounts with an email and password. This means that you can download TweetDeck on several computers, log into your account and see the same columns and settings on all platforms. The new version also includes fun extras like search within each column and the option to show how many followers a user has by displaying that number below his or her tweets.
Seesmic (a free download at seesmic.com) is another all-purpose Twitter program. It works much like TweetDeck, but has a few differences. Seesmic also integrates with Facebook, but does so in a more robust way, showing when Facebook friends share photos or Web links and letting you comment on or “like” someone’s status; TweetDeck only shows Facebook status updates.
Seesmic lets you drag photos into a small window for sharing via Twitter. But its overall look isn’t as visually appealing as TweetDeck’s and it lacks some of TweetDeck’s extra features.
Twhirl (twhirl.org) also runs on Adobe Air, working in the background as you use your computer for other activities. Like the aforementioned programs, it also enables easier tweeting with built-in tools for photo uploading and URL shrinking. Unlike TweetDeck and Seesmic, which focus on Twitter and Facebook, Twhirl enables logging into four types of accounts: Twitter, FriendFeed, Laconi.ca and Identica. But Twhirl shows only one category at a time, like a screen of replies, rather than showing all of these categories at a glance like TweetDeck and Seesmic.
Some Twitter programs run in browsers, not as stand-alone programs. This saves you from downloading a program on multiple computers because you can simply log into your account on any computer using its Web browser. But these programs won’t use the helpful pop-up notifications of Adobe Air; instead, you will need to look in your browser to see new information—like opening Twitter.com.
One such browser-based program is HootSuite (HootSuite.com), which uses an owl as its mascot. HootSuite’s unique features include its ability to set tweets to send at a later time or date, giving your followers the illusion that you are tweeting when you’re actually not, and a built-in statistic-tracker to measure how many people opened a link you posted using its ow.ly URL shortener. Like Twhirl, HootSuite shows only certain categories at a time rather than one overall glance at many categories of tweets.
Twitter.com is getting better, though it’s still weak compared with these other programs. I’ve used add-ons in my Firefox browser to enhance Twitter, and one called Power Twitter is like steroids for Twitter.com, adding photo uploading and link shortening right into the Web site. It also makes friends’ tweets richer by displaying details about any Web links that they share.
No Sign-Up Necessary
If you’re just curious about Twitter and want to see what people are talking about without signing up, try sites that are open to everyone. Twitterfall.com, for example, displays tweets about trending Twitter topics and custom search results in a waterfall-like visual with new tweets spilling over the top every half second. TwitterVision.com cleverly displays tweets around the world on a global map as they are posted, showing where the tweets are from, geographically.
Twitter isn’t limited to Twitter.com, and I wouldn’t likely use it as much were it not for programs like the ones I’ve mentioned and others. So give them a try and find out what makes Twitter useful for you.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.
Write to Katherine Boehret at email@example.com