The Background

Friday turned out to be a day of experimentation with Twitter for myself and some of my Twitter friends including Andy Powell, Pete Johnston, Paul Miller, Owen Stephens and Josie Fraser.

Friday actually began with an email discussion with fellow members of the Internet Librarian International advisory group over the theme for the conference. I expressed some reservations that the suggestions, which focussed on tangible benefits and return on investment, although important, could detract from the needs for experimentation and intangible benefits. I feel these points were accepted, and the conference organisers will shortly be announcing details of this year’s conference.

In contrast, the discussions held on the Twitter micro-blogging service appeared to cast me in an alternative role in which I argued the need for guidelines on best practices to support use of Twitter. In response I received tweets (Twitter posts) along the lines of “The day we have best practice for Twitter will be the day I stop using it!” and “Global order is …boring. And massively unhelpful, sometimes“. So is it time to start developing guidelines or is it too early and will such attempts stifle innovation?

Facebook Status DisplayI feel that there are some areas in which mistakes can easily be made and everyone would benefit from understanding the problems and solutions. One good example comes from Owen Stephens’ recent experiences in trying to integrate his Facebook statuses with his Tweeter posts. As Owen describes on his blogWhat I actually wanted was to allow Twitter to update Facebook AND Facebook to update Twitter“. As can be seen from the image, this had an unfortunate side-effect – if you try and do this in both direction, you get a loop.

Architectural Issues

That was a simple and easily understood and easily resolved problem. But on Friday the Twitter discussions led to aspects of the Twitter architecture which may be more difficult to resolve. Although a tweet may be a very simple resource, based on up to 140 characters, possibly including a hyperlink, tweets may have dependencies now only on the Twitter service, but also on the service used to provide the short force of URLs which are often needed to keep to the 140 character limit. So an individual tweet may have a dependency on two services, and if the TinyURL service is not as sustainable as Twitter in the long run, it may not be possible to resolve the hyperlinks. A problem, then, if future generations feel that Twitter records provide useful information on the topics we are talking about today. This is an area of concern which has already been identified in the blogging community, with one blogger having posted on URL Shorteners List and Why It’s a Mistake for Twitter.

And as we look at the different ways in which Twitter can be used, we can spot other limitations in its architecture. Most tweets I have encountered use the Tinyurl.com service but the client I use, Twitteroo, uses the Rurl service: multiple dependencies on URL resolutions, then.

Such concerns may be legitimate, but they are not specific to Twitter: these issues simply reflect the complexities of a Web 2.0 environment. Perhaps of greater interest to the majority of Twitter users and potential users are the ways in which Twitter is being used.

Twitter Usage

Andy Powell recently drew attention to his Twitter followers in a tweet which pointed out that the emerging usage pattern amongst his Twitter friendswas infringing the Twitter Ten Commandments. In particular I think it’s fair to say that we were using Twitter like a private chat room. As I have 80 followers and follow 38 others (Andy has 92 followers and is following 120, buy medications Pete has 21 followers and is following 24, Paul has 186 followers and is following 182, Josie has 227 followers and is following 128 and Twitter newcomer Owen Stephens has 9 followers and is following 10 others) I would question the value of our use of Twitter for public messaging especially when most of the followers are likely to see only half of the conversation or when the messages are based on in-jokes.

I do feel that we need to start to discuss the patterns of usage, why Twitter fans find it so useful and to be able to identify potential problem which may lead to Twitter failing to be sustainable in the long term. But I also realise that it is very early days for Twitter and attempting to mandate particular ways of working may stifle innovation. And there’s a denager that focussing on Twitter’s potential in a work capacity could lead to missing out on the informal banter, jokes and discussions which can improve the quality of the work place – for example, the tweet I’ve just received from my colleague Paul Walk “off to Nottingham. No.1 Son is concerned that I don’t run into that old Sheriff….” made me smile.

I feel that the compromise position is to document experiences and encourage debate – as this post aims to do.  I also feel that it would be useful to explore ways in which Twitter can support our professional activities.

One area  in which Twitter experimentation is taking place is to support conferences. Indeed Robert HC has blogged about JISC’s plans to use Twitter to support their conference. As he describes “so that we don’t all feel mega stupid about it, the Comms team is slowly turning into Twitterers (sigh) – with the fabulous results of us now knowing if we’re sitting on trains, waiting for offspring or having slugs creep under our kitchen doors – no doubt this will all be a prelude to something more useful and productive and we are just getting used to how it works…

I think encouraging members of the organisation to use Twitter in this way is useful. It can help to gain an understanding of the issues and also of the things that can go wrong, prior to more formal use. From my experimentation, for example, I know that delivery of tweets via SMS can cause problems if there’s a lively Twitter discussion. On Friday evening, for example, I received an influx of 35 text messages – too many!

But perhaps delivery of tweets to conference delegates via SMS can be a useful  application for Twitter. In previous IWMW events we have invited delegates to provide their mobile phone numbers on the booking form, for use in case of emergencies (this decision was made after the London bombings on 7/7, which took place midway through the IWMW 2005 event). Might Twitter have a role to play as the delivery channel, I wonder?  And could this be used for other purposes (e.g. notification of changes to the programme). And I think it would be fun, after the welcoming talk which asked everyone to set their mobile phones to silent mode, to send a tweet to check that everyone has done so 🙂

Your Thoughts

I’ve given some suggestions for use of Twitter in one particular context. And I’ve suggested that Twitter users need to reflect on the strengths and weakness of Twitter, but that we need to have an open debate before rolling out rules for use of Twitter – and, like others, I would be worried if organisations required editorial approval before tweets could be sent.

But we need to have the discussions.  What are your thoughts?