Monday, December 22, 2008

A Minimalist’s Guide to Using Twitter Simply, Productively, and Funly

This morning after our hill run my sister asked me about Twitter: “What’s Twitter all about? I don’t get it?”

Neither did I at first — I resisted using Twitter for more than a year because it seemed like just another distraction, just another way to waste time and have noisy chatter going on in front of you.

But I decided to see what the fuss was all about, and did my Great Twitter Experiment. To my surprise, Twitter was actually fun, interesting, and useful — if used correctly.

I’ve also found that Twitter isn’t something you can explain, and it’s not something you can understand until you’ve used it for at least a few days. You have to use it to get it.

I think that’s because Twitter can be so many things to so many people. One person might use it as a marketing tool, another to stay in touch with friends, another to collaborate with co-workers, and still others to stay informed about their favorite bloggers, websites, the latest gossip, reading, news and more.

Today we’ll look at some different ways you can use Twitter without spending too much time doing it.

A Minimalist Approach

When I first signed up for Twitter a few months ago, I followed a bunch of people I knew and was instantly fed with a stream of new “tweets” from all the people I was following. I read through all the tweets, but the stream just kept coming.

I’d wake up in the morning and try to read through all the tweets, or at least scan them. Then I’d try to keep up periodically throughout the day. It was stressful.

Then I learned the secret of Twitter: don’t try to keep up.

Twitter is like a river … you can step into it at any point and feel the water, bathe in it, frolic if you like … and then get out. And go back in at any time, at any point. But, you don’t have to try to consume the entire river — it’s impossible and frankly a waste of time in my eyes.

So that’s how I approach Twitter these days: I’ll just jump into the stream of incoming tweets and see what people are saying. I can ignore them or follow their links or reply if I want. Then I get out of the stream. I don’t try to read everything I missed, and if I miss a lot of stuff, I’m OK with that.

I’ve actually used this approach I learned from with other things, such as email, Facebook, RSS, news and other information. I don’t have to consume it all, but I can jump into the river anytime I like and read, reply if I like, and get back out. So what if I miss a ton of blog posts, news stories, and emails? Will my life fall apart?

The answer turns out to be no.

Simple Ways to Use Twitter

If you follow this minimalist approach, you don’t have to spend a lot of time using Twitter to get a lot out of it, no matter what your goals are.

Here are some guidelines and ideas for using Twitter that I’ve found to be useful:

* Don’t follow a lot of people. Some people follow thousands of people. Their incoming stream must be incredible — I’m sure they don’t even try to keep up with everything. Others might be even more minimalist than I am: they follow a dozen people or less. But then what’s interesting about that? You’re not getting very much out of Twitter if you only follow a few people. Your needs will be different than mine, but I’ve found that following a few dozen to a hundred people is ideal if you’re trying to keep things simple but still get a lot out of Twitter. I think I’m following about 60 right now. I add people now and then but also drop others if they tweet too often and I don’t get anything out of their tweets.
* Don’t tweet too much. Some people are constantly tweeting. Personally, I don’t like to read that many every hour, so if they’re filling up my stream of incoming tweets, they’re wasting my time. I’ve found that once a day or a few times a day or even 10 times a day at the most is ideal for me — your usage will vary. But if you do it too much, you have to be using Twitter a lot, and to me that’s too much of a distraction and time drain. So I go on a few times a day (at most) and tweet only when I feel I have something interesting to say or ask.
* Don’t be on Twitter all the time. Some people have it open all the time — and that’s fine if it works for you. Personally, I’ve found that if Twitter is open (or if Twitterific, my desktop Twitter program, is open) all the time, I have a hard time focusing on other work. So like I said, I close it most of the time and open it a few times a day to see what’s going on. Mainly when I want to take a break. I only open it for a few minutes at most.
* Make announcements. I like to announce things on Twitter — it’s more effective than announcing things through email and less obtrusive than doing an entire post on my blog.
* Ask questions. Sometimes I’ll need a solution or some ideas for something, and I’ll ask the question on Twitter — and immediately get a dozen great replies. Thank you Twitterers! One time I couldn’t order a notebook (Muji Chronotebook) online so I asked if anyone lived near a Muji store, in New York for instance — and one Twitterer actually went to the store and bought it for me, and mailed it to me! Btw, I love this notebook and use it daily now. Thanks Chris!
* Take a poll. I’ve asked people how often they like to see posts on Zen Habits, things they want me to write about, whether I should do a Zen Habits post about the presidential election, and other similar poll questions, and have gotten some great feedback.
* Tell people interesting things. If you have something going on in your life that’s really interesting, by all means, share it. That’s what Twitter is about. It often gets some great conversations going. If you don’t have anything interesting to say, don’t be afraid to be silent. No one really cares if you don’t say anything, but it’s annoying to read people share things that aren’t interesting.
* Jump into conversations sometimes. I don’t think you should get involved in every conversation, but sometimes it can be fun to jump in and say your two cents. Then jump back out when you’re done.
* Find some great reading. When I feel like a distraction and want to read something useful or interesting, I’ll scan through my Twitter stream and find a few cool links to read. People share some really great stuff from the web on Twitter. However, as a warning, it can be overwhelming if you try to read everything. Again, it’s a river — go into the water when you feel like it, but get back out too — don’t try to consume the entire river.
* Learn to be concise. What I really love about Twitter is its 140 character limit for tweets. Some people cheat by doing multiple tweets about the same thing, but that defeats the purpose of the limit. Instead, learn to say just the essential in one post (or two if you really need to). It forces you to choose, to edit, to simplify. I love that. I wish email had a limit.
* Use it as a log. I forget where I read this idea, but one fitness blogger suggested using Twitter to help lose weight: post *everything* you eat on Twitter. It’s a great idea (I think it was Craig Ballantyne) because it hold you accountable, and you don’t want to post something that you shouldn’t have eaten. But Twitter could be used as a workout log, a travelogue, anything really.
* Find someone to hire. Just now I posted on Twitter to find someone to redo the software for in Drupal or Joomla. Got some great responses already! Whoever you need to find, Twitter should be able to help.
* Reduce your inboxes. If you use Twitter regularly, you can probably reduce your need for RSS (my favorite blogs are on Twitter anyways), email (you can DM people), IM, news sites, and so on. It’s nice to consolidate, as long as you use it intelligently.
* Create a Twitter personal assistant. Check out this guide for a pretty cool use of Twitter and associated services.

Just for fun: check out Twittervision 3D for an incredible global representation of tweets at they happen around the globe in real time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Standards: Slot Machines vs. Electronic Voting Machines

Is Cheney hinting that Bin Laden is about to be taken out of the freezer?

The Bush administration would "love" to capture 9/11 terror mastermind Osama bin Laden during the remaining 30 days left with it, US Vice President Dick Cheney said on Sunday.

"Capturing Osama bin Laden is something we clearly would love to do in the 30 days left," Cheney told Fox News in an interview.

Asked if it was a major disappointment for him not to catch bin Laden during his term, Cheney said: "Well I would prefer to have gotten Usama bin Laden the week after 9/11. So would the president."

"I think more important though is what we've been able to do generally to his organisation. Even if you were able to get Osama bin Laden, which clearly we would like to do, you've still got I've had in the past, a strong functioning organisation there," he said.

"He's been holed up in a way where he's not even been communicating and there are questions about whether or not he's even running the operation. But we have had major success against the organisation, Cheney said.

He pointed out that US forces have captured and killed a lot of Al Qaeda members since 9/11.

At the same time, he pointed out that the Bush administration has succeeded in preventing a similar attack on the US since the 9/11.

"As I said, we've prevented further attacks against the United States. But that's probably the most important objective," Cheney, who also backed the controversial policies that had helped protect the country from another terrorist strike, said.

He claimed that the Bush administration had acted appropriately in its "war on terror".

Saturday, December 06, 2008

5 Things Facebook Needs to Improve Right Now

We love Facebook, ok? It’s a wild love affair. However, just like in every relationship, frustration abounds, because many of Facebook’s features either don’t work as intended, are too slow, or simply lack the details to be truly great. Here’s our list of possible Facebook improvements that would make our hearts smile.
Facebook Chat

Ok, we talked about this a month and a half ago, and nothing has been done. Facebook Chat is a fantastic way to chat with folks with whom you might not be chatting on a regular basis - old friends from high school, business acquaintances and so forth. However, it’s plagued with problems: your chat buddies seem to keep going offline (although they’re not), messages aren’t delivered, chat is down for maintenance.

In fact, I know several users who’ve confessed that they only say hello on Facebook Chat and then move on to Google Talk because it’s so much more reliable. Furthermore, it lacks some crucial features: the chat log only goes back a short time period, and it’s impossible to access when your chat buddy is offline (very frustrating). Fix it, please.
Facebook Mail

We get it: it’s not meant to be a full featured e-mail client, it’s meant to be simple. However, some of its “feats” truly baffle us. For example, you can’t archive messages, you can only delete them. But even when you delete them, you can still view them, if someone replies to a deleted thread. It’s not a deal breaker, we’d just like to see a little consistency here.

The view, which always shows you a thumbnail next to each message, cannot be changed. When you start actually using the Mail feature, you start aching for a way to see more items on the page, and get rid of the thumbnails. Also, no drafts? Don’t know about the rest of the world, but I like to create drafts for later use. In short - and we know we might be asking for a lot here, but what the hell - we’d like it to be more like Gmail.

Facebook could be a fantastic way to find out about events. In my case, those events are mostly related to music. But I’m not using Facebook for this, I’m using Last.FM. Why, you ask? Well, because it’s vastly better. First of all, you can set an exact date to find events; you can also set it to see events in a proximity (100 miles, for example) of a certain location (I can’t seem to find the proximity feature in the new design, though. Have they removed it? If you have any clue, please let me know.). This means you can find all the concerts in the vicinity of New Jersey occurring in a three day window a month from now. Neat.

Now, let’s check the situation on Facebook. You can only browse events that’ll happen today, tomorrow, in one week, or one month. And no location. Gee, great: that makes the entire thing totally useless, because searching for movies that will happen in the next month anywhere in the world will yield thousands of results. Useless results. Add location and precise date to the mix, and the Events feature will be a zillion times better. No need to thank me, Facebook, a hefty check will do.
Live Feed

This feature was what made me start regularly using Facebook. I don’t like being given a choice of what Facebook thinks is most interesting to me, like I do in the News Feed; I like to see it all. But I can’t, because the damn thing is awfully laggy. Yes, I’m aware that syncing all that data across thousands of servers and delivering it to millions of users across the globe is tricky. That’s why you, Facebook, are smart and Microsoft gave you a lot of money. Find a way to make it work.

This is a minor point, but it’s still something that could be improved upon. You can filter out things from the News Feed - very precisely, I might add - but you can’t filter out things from the status updates, photos, or posted items list. Why? And while we’re at it, having filters in email wouldn’t exactly hurt our feelings, either.