Life is tweet for connected professionals

31 Mar 2008

A new messaging craze that combines the best elements of online communications is sweeping the professional world, even the politicians are in on it.

“What are you doing?” This little question is what keeps us all connected: the human desire and need to tell others what we are up to and to find out what they are doing too.

This is also the tagline for online messaging tool Twitter and professionals are increasingly using this service to send ‘tweets’ or updates to their colleagues, clients and friends, and in the process, squeezing more productivity out of their business day.

Everyone from US presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama to the Los Angeles Fire Department are using Twitter to keep us in the loop in 140 words or less. I found Obama on Twitter, started ‘following’ him and within minutes he was following me back. Now that’s dedication to your audience.

“I like describing Twitter as a broadcast mechanism: I can broadcast whatever I’m doing, where I am, what I’m reading and how the train’s overhead announcements are driving me slowly insane to anyone and everyone who would listen,” says Martha Rotter, a developer for Microsoft Ireland.

“Lots of my contacts in the industry are on Twitter. It gives me a fast way to message them by going to their phone, instant messenger, desktop client or however they’ve set it up and vice-versa.”

Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone, says the technology’s success has taken him by surprise: “We anticipated people would use the service socially and in a variety of ways but we did not expect so many amazing tools to be built in such a short amount of time on top of our application.

“The real-time aspect of Twitter is its most compelling attribute. Mobile is all about what’s happening in the world when you are away from your desk or computer. These are the times when Twitter really shines.”

Stone sees Twitter as a simple communication utility with some people using it as a blogging tool while others may see it as the primary way they stay in touch with family or even manage a distributed team of employees.

Twitter is almost like the Swiss penknife of web applications because people keep finding new uses for it. Rotter gives the example of using it as a way to keep people updated on your location.

“I use this a small bit to help plan meetings with out-of-town folks when I find out we’re going to be in the same spot, they have an afternoon in Dublin, or even that their flight is delayed by several hours so we have to cancel our face-to-face meeting and reschedule.”

However Twitter, like blogging back in the day, is seen somewhat as a novelty at the moment with generally only the technologically savvy using it to its full potential.

“Right now, Twitter is mostly used by early adopters and I think in its current format it is too niche but has great potential to be integrated into another application: that’s why Google bought its’ competitor Jaiku,” explains Paul Walsh, CEO of web accessibility and standards firm Segala.

“It is getting more popular. Friends who used to laugh at me are now twittering themselves and actively using it as an aggressive networking tool.”

The interesting thing about Twitter is that your experience varies based on how you choose to interact with it.

“One person may follow five friends using SMS, while another might broadcast updates to thousands of followers. What sets Twitter apart from traditional forms of digital messaging such as email or instant message is the intent that goes along with the service. People must choose to ‘follow’ other people on Twitter.

“This means you only receive messages from people you want to receive them from. Additionally, Twitter is largely a rhetorical medium: responses are welcome but not required.

“It means you never have to catch up on Twitter updates or feel obliged to reply to another person. In other words, the service is there when you want it but doesn’t demand your attention,” explains Stone.

Stone and Twitter’s other co-founder, Jack Dorsey, are still watching the business world adapt to Twitter: “There’s something useful in the concept of simply knowing the status of co-workers. Is Jack out of the office or just getting coffee? Who’s in a meeting? Who’s up for lunch in 10 minutes?

“Twitter matters to people who want short bursts of information instantly, whether it’s social or business. In fact, we’ve even seen people hook Twitter up to house plants, it sends an SMS when the plant needs water.”

Stone said he has seen some inspiring instances of Twitter being used to motivate groups of people in real-time, for example, large groups of people at a conference being able to self-organise and move as one in real-time.

“There are more and more people tracking the public conversations that are happening on Twitter as well. We have a feature called ‘Track’ that allows people to receive any update containing a certain keyword within seconds of it being created. For most businesses, following and being part of people’s conversations is important,” adds Stone.

By Marie Boran