Twittering Tips for Beginners By DAVID POGUE As a tech columnist, I'm supposed to be on top of what's new in tech, but there's just too much, too fast; it's like drinking from a fire hose. I can only imagine how hopeless a task it must be for everyone else. Which brings us to Twitter. Twitter.com is all the rage among geeks, although it has more hype than users at this point. (When I speak at tech and education conferences, I routinely ask my audience how many are on Twitter. Usually, it's 1 in 500.) Basically, you sign up for a free account at Twitter.com. Then you're supposed to return to that site periodically and type short messages that announce what you're doing. (Very short 140 characters max.) Then, you're supposed to persuade your friends and admirers to become your audience by subscribing to your utterances (called tweets). Big-name tech pundits amass tens of thousands of followers. Normal people may have five or six. I'll admit that, for the longest time, I was exasperated by the Twitter hype. Like the world needs ANOTHER ego-massaging, social-networking time drain? Between e-mail and blogs and Web sites and Facebook and chat and text messages, who on earth has the bandwidth to keep interrupting the day to visit a Web site and type in, "I'm now having lunch"? And to read the same stuff being broadcast by a hundred other people? Then my eyes were opened. A few months ago, I was one of 12 judges for a MacArthur grant program in Chicago. As we looked over one particular application, someone asked, "Hasn't this project been tried before?" Everyone looked blankly at each other. Then the guy sitting next to me typed into the Twitter box. He posed the question to his followers. Within 30 seconds, two people replied, via Twitter, that it had been done before. And they provided links. The fellow judge had just harnessed the wisdom of his followers in real time. No e-mail, chat, Web page, phone call or FedEx package could have achieved the same thing. I was impressed. So I've been Twittering for a couple of months, and I've learned a lot. I'm still dubious about Twitter's prospects for becoming a tool for ordinary people (rather than early-adopter techie types). But one thing's for sure: The whole thing would be a lot more palatable if somebody would explain the basics. Something like this: * You don't have to open your Web browser and go to Twitter.com to send and receive tweets. In fact, that's just silly. Instead, people download little programs like Twitterific, Feedalizr or Twinkle, they get the updates on their cellphones as text messages, or they use something like PocketTweets, Tweetie or iTweet for the iPhone. I've been using Twitterific for the Mac, which is a tall, narrow window at the side of the screen. Incoming tweets scroll up without distracting you. Much. * Your followers can respond to your tweets, either publicly or privately. Suppose someone named Casey responds to one of your tweets. You can reply to Casey in one of two ways. First, you can send a Direct Message, which only Casey sees. Second, you can respond with another public tweetbut as you can imagine, everyone but Casey will be completely baffled. It's obvious from the number of completely incomprehensible tweets ("No, only in Lichtenstein!") that not all Twitter fans have yet grasped the difference between these reply types. On the other hand, if you reply with a private Direct Message, Casey can't reply to ITunless you've also subscribed to *Casey's* Twitter feeds. Seems like a pretty dumb design decision. Either you have to follow the whole world, or every conversation fizzles into silence after one exchange. * It seems clear that you, as a tweet-sender, are not actually expected to respond to every reply. At least I sure HOPE that's the expectation. I mean, some popular Twitterers have 15,000 followers; you'd spend all day doing nothing but answering them all. * The Web is full of "rules" about the proper way to Twitter, and a lot of them are just knowier-than-thou garbage: How many tweets a day to send out. How many people you should follow. What you should say. And so on. The first adopters are milking their early advantage for all it's worth. I found one rule, though, that answered a long-standing question I had about Twitter: "Don't tweet about what you're doing right now." Which is weird, since that's precisely how the typing box at Twitter.com is labeled: "What are you doing?" I've always wondered who the heck would be interested in the mundane details of your life. As it turns out, though, most people broadcast other stuff in their tweets. They pose questions. They send links to interesting stuff they've found online. They pass along breaking news (Barack Obama announced his running mate on Twitter). * People can be just as snotty on Twitter as they are everywhere else on the Internet. At first, my own followers on Twitter were friendly and helpful. But I was having a bear of a time. For example, every time I tried to add a photo to appear by my name, it showed up fine on Twitter.com, but refused to appear in Twitterific. Also, if you searched for "Pogue" at Twitter.com, you would find my old, defunct account ("pogue"), but not my current, active one ("DavidPogue"), even though the search box says specifically that it will find people by their real names. (It's working now, but it was broken a couple weeks ago.) So I posted these two problems to my 1,900 followers. Most tried to help troubleshoot, but there was the predictable backlash: "Stop asking these newbie questions," wrote one guy. "Makes you look like a moron." * Another person criticized me for not following enough other Twitterers. The implication was that if you send out tweets but don't subscribe to a lot of other people, you're an egotist. So I signed up to follow prominent tech gurus like Guy Kawasaki, Tim O'Reilly and CrunchGear. But then I was astonished to see Guy send out tweets literally *every three minutes.* "Holy cow," I thought. "Does this guy do anything all day but sit in front of Twitter?" I posed this question to my followers, too. They promptly informed me that some people, like Guy, use automated software robots to churn out tweets, largely to promote their own blogs, sites or other products. (That doesn't seem quite right to me.) In the end, my impression of Twitter was right and wrong. Twitter IS a massive time drain. It IS yet another way to procrastinate, to make the hours fly by without getting work done, to battle for online status and massage your own ego. But it's also a brilliant channel for breaking news, asking questions, and attaining one step of separation from public figures you admire. No other communications channel can match its capacity for real-time, person-to-person broadcasting. Do you Twitter? How many followers do you have? How often do you Twitter?