Mon, 31 Mar 2008

Twitter, the simplest thing that works

The past few weeks I've immersed myself in some of the web social networking applications: LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Twitter, my most recent plunge, is conceptually the simplest and may turn out to be the most useful.

One of the tenets of good software programming is "Do the simplest thing that works." Twitter seems to epitomize that concept.

Twitter is simply a message routing system. Send a short message and Twitter rebroadcasts it to your followers. Unless you have opted out, the message is also dispatched to the public time-line.

Prefixing special commands can alter the message routing. For instance, prefixing a message with d someuser dispatches the message to someuser, only. Twitter calls it a direct message, thus the d command.

What sets Twitter apart from IRC, email, IM, and other message dispatching systems is it's simple message routing control and its ability to work across devices: web, IM, cell phone.

You receive messages from those you are following. As your family and friends join Twitter, you can follow them. When I'm at my computer, I receive Twitter messages with my instant messenger. When I'm away from the computer, I receive them as text messages on my cell phone. I don't receive cell phone messages between 10pm and 7am—I'd rather sleep. In the morning, I can check my Twitter web page to see any messages that arrived overnight.

This simple messaging framework supports some interesting applications. (Applications, here, meaning use cases rather than software products, although it does provide opportunity for those, as well.)

I'm an avid cyclist. I don't mind riding alone. In fact, I do most of my riding alone. But it's nice to have companions to ride with, sometimes. Meeting up for rides with friends can sometimes be a bit problematic.

Imagine all my cycling friends and I using Twitter. No planning necessary. Joe sends a message:

Headed for Beacon with Bobby for a couple hours.

A few minutes later, Steve says:

I think I'll try to catch Joe and Bobby at Beacon.

And Cathy says:

Mark and I are going to ride to Rockford and back.

Great! I've got 3 options: head to Beacon for a mountain bike ride with Joe, Bobby, and Steve, do a road ride with Mark and Cathy, or neither. Since Twitter is a low expectation interface, neither Joe nor Cathy is expecting a reply from me. Whether I show up or not is immaterial. They've simply notified the rest of us of their intent so we can join if we want to.

I think I'm up for a mountain bike ride:

@mtnbk1 Watch for me on Beacon, I'll head that way soon.

Joe may or may not see my message; he may already be away from his computer and he doesn't carry his cell phone when mountain biking. The @mtnbk1 is mostly convention. It indicates I'm replying to Joe, using his username. The message is routed to all my followers, so Cathy knows not to expect me. If Steve sees the message, he'll be watching for me on Beacon, too.

Joe and I are training for a grueling mountain bike race in June. We do most of our training alone, but meet for a couple rides together each week. Joe's job will take him to China for a few weeks, soon, where he'll be running to keep in shape and may not have access to a bike. And he'll be 15 or 16 hours ahead of me on the other side of the globe.

Yet, keeping in touch with Twitter will help us both keep motivated to keep up with our own training. I look forward to messages from Joe, like:

8 mile run on the beach; running in sand is exhausting

And I'll be sending updates that will let Joe know I'm on track:

Finally cleaned the entire climb on Tower.

Now, I just need to get Joe, Steve, Cathy, and all my other cycling friends twitterized.

I found these articles on Twitter useful:

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About this weblog

This site is the personal weblog of Marc Mims. You can contact Marc by sending e-mail to:
marc@questright.com.

Marc writes here about cycling, programming, Linux, and other items of personal interest.

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