Is It Time to Twitter?Elizabeth Wasserman
When Wendy Piersall, 39, a working mother of three from the Chicago area, was trying to decide whether to change the name of her Web-based business from eMomsathome to Sparkplugging, she decided to put it to a vote. She sent out a message over Twitter, a free online "micro-blogging" service and asked the thousands of friends, colleagues, clients and acquaintances who have signed up to receive her short blog feeds.
"We got 150 comments," Piersall recalls. "I had thought my Web site was for parents and moms, and I heard back loud and clear that it was not. People said, 'Please speak to us as business people who also have children.' Eighty percent of our readers are parents, but they have older children and want to shed the mom image."
Just as Piersall used micro-blogging to instantaneously get feedback on changing her business name, many users of Twitter and other micro-blogging services are using this new online platform as a way to keep hundreds or thousands of online friends updated on their whereabouts, political views, recipes, thoughts or musings.
Micro-blog sites contain what’s known as user-generated content, which means the content is not edited or filtered. For this reason, parents -- especially those of teens who may frequent these sites as well -- should be aware that micro-blogs could contain adult content. So it’s best to read a site’s terms of service before letting your kids have access.
Here's what you need to know about micro-blogging, including what it is, how to get started, where to do it and what's in it for you.
What is micro-blogging?
Think of micro-blogging as a type of blogging in which your updates are a short sentence -- usually 140 characters or less. You publish micro-blog updates on services, the most popular of which is Twitter, launched in 2006, to either a restricted group of your friends and followers or to the public at large.
On Twitter, your short missives are called "tweets." Other services include Jaiku (purchased in 2007 by Google), Plurk and Pownce. They each offer something different. Jaiku allows you to add icons, customize your background and add Web feeds. Pownce includes a file-sharing element along with micro-blogging. Plurk lists a timeline of updates in chronological order.
Social networking sites such as Facebook also have micro-blogging features, called "status updates," through which you can inform your friends about where you are or what you are thinking or link to an article, photo or other web site.
What’s the benefit?
When most people first hear about micro-blogging, they have the same reaction that Paul Gillin did. "I didn't get it. I thought it was dumb," says Gillin, author of the newly released Secrets of Social Media Marketing (Quill Driver Books). "It's one of the great mysteries of social media why Twitter is so popular."
As Gillin has used Twitter, amassing over 1,100 followers, he's come to better understand the appeal. "When you attract a critical mass of followers, it's possible to get an answer to a question with amazing speed," he says. Folks stranded at airports have used micro-blogging to find a place to stay. Others have used the service to recommend movies, plays or other shows. And still others use micro-blogging to engage in ongoing debates about politics, social issues, economics and so on, without having to invest a lot of time in composing long-winded emails or taking the time to talk on the phone. "It's actually liberating when you can communicate something very quickly without having to elaborate," Gillin says.
How do you get started?
The best way to get started is to do a little bit of research first so that you understand the unspoken rules. "Don’t spam. Try not to be annoying. Don’t send out information that everyone already knows," Piersall says.
Services like Twitter are very easy to sign up for. Pick a user name and password, accept their terms of agreement (after reading it, of course) and then you're on. The first thing you could do is find some interesting people to follow and subscribe to their micro-blog feeds and join in on their conversation.
"If you're witty, that always helps," Piersall says. After a while, people will likely start subscribing to your feeds and you'll be involved in many different conversations at once about -- hopefully -- subjects that interest you. Don't know what to "tweet" about? "It comes down to adding value," Piersall says. If you think you have an interesting news link or an interesting idea for a school craft, then share it with your followers.
Where do you micro-blog?
Most micro-blogging sites accept messages from a variety of platforms. You can be at your home computer and access the service via the Web to micro-blog. A growing number of services support applications from mobile Web-enabled phones as well. Twitterific, for example, is a Twitter application for the iPhone. Jaiku has a mobile service for Nokia S60 3rd Edition handsets and downloadable web widget applications for other phones. In addition, most services, such as Pownce, allow you to communicate directly with the service from your instant messaging account.
How do you keep micro-blogging once you start?
Gillin found that once he started micro-blogging, it was easy to make time for it on a regular basis. "It's addictive," he says. "You feel that you don't want to miss anything. You feel like you're out of the conversation." Often you'll find different sets of conversations that keep you coming back, whether it's on sports, politics, business or parenting.
In the age of information overload, when so many demands on your time make it difficult to stay in touch, micro-blogging provides a platform to communicate with many different people at once. "The shorter format makes it easier to have those conversations," Piersall says. "Instead of calling up your girlfriend, you can turn to Twitter."
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