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John T. Unger

Twitter Tools, Tweaks and Theories

John T. Unger March 27, 2008

Hugh_twitter_bird I have to preface this post with a confession: The first time I heard about blogging, my response was "That's the dumbest @$%#&%$ thing I've ever heard of. Why the hell would I want to do that?"

I said the exact same thing about Twitter when I first heard about it. The exact same words.

Of course, both times I was totally wrong… blogging and Twitter have become the two most important tools I use to make a living, socialize, and get things done.

I bring this up at the beginning because I know there's a lot of people who still respond to Twitter in the way I first did and I want to put it the proper context. I signed up at SXSWi 2007 during the first big Twitter boom… mostly as a way to track people (TwitterStalking). Once I got back home, my Twitter use dropped off pretty quickly and the account gathered dust. But as I started getting excited about SXSW 2008, I logged back in and began adding new people, writing more tweets and exploring what had become of this cute little service in the last year. Wow… it's rapidly become, I think, my favorite app on the web.

The thing about Twitter that makes it really powerful is it's simplicity… although it's often explained as a way of constantly updating people with what you're doing right this minute (having breakfast, yelling at the dog, stuck in traffic — yes, that's boring) it can be repurposed into so many other contexts. I never would have guessed how many things you could do with 140 characters. Twitter is especially useful when combined with other tools that have been built using their API.

This post covers two separate topics: some of my favorite ways I've seen Twitter used and then reviews of 26 powerful tools you can use to make Twitter do all kinds of groovy things. For those of you who just want to skip ahead to the reviews, use the convenient links below. The category links take you to the reviews in the post below and the links for tools take you straight to their website.

Twitter Clients: Twitter, Pocket Tweets, Twitterific, Twhirl
Twitter Search: Tweet Scan, Quotably, TwitterBuzz
URL Shortening: TinyURL, urlTea, Tweetburner
Twitter and RSS: Twitterfeed, LoudTwitter, TwitThis Feedflare
Twitter Badges: Twitter, Korelab Twitter Balloon, Morgan Aldridge
Twitter and Media Files: Jott, Tweetr, TwitPic, Twittergram, Power Twitter by 30 Boxes, Twiddeo
Twitter Stats: TweetStats, Twitter Quotient
Twitter Social Tools: Twitter Friend Adder, Twitter Pack:
Twitter Theories: strategies for getting the most out of Twitter.

If you find this post to be a useful resource, I'd like to ask you to use the social bookmarking buttons at the end of the post to submit it to Digg, Del.icio.us, etc. Thanks! Now, on with the post.

Some of my favorite uses for Twitter:

  1. TwitterStalking: Still number one is knowing where people are and whether they're busy… some of my friends are hard to reach due to insane schedules. Twitter helps me figure out when I can call or email without interrupting their day.
  2. Microblogging: You don't see a lot of short posts at TypePad Hacks… I prefer to write longer think pieces or tutorials here. Which have been damn hard to fit into the schedule of late. Twitter to the rescue! The Twitter format is a different process with a different feel… so writing quick updates that are on-topic for the blog at @typepadhacks may help me send more good info your way. It's working for me in connection with other blogs I have. As much as I realize that short posts would work fine here on the blog I don't write them because I'm not wired to think of the blog that way.
  3. Note to Self: Twitter has become the quickest and easiest way to keep track of stray thoughts I want to hold on to.
  4. Breaking news: I'm finding it more difficult to stay on top of my RSS feeds these days. But a lot of the people I follow in Twitter drop links to the most interesting stories of the day. Also, some of the blogs that generate way to much content to allow into my RSS can be found on Twitter, allowing me to easily scan the headlines and choose whether to follow links (@BoingBoing for example).
  5. Communication: I've never liked IM or SMS and I don't think I ever will. But the @reply and DM (direct message) features in Twitter work really well for me. Because I've got a Twitter client open all day, I can send quick messages to most of my contacts without feeling as interrupted or getting dragged into a long back and forth over IM. A direct message on Twitter is WAY more likely to get my immediate attention than email or phone right now… especially because by nature, it's required to be short and to the point.
  6. Link Sharing: There are a million tools for sharing links on the web, and I've tried lot's of them. I set up a del.icio.us account specifically for this blog years ago but never found a good way to import the bookmarks into the blog (lots of ways that I didn't like). I've set up a TypePad Hacks Twitter page that I see being much more useful for sharing quick links and tips.
  7. GTD (Getting Things Done): Twitter can be used in all kinds of ways to help you organize (ratherthan disrupt) work flow. From to-do lists, to tracking how long you work on client projects, to saving notes or concepts or links. This also plays into my last point in this list:
  8. Advice, Support, Polling, Questions: More and more, I see people using Twitter as a way to fire off a quick question and get answers back from people in their network. This is way more useful than I would have expected at first. Everything from tech support, research questions, vetting new ideas, where to eat in a new town and so on. When I want a quick answer, sending out a twitter question is a great way to get one.

My favorite Twitter story right now is an example of number 8 that happened on the way to SXSW: I was driving to Austin and saw a tweet from Hugh MacLeod (@gapingvoid) saying:

Anyone driving to Austin from Dallas tonight? Stranded at DFW with 2 friends,. Hotel and car rental situation not looking good here :(

I was still north of Memphis, but tweeted back that I'd be happy to give him and friends a ride if he hadn't found one by the time I got to Dallas. Five minutes later, I got a call from Brian Clark (@copyblogger) who called to tell me that the road conditions in Dallas were totally impassable and not to go to the airport under any circumstances. As it turned out, Hugh found a ride and I ended up getting a room for the night before I reached Dallas anyway.

But the interesting thing to me about the whole exchange was that it wouldn't have happened via any of the other communication tools I use… with email, chat or phone I wouldn't have known Hugh's situation unless he specifically reached out to me. Likewise, Brian wouldn't have seen my reply and called to warn me about the several hundred cars that had gone off the road in Dallas. Twitter becomes almost like a sixth sense in these situations, with extremely targeted, relevant information finding you when you need it… without having to even know that you should be searching for it (I was aware that there was snow in Dallas, and I guess I'd have expected that Texans don't drive well in snow, but I had no idea that most of the roads were blocked that night).

My favorite Twitter Apps:

There are tons of apps, hacks, mashups and tools built on Twitter's API. The Twitter Fan Wikihas a good collection of links. For the most part, the apps I really use and love have been found either in links from other Twitter users I follow or by searching for a particular function I want. Without some of these third party additions to the service, I doubt Twitter would ever have become as useful or compelling for me as it has.

Twitter Clients:

Twitter: You can post from the web at Twitter.com or set up posting from your phone via SMS or post via IM. Although I do sometimes log in on the web and post directly from Twitter's website, I find that posting (and reading) from a desktop app or my IPhone are much easier to integrate into my day.

Pocket Tweets: Definitely the best way to post to twitter from an IPhone… Not as good as Twitter's new mobile site for reading tweets however. I use Pocket Tweets quite a bit when I'm not at the desk.

Twitterific. Twitterific is still my favorite way to read tweets even though it isn't nearly as robust as Twhirl. I like the way it looks, I like how simple it is and I like the ease with which it allow direct messaging and replies (because it accepts keyboard commands for those). Now that I'm using multiple Twitter accounts for different blogs, though, I may really have to consider just using Twhirl so that I don't ping the Twitter servers too often.

Twhirl: Twhirl does a lot of things really nicely… The most important in my experience being that you can be logged in to multiple twitter accounts at once. I have separate Twitter accounts for John T Unger, TypePad Hacks and Emoodicon and this allows me to focus on different audiences without having to log in and out of Twitter.Other nice features include: runs on both Windows and Mac OSX, shortens long URLs, integration with TwitPic and TweetScan, crossposts to Pownce and Jaiku, plus way, way more. The only real drawback is that it can be a little difficult to figure out how to change settings at first… it would be nice if the preferences were available from the menu rather than having to click the Twhirl logo in the upper left corner (yeah, *not* intuitive that).

Twitter Search:

Tweet Scan is a Twitter search engine. Search public Twitter posts in real-time from the page or add Tweet Scan to Firefox's search box for instant access. Find replies, track keywords, and sign up for daily/weekly email alerts.

Quotably allows you to enter a Twitter user name to follow the comment threads of discussions that happen in Twitter. It can be kind of hard to follow conversations in Twitter itself, so pulling an entire conversation from multiple accounts on to one page is pretty useful.

TwitterBuzz shows you what people are linking to in Twitter. It's updated constantly. The default view shows the most popular links over the last day.

URL Shortening:

With only 140 characters to work with, a long URL doesn't leave you much room to describe what you're linking to. In fact, some URLs wouldn't even fit in a 140 character message.

TinyURL has been around forever. It's a good solid service that does one thing well: make URLs short. You can use it by pasting a link into their web page or by installing the TinyURL bookmarklet.

urlTea  adds the ability for users to describe a URL however they want (following a ? at the end of the shortened URL), as part of the actual URL text. You can add as much description as you want but if the URL gets clipped by Twitter, the link still functions properly, as long as everything before the question mark was intact.

Tweetburner shortens URLS and tracks what actually happens with them once they're posted. You can see how often a link has been clicked in tweets shared with you, by you, by your friends and every other twitterer. Kind of a cool way to see who's paying attention, but more importantly, it gives you a clear picture of what people are most interested in at this moment in time.

Twitter and RSS

Twitterfeed imports your blog entries into your Twitter account. You can specify how often it should check your feed, how often it should post to Twitter and how you would like to format the links.

LoudTwitter imports your Twitter entries into your blog.

TwitThis Feedflare If you use FeedBurner, add this feedflare to display in your blog or feed. It allows readers to post a link to your blog posts to their Twitter stream with a simple click.

Twitter Badges

There are lots and lots of place to get Twitter Badges for your sidebar… I like the following three.

Twitter: Twitter makes it just a little hard to find their badge/widget creation page (the link is at the bottom of your Twitter home page… I'd have put it in the settings menu. They provide both Flash and HTML widgets and if you're using basic templates, you can easily add them to TypePad with just a few clicks. You can style the colors of your badge to match your site and there are some options for how many tweets to display as well as whether to show only your tweets or also include the people you're following.

Korelab Twitter Balloon: This one has the potential for good or evil in my opinion… I love it. I used it to create the speaking mime in the sidebar at Emoodicon.com which totally cracks me up. It took almost no time to configure the widget the way I wanted it and install it in the sidebar.

Morgan Aldridge has a really pretty (though awfully large) badge that you can download and then install on your blog. Because it's provided as JavaScript and CSS, you can configure it pretty heavily. The widget displays your twitter icon (linked to your twitter page), one or more recent tweets, date-stamps linked to tweet permalinks. I haven't tried this one out, but I do really like the way it looks. Be sure to read the whole page, as it makes mention of some browser errors associated with the widget.

Update: Here's two more and a link to CSS styling info for your badges.

Chris Forbes created the styling for the widget I'm currently using in my sidebar (with the Twitter
logo, background and color scheme). It's a nice, simple, pretty looking widget. Get the code on his blog here.

Jarrod Trainque Has a very cool resizeable CSS-based Twitter Site Badge available for download on his blog. It displays each tweet within it's own speech balloon. His instructions in the download package include a quick installation guide, an example page of HTML and all the files and css you need.

Twitter and Media Files

Jott is one of my new best friends. I LOVE Jott. Sign up for an account and Jott converts your voice into emails, text messages, reminders, lists and appointments. I have it on speed dial so that whenever I have an idea, I can quickly send it to my email, contacts, or, you guessed it, Twitter! On the way to SXSW, I spent the first day of the drive actually typing tweets on the IPhone while driving… Then I decided to see if I could make Jott send my voice as a text tweet. No problem. It's built right into the service.

The one thing that you might not like about Jott is that, like an voice > text transcription, it's not always perfect… some messages get a little garbled. On the one hand, that's no big deal because there's a link to the audio file in your tweet, so people can click through to hear what you said if they need to. On the other hand, some of my tweets came out much more fun based on what Jott thought I said. The sentence "C'mon people, nothing to see, no astronaut by the side of the road." became "Funky. Boom. Nothing to see, no astronaut by the side of the road." Personally, I enjoy the second sentence much more. I'm thinking of writing a whole cell phone novel that way to see if it comes out like Naked Lunch.

Tweetr could have gone under Twitter Clients, because it does all that they do… BUT, it does more. Basically, Tweetr is a mashup of Twitter and file sharing. Drag any file onto Tweetr to automatically upload your file; it will provide a short url to send to your friends. Tweetr can also access a webcam if you have one and take pictures to send to Twitter. File size is limited to 10MB (which means this may well become my favored way of sharing files at some point).

TwitPic allows you to upload images to their site and then posts a link to the photo in your Twitter stream. People can leave comments on the photo, which will be sent to their own Twitter page along with a link to the photo. This is a pretty cool way to share photos. You can also send pics from your phone.

Twittergram: Phone in 30-second audio messages to Twitter. Enter your phone number and Twitter username and password. Click Submit. Then call BlogTalkRadio at 646-716-6000 and follow the prompts.

Power Twitter by 30 Boxes is a Firefox extension that embeds the following media types into your tweets:

  • Photo sharing with embedded flickr photos
  • Video sharing with embedded youtube videos
  • Shared tinyurls are unwound so you know where they link to
  • All links are mapped to their web page titles
  • Additional user information is mapped to twitter users thanks to data conduits via 30 Boxes (e.g. flickr accounts, blog posts, del.icio.us links, and tons of other social media!)

In order to view the media, it appears that people also have to have the extension enabled in their browser.

Twiddeo lets you upload video files and send a link to Twitter. I wasn't able to get it to work last night, but it's pretty new and may work better in the near future.

Twitter Stats:

TweetStats: Enter a Twitter user name and TweetStats will create graphs showing you cool usage stats, such as how often you tweet since your account began, when you tweet the most, who has sent you the most direct messages, etc. My personal Twitter TweetStats are here.

Twitter Quotient: This page presents your Twitter stats in a fun, somewhat snarky way by comparing the numbers to arrive at the following usage measurments:
Babble index (number of updates for every follower),
Popularity index (number of followers for every friend),
Usefulness index (number of useful updates based on number of friends)

Twitter Social Tools:

Twitter Friend Adder: If you want to be read by people who don't know you, the best way to get their attention is to follow them. Enter your Twitter login details at Twitter Friend Adder and they add 20 random friends to your account. OK, so why would you want to do that? If you were using Twitter as more of a broadcast medium than as a two-way conversation. Think marketing. My advice though would be that it can be easy to upset people with this tool, so if you're going to use it to send messages out you should be prepared to A) respond to all replies and DMs and B) provide content that is actually likely to be enjoyed or useful.

Twitter Pack: A wiki where Twitter users are grouped by topic of interest, company or geographical area. If you're looking for people to read/follow within a certain area of interest, this could be a really useful tool.

Twitter Theories:

The following posts present a variety of strategies for getting the most out of Twitter. All of them are worthwhile reads, even if you're pretty familiar with using Twitter.

How to Handle Your Twitter Followers from Sarah Dopp at Dopp Juice

More Twitter Tips also from Sarah

The Beauty, Secrets and Utility of Twitter for Business from BL Ochman at whatsnextblog.com

winning practices of top tweeters also from BL.

Three Ways to Maximize Your Twitter Time for Networking, Marketing and Fun From Nathania Johnson at Copyblogger

UPDATE: Steve sent me links via Twitter  to his posts about Twitter. They rock, so I've added them here.

Managing Information Streams: Twitter! from Steve Lawson

Managing Information Streams: General twitter tips also from Steve

More Like This: Blog Tools , Reviews , Typelists + Sidebars , Web 2.0 , Widgets

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Sarah Dopp says:

This is EXCELLENT! Thank you for posting!

Laura W says:

An excellent round up!

lisa rokusek says:

Another media application is twitxr http://twitxr.com/ which posts to Twitter, Flickr and Facebook profiles and has cool location guessing features.

Thanks for post, list, and commentary. Most excellent.

Michiel Sikkes says:

Great article on all the Twitter tools. I really use a lot of them and get to know the others better thanks to this post.

Keep up the good work :)


aaron says:

I just want to add my own personal project to the list. It's a perl plugin for Pidgin that syncs your Pidgin status to your last tweet.


john t unger says:

Thanks for all the great comments everyone! This was a fun post to write, especially since I found a bunch of really great apps in the process.

But I didn't find them all… so please do add your faves in the comments. I'll check 'em out and add the ones I like to a revised version of the post or do a follow-up post if there are enough of them.

Stephen says:

Excellent article! One suggestion: Twitter Karma is also useful. http://dossy.org/twitter/karma/

Jim Storer says:

I wish I could "sticky" this on Twitter for noobs.

Absolutely sensational!

Johan says:

Great post. I had to bookmark it to comeback and explore it all. BTW: twhirl includes tweetscan and another search tool I have not used called terraminds. Regards Johan

NextInstinct says:

Terrific Post, Thank you.

I remember TwitterBeta, when there were no guides and tools.
Nice job compiling and commenting on this Hot medium.

slysir says:

i am using a new Twitter Client called TwitKit that runs in the Firefox sidebar.
this is from first beta release March 26, 2008. i like it better than web app and its looking good for a beta release.

Ryan says:

TwitterCard (http://www.twittercard.com) is a new Twitter 125x125 business card widget.

John says:

Excellent post, thanks !

about URL shortening, have a look at "the awesome highlighter" : http://awurl.com/ it's useful for passing a URL with some custom highlights in it, like for example : http://awurl.com/vsimee34519

You can configure it to pipe the highlight and the link to Twitter.

Binny V A says:

If you are on Linux, there is a Command line twitter client

SnapTweet says:

SnapTweet is a tool for posting your latest Flickr photo to your Twitter stream. Great for the iPhone when you want to take a picture of something and tweet about it. Give it a try sometime!

Twila Marie says:

Wonderfully comprehensive! Fabulous!

mcpaige says:

Hey, thanks for the info, have you seen http://www.dweeting.com , more and more people are tweeting while on a date or out to a party !

Screenpunk says:

i see no reference at Twitbin (www.twitbin.com), displays twitstream in the sitebar of firefox

Wayne Sutton says:

Great blog post. WIll use as a resource for others to learn about twitter.


@Waynesuttton on twitter

Chris Hoskin says:

A cracking resume of all things Twitter. Thank you so much.

alice says:

This is an awesome list. Thank you!

Veetrag says:

Great article! nice info :)

BTW, you missed Twitxr (http://twitxr.com/public_timeline/ ). Its really nice utility where you can geotag the photos and put URL on twitter directly. If you want it will upload photos to Facebook too.

- @kv

jgoode says:

Awesome, I LOVE the twitter uses section .. so many things I've never even considered. Thank you!

Glenn says:

Outstanding content. I'm posting to del.iou.us right now. However, I must point out that Jott is faster for reminders and a lot of GTD stuff.

Deanna Stall says:

Great article! I recently started using OutTwit which goes in your MS Outlook and you can twitter from there. So far, so good! I love the integration ideas. Thanks!

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