I have two types of friends, those who use Twitter and those who don't. Far more fall into the second camp, and, I have to say, I feel a little sorry for them.
It's not that I'm a Twitter cheerleader or evangelist; far from it. I've seen its downside, particularly when some overblown rumor is circulating with the speed of a million keyboards. It can be intimidating—many of my friends have started an account and then fallen by the wayside as they fail to figure out how the thing works.
I was an early adopter, joining Twitter in July 2007. There wasn't much happening back then, so I basically ignored it for over a year. Then others joined, people I knew started following me, and I started following more people. People whose interests I shared, like @Travelwriticus, who tweets every day from Austria. He's fascinated with European castles and other historically interesting places, just like me. From him I learned about a fireworks display in Heidelberg during the time I was in Germany, which prompted me and my friends to visit Heidelberg and stay for the show. He also provided me with info on the Sound of Music tour my family took during our recent trip to Austria—there's nothing like a local for great travel info.
It was @UniofOxford who gave me the timely tip about this weekend's Open Door Days in Oxford. If I hadn't seen their tweet about it Friday, I'd never have spent a wonderful Saturday tramping through Oxford's hidden places.
I'm not just interested in travel, of course. I also have a keen interest in exchange rates, particularly the dollar vs the pound and the euro. So I follow a couple of "pip" tweeters: @FreshPips and @forexnews (who just now tweeted about what Tyler Durden can teach us about personal finance—can't wait to check that out!) I also follow several news outlets, including @BreakingNews for breaking news all over the world. Maybe it's too much information: while my daughter was in Japan, I learned of three earthquakes, one typhoon, and one tsunami warning that struck Japan during that month.
And my passion for politics is satisfied by Twitter, too: I follow all my favorite political bloggers and others I've befriended in the political realm, like @barbwire55 and @karinjr. For expats like me, @usembassylondon has helpful updates and news of the home country.
You might argue an RSS feed would provide you with the same information: perhaps. I've never found an RSS feed that suits me the way Twitter does. Twitter provides a pleasant mix, friends tweeting their thoughts—and I only have interesting friends, of course, not those who write about what they have for breakfast. (Come to think of it, I'm very interested in what people have for breakfast—especially @susanffvk and @bazu and @tofu666.) Then there are those I follow in order to get an unexpected laugh, for example @sockington, a cat who does with a keyboard what Thurber did with a pen.
Speaking of animals, I follow quite a few animal activists, like @FARMUSA and @action4animals. I get lots of recipes from the foodies I follow, too. And there are dog people, like @thedogreporter who recently posted photos from her dog reporting trip to Africa—talk about living vicariously!
Of course I sometimes follow people who turn out to be Twitter abusers—they post a constant stream of useless junk. But there's a simple fix: unfollow them. Takes about five seconds. Right now I follow about 160 different feeds. That seems to be the maximum number I can keep up with easily in a day. (Remember, many of those I follow rarely tweet, while some post around 10-20 tweets a day. But since each one consists of no more than 140 characters, it's very easy to skim over the ones that don't strike me as interesting, such as, say, the fact that industrial production is declining in EuroZone.)
If a link someone posts looks interesting, I follow the link, or save it for later. (Fortunately, Twitter opens links in a different window, making it easy to stay focussed on the Twitter page.) And, unlike most people, I don't have a Twitter app on my phone or on my computer—I read and post directly from the Twitter website. Keeps it clean for me, and keeps my internet habit in one place. (Plus I don't have a smart phone. 'Nother story.)
If you don't already use Twitter, I probably haven't convinced you. Just like all those people who've shown off their Kindle and smart phones haven't convinced me to buy one yet—life's already complicated enough. But for me, I've found Twitter to be a useful tool—there are times I've wished I had a smart phone with a Twitter app, so I could ask for help immediately. Like @AdamSerwer, who today tweeted: "Uh, just so my colleagues @theprospect know, I'm locked in the stairwell outside the office."
This has actually worked for me sometimes: one day I was having trouble with TypePad, and after tweeting about it, I got a response from someone on their help team. They started a help ticket for me, and my problem was quickly resolved. (On the other hand, yesterday when I had trouble with Microsoft Word, they merely retweeted my complaint, and never offered any help. Losers.)
See why I sometimes wonder, what did I ever do without Twitter?
If you're already on Twitter, then by all means follow me! I promise I won't write about my breakfast. Today, for instance, I corrected Barack Obama's pronunciation of the word "doesn't". I offered a travel tip to @Travelwriticus who was looking for submarines to tour. And I commented about corn, both the veggie and the political reporter. (But not Corn Pops!)
And if you're not on Twitter, maybe you want to try it out—but you'll need to find a lot of people to follow, many of whom will follow you back, depending on what you tweet...if you write about a castle, for instance, someone who's looking for a castle in Scotland might find you and follow you. Likewise if you tweet on just about any other topic, you'll be found and followed, eventually.
Why should I care if you're on Twitter? Well, frankly, I don't, not for your sake—sorry, but I really don't know you that well. But Twitter is only as good as its users make it. And you might know something you can share with me: a food or travel tip, a political link, a funny snapshot of your morning. Information on how the trains in Germany work. (That last would be very, very valuable indeed—I still haven't figured them out.)
And that really is the secret of Twitter—millions of people, all over the world, sharing information. Nothing scary about that. In fact, I find it kind of cool.