Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tech Column: I Tweet, Therefore I Am

by Bill Adler

I recently mentioned that if the Internet every goes out --as it did for hours for RCN Internet subscribers last week-- the Cleveland Park Listserv can still be heard on Twitter at @clevelandpark.  (We also tweet about other important Cleveland Park and Washington, DC news.)

Some people wrote to ask, "How can I use Twitter if I have no Internet?" A reasonable question. The answer is that most smartphones either come with Twitter built in, or are capable of using Twitter via your cellular data connection. No RCN, no Comcast, no FIOS needed. Because Twitter doesn't use much bandwidth, you can send and receive tweets without having to decide which child to auction off on eBay to pay for your cell phone bill.

There are about a zillion things you can do with Twitter, and I don't want to veer off on too many Twitter tangents. If you're not on Twitter and are still wondering what it's all about, here's the nutshell version: Twitter is a service through which you can communicate with people --both friends and strangers-- via bite-sized 140 character messages. You can both post on and read about almost any topic. When news breaks, it often breaks first on Twitter, in part because so many people tweet when they see something. Photos can be attached to tweets, too.

If there's something you're particularly interested in, you can search for that subject, just as you can search on Google. If somebody is particularly eloquent or erudite, you can follow that person, and their tweets will appear on your Twitter stream when you log on.

Of course, there's a lot of junk on Twitter, but it's easier to filter out the junk on Twitter than it is to thwart robocalls during an election year. If your phone doesn't come with Twitter software, there are apps you can get for your smartphone or desktop, such as Tweetdeck, and Osfoora.

Let's say your Internet goes out. What next? If you're a Comcast user, search for "Comcast" or as is the practice on Twitter, search for the hashtag, "#Comcast." Hashtags are the way categories are organized in Twitter: A # connected to a word, such as #WMATA creates a clickable link. Click on that hashtag and Twitter will pull up other posts with the same hashtag. When you click on #Comcast and see multiple tweets that say things like "#Comcast is out in Boston," and "We have no #Comcast in Philly," you know what's happening.

You can query the Twitter universe: "#Comcast seems out in DC in #Clevelandpark. Anyone else out?" for example.

You can also send a query to a specific individual or organization. Just include the person's Twitter name (Twitter handle in Twitter jargon) preceded by the @ sign, as in "@jetblue" somewhere in the message. Why would you want to do that? Individuals and organizations monitor and often respond to @-messages, called a "mention" in Twitterspeak. Some even like to receive communications via Twitter. If you have a Windows problem that you can summarize in 140 characters, tweet it to @microsofthelps. If you see a backed up sewer or a leaking hydrant, for example, you can report it to DC Water by including @dcwater in your tweet.

Now to the part of the column I've been dreading. Whom to follow on Twitter?  Naming names is like thanking somebody at the Academy Awards -- I'm going to leave a lot of people out. There's a surprising variety of informative and useful people to follow, including @anc3c, @marycheh, @capitalweather (the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post), @AlanSuderman (City Paper's Loose Lips columnist), @dinodc (Dino restaurant), @dcist (DCist.com), @ClevePkHistory (Cleveland Park Historical Society), @alpert (David Alpert, publisher of Greater Greater Washington), @timcraigpost (the Post's DC City Hall reporter), @emilybabay (Emily Babay, crime reporter for the Washington Examiner), @dcpublicschools, and @homicidewatch (Laura Amica, Homicide Watch DC). As you can see from this short list, Twitter can tell you a lot about what's going on in the District of Columbia.

I'm always finding new uses for Twitter. You will, too. And remember, Twitter will work on your phone when your regular Internet connection fails.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," http://amzn.to/rspOft. He tweets at @billadler.

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