Twitter - what is it and how can it be used? - Jo Alcock Consulting
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Twitter – what is it and how can it be used?

Twitter – what is it and how can it be used?

Twitter logo

I’ve been a Twitter user (joeyanne) on and off for a few months now, but have only recently started to use it regularly. It seems to have suddenly become more popular; Stephen Fry talked about it on last week’s Jonathan Ross show, and there’s a video of him talking about twitter on the BBC site which is currently the most viewed video on there.

I’ve personally noticed an increase in use of Twitter recently due to the number of followers I seem to be getting – I don’t have loads but most days in the last couple of weeks I seem to be getting at least one e-mail notifying me of another follower. There’s also interest on the lis-bloggers listserv, this afternoon there have been a number of posts discussing its use within libraries.

Seeing as I haven’t yet written a blog post about Twitter, I thought now might be a useful time to write my thoughts about Twitter as well as explain what it is to those who may not be familiar with it.

What is Twitter?

For anyone who is new to Twitter (there seems to be a lot of people at the moment who are trying to find out more about it and struggling), there’s a useful CommonCraft video called Twitter in Plain English.

If you just want to know the basics I thought it might be useful to outline them here (quite a few of my colleagues have asked me and I found it difficult to explain so this will be a useful exercise for me too!):

  • Twitter is “micro-blogging” which is basically a short form of blogging (up to 140 characters per message)
  • The main idea of Twitter is to update your current status, the website uses the question “What are you doing?” – this could be things like having breakfast, watching TV, on the way to work etc., or informational posts like sharing interesting links
  • A twitter message is called a “tweet”
  • You choose to follow other users of Twitter which means that when you go to your Twitter page (be it on the Twitter website, or using one of the many Twitter tools – more on this later) you will see updates from these people
  • Other people choose to follow you which means they will see your updates in their own feed
  • You can reply publicly to people you are following (this is what it means when you see @ in front of someone’s username e.g. if someone publicly replied to one of my messages it would say @joeyanne and then their message) – this helps other people follow the thread of the conversation
  • You can also send direct messages which only the recipient would see
  • RT before a message means a re-tweet – sharing a post that someone else has already tweeted

How can I get started with Twitter?

If you want to have a go of microblogging yourself, here’s how I would suggest going about it:

  1. Get yourself a twitter account
  2. Set up your profile with some basic details and personalise your page (you can follow this tutorial to make a customised screen in PowerPoint but to be honest it’s not really necessary as most people who follow you won’t tend to visit your page)
  3. Write your first update to let people know what you are up to
  4. Find some people to follow (feel free to follow me if you want to, or add some well known celebrities like Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross or Alan Carr – you might also find it useful to look who other people are following – e.g. if you are a librarian you might want to follow some of the people I’m following)
  5. Integrate Twitter into your workstream – you might want to use the Twitter website but the chances are you will find it much easier if you integrate it with something you already use. You can use your mobile phone to update your status, and if you have an iPhone you can use one of the many Twitter apps such as Twitterfon or Tweetie to update your own status and view updates of those you’re following. If you use Firefox you might want to use an extension like Twitterfox; if you use Facebook you can add Twitter to your Facebook account. There are also a number of gadgets to embed into start pages like Netvibes, or you can download programs to add to your desktop.

Hopefully that’s helped clear up a little bit what Twitter is and how you get started with it.

My own use of Twitter

Personally, I use twitter as a form of networking; I mainly follow other librarians to find out what they’re up to. Sometimes I’ll find an interesting titbit of information about a project they’re working on, or a recommendation of software, or a link to an interesting article, but it’s also quite nice to get to know other librarians in an informal way. I use my twitter feed to notify “followers” of new blog posts (using Twitterfeed), and use my Twitter updates to update my Facebook status at the same time.

It’s also interesting to follow what is happening at conferences you are unable to attend – I have followed a number of US conferences this way, not quite the same as being there but at leats you get an idea of what is happening.

Another use for Twitter is asking for help – this can be useful if you have followers who know a certain location better than you, or if you know people might be able to offer advice about how to do certain things (this is particularly useful if people who are following you have similar software needs, I’ve noticed some librarians using Twitter to get help on their systems). There’s a wealth on knowledge out there which Stephen Fry comments on in his video.

Companies using Twitter

I had an interesting Twitter experience with a company earlier this week. I was trying to find a better way of sharing the layout of one of our rooms in the library on the web (at present you have to download a document). I thought there must be a web program that allows you to design layouts and share them, and thankfully I was right. is a program that enables you to layout rooms to scale and add in furniture (this would have been really useful in the past when I was trying to help re-design an office layout). It’s very easy to use so I set up a rough mock up in about 30 mins; then I needed to label the sections (the reason I was trying to do a layout was that we have a collection that is a little unusually arranged at the moment). I added text labels which was fine, but I thought it would be nice to link sections to relevant web pages to find out more information. I tried adding HTML into the captions but unfortunately it doesn’t support HTML links. I posted a tweet asking if anyone knew of a similar program that would allow me to use HTML in the labels, and within an hour got a response from the Floorplanner’s twitter account thanking me for the suggestion and saying they would look into adding HTML support. What a great way of getting customer feedback!

Libraries using Twitter

Following on from that. it makes logical sense that libraries too could benefit from Twitter. There are already some libraries experimenting with using Twitter to update their users on latest news (see Birkbeck for a UK example and a whole list at Twittering libraries here and here), but wouldn’t it be great if we could use Twitter to gain feedback from users and try to act upon it?

I did a search recently for our library and was pleased to see that a member of the public had used our library to study (the person in question was a writer) and commented on Twitter at how she’d found a nice place to study and was impressed with the library. At the time there weren’t many people using Twitter, but I think I will be setting up an RSS feed of a Twitter search for our libraries to see if there are more people mentioning us and see if there’s anything we can act upon to improve our service.

The future?

It seems like Twitter is certainly gaining popularity, there have been more articles in the press about Twitter recently and it certainly seems that some of the more Web 2.0 type companies are using it as a form of communication. It will be interesting to see if it continues to grow this year or if this time next year we’ll all be wondering what the point of Twitter was. Personally, I think it’s a very simple idea and those are the ones that usually succeed. It gradually gained popularity during 2008 (although it wasn’t presented at any events I attended it was usually mentioned informally by either speakers or delegates), and it certainly seems like the “Twitterverse” is growing rapidly in 2009 so far.

I don’t know if it’s something that will become popular in libraries but I can certainly see a use for it in updating users (both by them following the library as well as by publishing tweets to the library homepage for short updates), as well as for getting informal feedback from our users who mention the library of the service they received. Definitely food for thought, particularly as it’s gathering popularity in the mainstream.

Is anyone using Twitter in their library at the moment or know of any good examples of different uses of Twitter? Please share in the comments.

  • Ian
    Posted at 18:09h, 26 January Reply

    Great post! There must be something about Twitter at the moment as I recently wrote a post on it myself (in the hope that some of my friends on Facebook might pick it up on my blog feed to my profile!). I saw your tweet about the floorplan thing, and decided that I might have a look at it myself now. A good example of how Twitter can be used to share information

    My library doesn’t have a Twitter account, but I have been looking into a how it can be used to support businesses and have come across some useful thoughts (much like the way that Floorplan was able to respond instantly to feedback). I would be interested to see other examples of how Twitter is used in a library context. I’m all for trying new ways of communicating with our borrowers!

  • I’m starting to see the point of Twitter « Notes about Libraries
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  • Christine Rooney-Browne
    Posted at 09:22h, 28 January Reply

    Great post about Twitter Jo! I’ve forwarded it to a few friends who were having trouble ‘getting’ Twitter – I think your post really helped them! 🙂

  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 10:11h, 28 January Reply

    Thanks Christine, I’m glad they found it useful.

    Twitter is definitely becoming part of my daily routine now, I just wonder if it’s going to become the norm for our users – like Ian, I’m all for trying new ways of communicating, particularly when they are relatively easy for both us to implement and use and also for our users to understand.

  • Jennie
    Posted at 14:12h, 28 January Reply

    Good post!
    I’m enjoying Twitter (and trying to be very strict about not using it so much, and failing!), but in a commercial library, it’s hard to justify being on it. Of course, the fact that I’ve been able to use it to develop far better relationships with lots of other professionals in a wide range of disciplines, and am therefore more able to know the right people to ask when I need help…well…it just won’t cut it here, I’m sure!

  • Clari Hunt
    Posted at 09:24h, 29 January Reply


    At the OU Library we’ve started a Twitter account as a way of sharing news, and also to publicise FAQs – see


  • Jo Alcock
    Posted at 15:26h, 31 January Reply

    Thanks for sharing Clari, great that you have over 100 followers.

    Jennie – I’ve found the networking aspect invaluable too, but I guess like you say that can be difficult to justify due to the nature of some of the less work-related posts!

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