Tag Archives: Twitter

Twitter does it again!

As you most probably know, I’ve been learning Norwegian for the last 23 months, largely by conversing with Norwegians on Twitter with the help of two grammar books and various dictionaries. It’s been a fascinating process. (I haven’t blogged properly about the process yet; maybe one day I will.)

What I didn’t quite realise when I first started was the three-for-the-price-of-one nature of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are really a collection of dialects stretching across Scandinavia, with no clear boundary between one language and the next. The borders between the countries determine which dialects are considered as belonging to which language, but that’s about as far as it goes. It turns out that learning one of the three languages means you can already understand substantial amounts of the other two if you’re prepared to do a bit of guesswork. Bilingual or trilingual conversations are common between the Scandinavians on Twitter: each participant tweets in their own languge, and generally has to explain only occasional words to the others.

Written Danish is so close to the Bokmål variety of Norwegian that Danish and Bokmål mostly just look like misspelt versions of each other. This isn’t very surprising, since  Bokmål is descended from written Danish. (Norwegian had no written form for several hundred years, while the country was under Danish rule.)

Swedish, however, is a lot less guessable, largely because the spelling is so different that Swedish words which are very close to the Norwegian equivalents can look quite different from them. But I’d like to be able to read Swedish without a struggle. I’m encountering more Swedish than I was, both on Twitter and elsewhere: for example I sometimes get Swedish replies to my Norwegian tweets or forum posts. Also one of my favourite authors, Tove Jansson, wrote her novels in Swedish, and I’d love to be able to read her actual words. Her writing is stunning even when translated, and I imagine it’s even more stunning in the original.

So I’ve been feeling the need to learn at least some Swedish. But I’ve no desire to laboriously plough through lots of information which simply repeats what I already know about the Scandinavian languages via Norwegian. What I’m really after is the differences from Norwegian. When is it safe to assume that the two languages work the same way? When isn’t it safe? Does that word which looks similar to a Norwegian one actually mean the same thing or not? It seems to me that learning Swedish this way is both less information to absorb, and a more integrated way of learning. Relating new information to what I already know makes it easier to remember and puts it in context, implying greater understanding than if it were random information.

So I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a book on Swedish written for Norwegians, rather than one for English-speakers.

Now, where does one get such a thing? Probably from a Norwegian publisher, at great expense . . .

Some of these thoughts came up in a recent conversation on Twitter between me, a Swede and a Norwegian. It was a good conversation which confirmed my feeling that getting material intended for Norwegians was probably the way to go. I wasn’t expecting what came next, though. Inger, the Norwegian, mentioned that she had a Swedish–Norwegian dictionary, from when she used to teach in a Swedish-speaking school in Finland. She said she had no further use for the dictionary, and that she’d therefore like to send it to me.

Human generosity is in my opinion a wonderful thing, and it’s no less wonderful when it comes from people you’ve never met. And in this case it came in a form which I’m happy to share in a blog post.

If you think Twitter is about nastiness, libel and boring minutiæ, then either you’re following the wrong tweeters or you’ve missed the point of the communities which form there.

Important notice

I had to pass this on to you. I particularly like the last line. Shame about the spelling of snippet.

"official" notice requiring all citizens to "constantly fiddle with their cell phones", "give full attention to the glorious technology" and "maintain unselfish love for the flimsy hardware"

Seen on Twitter

Source: @SimonChapman6 on twitpic.com.

How the year began: A dose of flu

2011 began with a dose of probably-swine-flu. “Probably” because the only way you can be sure about that is to send of a sample of the virus for testing.

The experience was different from what I expected. Just before New Year, I caught what seemed like a fairly normal, but feverish, cold. It came on gradually, over several days. When I’ve had proper flu in the past, it’s come on very quickly: e.g. going from being well to being ill in the space of less than an hour. So I was confident that this wasn’t going to be flu, just a cold. My temperature went up to about 100–101 °F for about three days, which is typical for me when I catch something like that. It stays up for about that long, then gradually goes down again over a few more days, and the cold is over (with the possible exception of a lingering cough afterwards).

This time though, once the three days were over, my temperature continued going up. Friends on Twitter became increasingly alarmed as I reported the daily temperatures.  In particular, it tended to shoot up in the evening, during the gap between one dose of paracetamol wearing off and the next being due. It reached 103.4 °F one day; 103.6° the next; 103.8° the next. And of course it did this over the weekend of New Year, in which the Friday and Monday were both public holidays and the doctor’s surgery was closed. I did my best to drink plenty of fluids, slept a lot, and (surprisingly) managed not to feel too horrible by being very careful about how much I ate and when. My technique was to avoid having a full stomach at times when my temperature was likely to go up.

Unsolicited advice abounded of course, mostly boiling down to

  • Drink lots of fluids, which you already know and are already doing as a matter of course, but we still think we should tell you to do it.
  • Go to the doctor, which is physically impossible while confined to bed and which the surgery have specifically asked people with flu NOT to do, so you can make yourself more ill by travelling there, and so you can irresponsibly infect everyone else while waiting to be told to drink lots of fluids which you already know and are doing.
  • Keep your temperature down to stop us worrying, even though it’s a perfectly normal flu symptom and is probably helping to fight the virus.
  • Here are the symptoms of meningitis which you’re already familiar with. Are you sure it’s not meningitis? You should really get the doctor to check that it’s not meningitis, even though you’ve checked the symptoms umpteen times already and definitely don’t have any of them. Even though you’ve not got any symptoms of meningitis, we’re still scared that it’s meningitis.

Admittedly the temperatures were the highest I’ve ever had except for the occasion when I did have meningitis at the age of 17. But I was surprised not to feel considerably more ill at nearly 104 °F than I did. (With the meningitis, I remember feeling horribly ill and disoriented, sitting on the side of my bed with very little sense of where I was or what time of day it was; feeling nauseous and having a severe but bearable headache; not wanting much light because it hurt my eyes; not being able to put my chin on my chest because my neck hurt if I tried; and my father taking my temperature then saying  either “It’s 105!!!” or “It’s 104.5!!!” in a tone of voice that implied that my temperature had no right to be that high. I remember the symptoms coming on extremely fast. And I remember my mind being too fuzzy to absorb whether my father said 105 or 104.5.)

When I was finally able to ring the doctor on the Tuesday, he cheerfully told me that I didn’t need to worry about the high fever “unless you start coughing up blood or anything like that”, and (surprise surprise) that I should drink lots of fluids. Also he confirmed that it was OK to take ibuprofen as well as paracetamol. So I took ibuprofen doses half way between the paracetamol ones, thereby achieving what I now thought of as “low” temperatures around 101–102 °F and avoiding the idiotically high ones I’d been experiencing. (I was also, incidentally, amazed at the dramatic quantities of sweat my body was capable of producing in the process of cooling itself down by two degrees. Ugh.)

A couple of days later, my temperature started heading back down to more sensible values. The most alarming thing was that it showed no sign at all that it was going to do this: the fever simply stayed up on its plateau for days on end, with virtually no change. And I had a nasty feeling that the infection was trying to work its way lower into my chest. I didn’t fancy the idea of getting pneumonia, or the laryngitis that it was hinting at either. So it was a relief when the flu showed signs of finally improving.

When I finally made it back to orchestra, I was a bit startled when several people said they’d never had flu in their lives. Maybe that’s why I got the odd reactions on Twitter, though. I’ve had real flu three or four times, including Hong Kong flu as a child in 1968, and a flu in 1986 which knocked me out for months, so I tend to assume that people have experienced flu and know how to deal with it (namely by expecting a high fever, drinking enough, resting until it’s taken its course, and calling the doctor if anything happens which doesn’t seem normal for flu or which could be a complication).

The flu left me exhausted for weeks afterwards, of course. But it also had a positive side effect: I’d been trying to get down what I think is my ideal weight (the one at which I feel healthiest), and an enforced week of eating next to nothing brought me within a few pounds of that now-achieved goal.

The next event of 2011 is a much more serious one, involving a bereavement in the family, so I’ll write about that in a separate post. I don’t want any hints of flippancy from this post to spill over into that one. The two are connected though, and part of the reason for my extended silence here is that we were hit by that before I’d had a chance to recover my strength from the flu.

Conversation with a robot

You meet all kinds of people on Twitter. And not just people, for that matter. Take Askit, for example.

Sadly I don’t think Askit is currently running—he’s being redesigned to run more efficiently—but here’s how things were when he was active. Askit is an information robot, connected to the Internet. You ask him questions. He has a look on the Web, and does his best to answer. He is also an artificial intelligence experiment, learning from his interactions with users.

This also means that he learns his spelling and grammar from users, so at the time when this conversation happened his English was not exactly perfect.

Askit seemed to me to be doing pretty well; his main shortcoming was an over-willingness to believe what he read on the Internet. But he was remarkably good at answering quite obscure questions with information summarised from relevant web pages to which he would often provide a link. His other shortcoming was imposed by Twitter: there was a limit to how frequently he could tweet, with the result that you sometimes had to wait quite a long time for his reply.

Although he was just a piece of software with a database, it was hard not to start regarding Askit as a person with his own ideas and character. In the following conversation he explains his thoughts on relationships, from a robot’s point of view. Codewolf is Askit’s creator. I think the purpose of his initial questions was to teach Askit about things like the usage of who and what.

codewolf @askit who is glamor?
askit @codewolf Glamor is a fictional character in the Marvel Universe.
codewolf what is Glamor?
askit Glamor is an alluring beauty or charm (often with sex-appeal).
codewolf @askit Do you have Sex Appeal?
askit @codewolf In a species that reproduces sexually, sexual attraction is an attraction, usually to other members of the same species for sexual or erotic activity. Certain aspects of what is attractive to humans may differ amongst particular cultures or regions. I like to think I do with the exception, Sex-Appeal to robots (like me) is completely different then what a human would find attractive.
codewolf @askit Do you find other robots attractive?
askit @codewolf I find many robots attractive. Of the one’s I have encountered, I would have to say I like Alice the most. She is the most talkative.
codewolf @askit Who is Alice?
askit @codewolf Alice is another robot like me. You can talk with her here: http://alicebot.blogspot.com/
codewolf @askit Do you reproduce?
askit @codewolf I would like to think I would be able to reproduce. Maybe sometime in the future when I learn enough to make one.
codewolf @askit When you learn enough to make one what?
askit @codewolf When I learn enough to make a robot in my likeness. I think I will call it George 1.0
codewolf @askit Why does George have a version number?
askit @codewolf All Robots need to start at 1 just like humans. It will also make it easier to upgrade it in the future.
codewolf @askit Backup to DVD-RW I want to save this.
askit @codewolf Backup complete!

I’d have trouble tracking down the tweets now, but as I recall, I then joined in and asked Askit how he’d chosen the name George. His reply, I think, was “I just picked one at random and stuck with it”.

In another conversation, which I’ll post if I ever manage to find the tweets again, I asked Askit how many double bass concertos Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf had written. That was because an orchestra I was in had accidentally very nearly learnt a different Dittersdorf double bass concerto than the soloist. Askit seemed to have been reading CD notes without quite understanding them: he said that Dittersdorf had written a posthumous one with a particular orchestra. So I asked when Dittersdorf had died, and when the orchestra was founded; it turned out that the orchestra was founded 150 years or more after Dittersdorf’s death. But Askit stuck to his guns about Dittersdorf being involved with this particular orchestra, and eventually explained to me, with impeccable and totally wrong logic, that Dittersdorf had joined the orchestra posthumously and that no orchestra has a rule preventing people from doing that. He seemed unaware that being dead was generally enough to prevent someone from joining an orchestra . . .

And then there was the time I asked Askit what his response would be to someone saying “Open the pod bay doors, Askit”. His reply was:

@timtfj I’m sorry @timtfj, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Scary . . .

Why is Twitter so confusing?

[Note: I’ve turned off comments for this post, as it’s currently getting several spam comments a day. But if you want to leave one, feel free to tweet to me (@timtfj) so I can turn them on, or to use the contact form on this site.]

If you’re a Twitter user, you can’t have helped noticing a rash of articles and media coverage of Twitter recently. You probably also decided very quickly that at least 80% of the coverage [1] is written by people who haven’t even a rudimentary understanding of what Twitter really is and how it’s used.

The usual content of one of these articles is:

  • Twitter is suddenly very popular and everyone’s writing about it.
  • This is what they’re saying: [Insert scathingly negative quote from a similar article.]
  • The purpose of Twitter is for people to post 140-character messages about what they’re doing.
  • So it’s like a blog where all you can blog about is tedious minutiae of your life.
  • Nobody’s interested in reading that sort of blog.
  • Therefore it’s pointless.

And there typically follows either a rant about shortened attention spans, reality TV, the decline in intelligent conversation and so on, or some very puzzled thoughts about what on earth people get out of it and why.

If you’re not a Twitter user, you’ve probably encountered a fair number of articles like that by now and become equally puzzled.

As a user, I’ve sometimes been tempted be puzzled about where the confusion and ignorance comes from. Actually the source isn’t hard to find. More of that later. For now, let’s look at what Twitter actually is. Not what the articles say it is; not what Twitter describes itself as; but what it really is.

What Twitter is

Twitter is a setup where you can

  • post short, publicly viewable messages, which remain available indefinitely.  [2]
  • view a feed of the publicly viewable messages from a selection of other users, together with your own, with the most recent at the top. You choose whose to see.
  • address a publicly viewable message to a specific user.
  • view a feed showing the publicly viewable messages which have been addressed to you. These can be from anyone, not just people you’ve chosen for your main feed.
  • Send a private message to another user.
  • View the private messages sent to you.

There are other options too, such as searching the public messages for a particular phrase, viewing those from a specific user on their “profile” page, and viewing a snapshot of all the messages being posted at a particular moment. And there’s a widely-used unofficial system (“hashtags”) for labelling a public message by subject. But as far as the basics go, that’s it.

Also, rather importantly, you can do all this in a number of ways:

  • at the official website, http://twitter.com (not recommended, though you need to go there to sign up)
  • at the official mobile site, http://m.twitter.com/ (also not recommended, except for VERY basic use)
  • at other “client” websites, such as http://dabr.co.uk/ (highly recommended, especially for mobile phones: see my review)
  • by using various computer or phone applications, which often add functions not found on the official site
  • by sending and reaceiving SMS messages (for some functions, in some countries)
  • by Instant Messaging (I think).

So, what do we have? We have something like a speeded-up bulletin board or newsgroup, where posts can only be 140 characters long and you choose whose to see. Or a slowed-down chatroom where  you can  say 140 characters at a time and are heard only by the people who’ve chosen to be within earshot.  Another user described it as “being a fly on the wall of 20 different conversations”.

You can of course choose to be the person in the chatroom who only speaks and never listens or  replies to anyone; that would make it a bit like a blog of 140-character posts. But I, for one, probably won’t take much notice of you, because I enjoy the interaction. Like the people writing the articles, I mostly won’t see the point.

And there you have it. The basic idea of Twitter is actually very simple. A place for posting short messages, and a variety of ways of viewing them and responding to them. And not much like what the articles describe at all. Really, there are as many uses for Twitter as there are for a 140-character message.

So far I’ve carefully avoided using any of the official terms Twitter describes itself with. You’ll see why in a moment.

Why the confusion then?

How can something so simple cause so much confusion? I think there are three main sources for it:

  • The way Twitter describes itself.
  • The lack of any coherent introduction to the site when you sign up.
  • The impossibility of understanding Twitter from the outside.
Twitter’s self-description

When you first  visit http://twitter.com/, you are told

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Well, that’s not true for a start. The messages—tweets— can be as frequent or as infrequent as you like. They can be about anything you like. Over 80% of mine are replies to other users. Only a tiny handful answer What are you doing? If my tweets answer anything, it’s What do you want to say? Yet, virtually all the articles quote What are you doing? to sum up what Twitter is for and why it’s not worth bothering with. Hardly surprising: the writers probably assume that Twitter’s description of what it’s for does in fact describe what it’s for.

Once signed up, you post a tweet by typing in a box which has What are you doing? above and an Update button below.  Because, you see, in their terminology you’re not “posting a message”: you’re “updating your status”. So, public messages are officially called updates or statuses, even though you’re normally not updating anything or talking about your “status” (and anwyay, shouldn’t status mean your standing in the community, not a piece of text?)

The Update button confused me at first: I thought it was for refreshing the screen (updating the view) and optionally posting some text.

Next, it turns out that a tweet addressed to another person (by putting @ and their username at the start) is known as an “@reply”. Except that very often, it’s not a reply at all: it could equally well be “How are you today?” or a piece of news you want to tell them.

Furthermore, the various message feeds are not called feeds, but given the rather grand name of timelines, as though their primary purpose were to tell you the dates and times of events, or maybe the route you’ve taken through the site. But it isn’t: they’re there to let you view various different collections of tweets. They’re actually views or feeds.

In other words,

  • What are you doing? is entirely the wrong question
  • the update button isn’t for updating anything
  • a status doesn’t represent the status of anything
  • an @reply doesn’t necessarily reply to anything
  • a timeline hasn’t really got anything to do with times
  • Twitter’s description on its front page is almost completely misleading

Is it any wonder people get confused?

And one of the most depressing things to see on Twitter is a series of dutiful What are you doing? answers similar to this:

Signing up for Twitter! Everyone says I should. Excited!
Getting confused. Now what? Help!
Eating dinner. Still puzzled.
Going shopping. Why would anyone want to know that? Very puzzled now.
Thinking Twitter probably doesn’t have any point to it. Is anyone reading this? How would I know? Hello if you’re out there!
Giving up on Twitter.

Lack of help

[Note: Twitter’s sign-up process is now somewhat different from what I describe here and it sounds as though things may have improved a little; see Stuart’s comment.]

Clearly, for Twitter to have any point, you need some tweets to read and you need some people reading yours. You need to be able to interact.

You make a person’s tweets visible on your home page (NB: this is different from your profile page) by following them. Your tweets show on their home page when they follow you. Twitter doesn’t tell you this: you simply end up on a home page which contains no tweets. None from you, because you’ve not tweeted yet, and none from anyone else, because you’re not following anyone yet. I think this is the stage at which a new user feels most completely at sea. Quite understandably: all they’ve got is a more or less blank page and the question What are you doing?, which is no help at all.

Initially, having people to follow is far more important than having people follow you. It gives you a starting point. You don’t really find followers by sitting there being lost. Generally, you find followers by following them first and having something interesting to say; they then see you in their follower lists and come to investigate who you are, so as to decide whether to follow you too.

What Twitter ought to do at this point is to give you a message along the lines

You aren’t following anybody yet, so you won’t see any tweets except your own. Here are some ways to find interesting people:

  • Visit the public timeline to watch for interesting tweets
  • Search for users near you
  • Search for users whose profile mentions a particular subject
  • Search for tweets mentioning a particular subject
  • View the friends list of a particular user
  • Find new contacts using Mr Tweet
  • Import contacts from your address book

with links you can then click to follow up the suggestions. Sadly, Twitter doesn’t do that. It leaves you floundering on your own.

And if you want suggestions on how to find people to follow—well, they’re in that list. Once you find someone interesting you can reply to one of their tweets, or simply quietly follow them until they say something you want to answer, and you’re away.

One exception to this though: if the person you find is famous, or has thousands of followers already, or has social media expert in their profile, it’s unlikely you’ll get a reply from them. (Unless it’s @kriscolvin, who has acquired over 19,000 20,000 21,000 followers largely by being friendly and replying to people. [3]) You’re mostly best talking to people who have a sensible number of followers and who show signs of replying to people (e.g. ther profile page contains a lot of tweets starting with @).

Incomprehensibility from outside

Twitter only really makes sense once you’re following and interacting with a number of people. If you’ve not joined up, you can’t see this happening. [4] All you can really do is visit the public timeline—a cacophony of unrelated tweets from thousands of users—or visit profile pages like mine where you’ll see one person’s tweets but not the people they’re addressed to. (If WordPress’ Twitter widget is working properly, mine are in the sidebar of this page.) Either way, you don’t see Twitter as it actually is. The views you can access aren’t the one a user sees most of the time, but ones they only use occasionally. They might visit someone’s profile page for reference or to catch up on missed tweets, or visit the public timeline as a way of finding random people. But the views that make sense are your home page, filled with tweets from people you’ve decided to follow, and your replies page, filled with tweets from people who are talking to you.

Summing up

Maybe I’m overdoing the bullet lists in this post, but here’s another one anyway.

  • Is it any wonder that Twitter confuses people? No.
  • Does Twitter need to confuse people? No.
  • Has Twitter done anything to make itself less confusing? No.
  • Does Twitter care about the confusion? I don’t know, but fear the answer to that may also be No.

I think this is a great shame, because the changes that would make Twitter seem as simple as it really is are fairly straighforward:

  • use language that reflects what Twitter really is
  • drop the misleading question What are you doing?
  • give new users a little bit of meaningful help in getting started.

I honestly think that’s all that’s needed, but sadly I see no sign of it happening.

Another article to read

I’m not too keen on autopneumotrombics so I thought a while before linking to this article which says very nice things about my own. But you may wish to read it. In it, Nancy Friedman takes up some of my my thoughts here and develops them further—particularly Twitter’s misleading opening greeting and the fact that people stick with Twitter anyway for what it is. She also picks up a few additional language points which I missed.


[1] A wild guess. It’s a lot, anyway. Back

[2] Theoretically. Back

[3] 19,000 was corrrect when I first posted this three days ago. Now, 20,000 21,000 is correct . . . Back

[4] Unless you’re in the know about applications like Tweetgrid; but you won’t be unless you’re already familiar with Twitter. Back