SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- I never understood the appeal of Twitter -- until last week. I suddenly had a "Twitpiphany," and now have become a rabid, enthusiastic user. Of course, you can send "tweets" -- Twitter posts -- from a cell phone (and read them, too). But a newish online site magnifies that by 20. One Twitter post sent from either PC or cell phone, and your message can automatically go to more than 20 social sites.
First, let me tell you about my "Twitpiphany." If you're unfamiliar with Twitter, it's the leading "microblogging" service that lets you type 140 characters or less into a little box, press a button, and everyone who has signed up to "follow" you gets that message. They can choose to get it in a Web browser, on their phone via SMS, or both. Here's the Twitter FAQ.
I signed up for Twitter (here's my Twitter page) about a year ago because people were talking about it, but just didn't get it. I started "following" a few people, but everyone I subscribed to posted either nothing or nothing interesting. Or maybe not. I pretty much forgot to check it. Every week or so, I'd get an e-mail message saying that someone had started "following" me, but I never posted anything.
Then it occurred to me: If I promote my Twitter feed on my blog, I might be able to notify readers about hot stories or breaking news once in a while. So I decided to try it, and put a "Find me on Twitter" icon and link on my personal blog, The Raw Feed.
I went looking for the Twitter feeds of both friends in tech journalism, and also a few of the bloggers I read who I happen not to know personally, and signed up to "follow" them.
I started leaving Twitter open so I could easily post. And then something surprising happened. I started noticing *extremely* interesting, funny, useful and insightful "tweets" coming in.
I also was annoyed by a lot of junk comments. ("I'm having a sandwich right now" -- that kind of thing.) But it was trivially easy to stop "following" boring people.
Then I went looking for interesting Twitter feeds. I found a site called Twitterholic.com, which lists the top 100 users based on number of followers. (I figured that if they have thousands of followers, they must be doing something right.) I also started "following" CNN breaking news alerts, which I decided to get on my phone, and Reuters news. I subscribed to a Slate.com Olympics feed, and that was cool during the games.
So by this process of cultivating Twitter quality -- by searching for excellent feeds to follow, and actively dropping the dull feeds -- I was able to tweak Twitter into becoming a truly awesome source of constant information, ideas and news. The more I tweak, the better it gets.
OK, fine. I've become a Twitter maniac, and felt like, well, like a twit because I didn't board this train a year ago.
Meanwhile, I'd been getting an unusual number of Facebook invitations from professional colleges, and thought -- am I missing something there, too? Again, I've been theoretically "using" Facebook for a long time, but never saw the appeal. So I logged in and started "Friending" people (they have a lot of tools for discovering which of your existing family, friends and colleges are already on Facebook, and also for inviting people who don't have accounts). Lo!, I found myself enjoying that, too. People I hadn't spoken to in years started coming out of the woodwork. By checking the "status updates" page once in a while, I actual started feeling more connected to a whole lot more people.
I was vaguely aware that it was possible to have Twitter posts show up on Facebook as "status updates" -- to kill two birds with one stone, for you cliche enthusiasts -- so I went looking for how to do that. I found and tried a gaggle of services and applications, and one of them seemed much better than the others. It's called HelloTxt.
HelloTxt exists for one purpose: To broadcast your "tweets" or "status" to as many sites as possible. Just click on the services you subscribe to, enter your usernames and passwords (it remembers them so you have to do this only once), then type in your Twitter message and click a button. That same message shows up as a post on Twitter, and also as a "status message" on a huge number of social networks.
In addition to Twitter, HelloTxt posts to Facebook, MySpace, Linked-In, Plaxo, Friendfeed, Jaiku, Pownce, Brightkite, Bebo, Hi5, Tumblr, Meemi, Beemood, Plurk, Gozub, Frazr, Numpa, Mexicodiario, Feecle, Fanfou, Identica and Blinko.
I've never heard of half of these, but I went ahead and clicked on the check boxes for the first seven services on my list above, because I've already got profiles on those.
Now, whenever I've got something to say, promote, ask or float (as in a trial balloon column idea), I just click on my HelloTxt tab, type it and click the button. Off it goes to eight services -- well, nine, actually. I added a little gadget on my blog that auto-posts the most recent tweet (you'll see it on my blog on the right in red type).
HelloTxt also facilitates the easy sharing of photos and videos. Just point to the file (locally or, for videos, on YouTube), and HelloTxt posts it on a page and drops the link to that page automatically into the text box. Type your message, and both the link and the words you typed are broadcast.
If you're into Twitter and updating status messages on social networking sites, obviously this is powerful stuff. But I haven't gotten to the best part yet.
HelloTxt has a mobile site: http://m.hellotxt.com
It gives you the same functionality as the regular site, but using a simplified mobile user interface. The mobile version of HelloTxt is one of the easiest-to-use mobile sites I've seen for a phone and screen as tiny as my BlackBerry Pearl.
My moment of enlightenment came when I was standing in line at the bank yesterday, and decided to blast out a message. From "bright idea" to "done publishing" was literally about 15 seconds. (Had I published something more interesting than "Blogging while in line at the bank," I might have impressed others as much as I impressed myself.")
So in 15 seconds I shot a non-interrupting message to dozens of family members, hundreds of colleagues and thousands of readers on nine services from a phone the size of a box of Chicklets gum.
It's a wonderful time to be alive and mobile.