Alternate Uses of Twitter

TwitterAh, the rise of social media – it seemed almost inevitable that I would do a post on Twitter.

Anyway, I first started using Twitter early this year, not because Oprah uses it, but rather because my previous server, where my blog was hosted on, crashed and I felt a need to share my views of the world. Hence I decided to give microblogging a try – apparently I didn’t really like it as a microblogging platform, so that’s why I still maintain a proper blog here.

But I am still an active user of Twitter (by the way, check out some cool statistics provided by Information is Beautiful about Twitter), not truly because it’s a great social media platform (in my opinion, you can beg to differ), but for the 5 reasons below. And these reasons (except for the first perhaps) show some alternative ways people can utilize Twitter for.

1. Get away from the annoying applications on Facebook
I was actually a big fan of Facebook, but it seems that starting from this year, many of my friends started to doubt their personalities and had to take quizzes to find out what kind of person they are (as judged by the results of the quizzes). Every few minutes, I have updates ranging from “What does your birthday tell about your personality” to “What color of hair should you dye based on your personality” popping up in my news feed. Then there are those quizzes created by your own friends who suddenly seemed so insecure that they need to know how well you know them. I have received countless invitations from “applications” that are named “How well do you know XXX”. Yes, of course you can hide those applications from your news feed, but every quiz are separate individual applications, so sooner or later, it would seem as though you are manually updating a virus definition list/email spam list everyday (by hiding the quizzes from the newsfeed). Of course, more recently, there are more and more junk applications appearing in my newsfeed such as “Who is stalking you” even though Facebook’s TOS clearly states that no application would be provided with access to data on who visited who’s profile. All in all, Facebook has seemed to have become a major mess and Twitter provided some relief from all that carnage. Of course, Twitter is plagued by it’s own problems – Twitterbots – the most harmless merely following you while smarter ones try to get you to click links (through a variety of ways such as retweets and @replies) that will help generate advertising revenue for their masters – but that’s another thing altogether. For one, they don’t fill the front page with useless junk and secondly, they generally don’t bug you – sooner or later you would learn to ignore them. You can also block them, but it’s quite pointless as they take the form of individual accounts and so it gets irritating trying to block these individual accounts. But still, Twitter provides a cleaner gateway to the information I am truly interested in, be it updates from my friends or information I am tracking, which brings me to my first alternative use of Twitter.

2. Twitter as a tracking service
I use Twitter as a tracking service to keep myself updated on stuff that interest me. Many companies/people/artists are actually on Twitter now, and you can follow them for the latest updates without having to check their individual websites for updates. For example, I am a big fan of Pilot Speed, so I simply follow their Twitter account to keep track of when and where they are having performances or when their new album is coming out. Similarly, I follow many of the developers of iPhone/Mac applications that I use (for example, Dave Castelnuovo, the developer of Pocket God (App Store Link)) to keep myself updated on the development progress of these applications. Twitter provides a medium to aggregate all these information easily and hence its effectiveness as a tracker service. To be truthful, Facebook also provide this functionality somewhat, through “Pages” where you can become fans. But frankly, thanks to the load of crap quizzes and applications, it became nearly impossible to filter out what you want to know from all that junk.

3. Twitter as a RSS feed aggregator
While many Twitterbots in the Tweetosphere (cool, I coined a new word) are actually spambots who are just out there to irritate you, there are a few bots dedicated to tweeting RSS articles (thanks to twitterfeed and the likes). You can actually follow them as an alternative to RSS. Well I am guessing these bots exist because RSS didn’t really take off (at least not among the truly mainstream users) and these bots provide an alternate take on RSS on a popular platform. Well, The Unofficial Apple Weblog (@tuaw) keeps a Twitter account that is updated with its feeds, and so does Engadget (@engadget) and many other popular newsblogs etc. Many news sites, such as New York Times (@nytimes), and magazines such as The Economist (@TheEconomist) also keep their own Twitter account that tweets based on their RSS feeds and so Twitter can actually act as a viable RSS feed aggregator. However, due to the 140 characters limit, a tweet would probably be just the title of the post with a link to the article – you still have to click it and visit the actual website to read the article in detail.

4. Twitter as a communications platform
I admit it, out of the over 700 tweets so far, probably half of them are @replies that are part of a conversation. Given the wide availability of clients to access Twitter (I am a big fan of Tweetie that is available for both iPhone and Mac, though that are many cross platform desktop clients such as twhirl – if you don’t mind these Adobe AIR applications chewing away at your CPU cycles.), many people generally access and check their Twitter account on the go. Hence I generally prefer to use Twitter over SMSes to send non-urgent messages (using the @username tag) that do not require immediate attention. This is because Twitter messages are generally non-intrusive, as they usually do not pop up an alert etc. and only appear when the person checks their Twitter account. For short and informal messages, I prefer to use Twitter over email as it feels more personal and is also more convenient (and count the fact that some people check their Twitter accounts more often than emails). Sometimes, Twitter is also the preferred medium of communication over Instant Messaging because, well, it’s non-intrusive. People can choose to ignore the tweet for a while and reply later, unlike Instant Messaging, where the other person may feel compelled to provide an immediate answer. Recently, this has become especially more important to me as I use it to carry out online conversations with my friends who are studying (yes, I know I am supposed to be studying too) for their exams without disturbing them with IM messages or SMSes. Of course, the downside is that @replies are generally not private (unless you chose to limit access to your account) and can be viewed by everyone (it even appears on the newsfeeds of people that that following both of you), so discretion is advised. Of course, there are also direct messages (DM) for more personal messages, but those generally send an email notification (which can be turned off in Settings), which can be quite annoying if you are engaged in a long conversation.

5. Twitter as a GTD client
Yup, Twitter as a Get Things Done client. Again, due to the easy availability of Twitter through numerous clients on countless platforms, Twitter becomes a great place to store personal reminders and notes. Yes, I know, you can do that with your phone, laptop, netbook, pen and paper etc. but sometimes, we don’t even remember to check for new notes and todos. Well, the advantage of storing notes and reminders on Twitter is that once you check Twitter, you would be instantly reminded of those errands you have to run. I usually start a new reminder with @wuxiaotian, so that it would show up under Mentions, which is generally less cluttered than the newsfeed if you are following hundreds of accounts. But again, it’s for public viewing, so maybe reminding yourself to get a pack of condoms and a bottle of wine on Twitter might not be the best idea. And of course, 140 characters can be quite limiting sometimes. Also be aware that Twitter only keeps 3200 of your newest tweets, so if you need to reference tweets that are beyond that range, I am sorry but it cannot be done. That’s why I would advise you to only use Twitter for minor, non-important reminders that are of no loss. And of course, it’s always a good idea to back up your tweets.

Well, I have shared with you 4 alternative uses of Twitter, feel free to voice out in the comments below if you use Twitter for other purposes.

iTunes U & Education Applications

I was quite sure that before the Sept 9 Apple Event, iTunes U was not available in the Singapore iTunes Store. Now, we can finally subscribe to some of the amazing podcasts that are available, many of them from the finest colleges around the world. Hopefully this also means that Singapore will have its own iTunes Music Store soon. Oh, and it shouldn’t surprise you that the first series I subscribed to was actually Stanford‘s iPhone Application Programming Course as well as Steve Job’s 2005 Commencement Address.

Anyway, since we are on the topic of education, let me share with you some of the great tools available for Mac that are potentially useful for students. Moreover, many of these applications have huge education discounts that make them affordable to most students – one of the only few things I like about being a student.
Continue reading iTunes U & Education Applications

It’s only boring…

It's only rock and roll, but we like it
Apple’s September iPod event this year, themed “It’s only rock and roll, but we like it!” should be more aptly themed “It’s only boring”. I have previously mentioned during the announcement of Snow Leopard that Apple seemed to have stopped innovating, with no new products or features to dazzle us with, and with yesterday’s event, it certainty seems that way. It’s like Apple’s entire Creative development died or something. (Web Stream and podcast of the keynote is not available at time of writing, but they should be available soon) Web Stream available here

iPhone 3.1
The keynote begun pretty well with the announcement of iPhone OS 3.1, which really is just a small update to the current iPhone OS. Not much new features here to talk about: Genius for the App Store and the new ringtones that are available from the iTunes Store, which definitely doesn’t come at a cheap price (US$1.29 for 1 ringtone), were the features that earned a place of honor in Steve’s Keynote. Well, about Genius for App Store – I am little skeptical about how well this would work, after all, you would usually only require one app that have all the features you need (eg. a To do list), so I don’t see how recommending similar apps will really help here (recommend more todo list apps? For what?), though of course I see it’s potential for games. And the Ringtones definitely does not interest me – first off the price is too steep in my opinion and secondly, I am still waiting for the day the iTunes Music Store comes to Singapore. However, besides these features, there are a few other small improvements, which are documented by TUAW here. Of course, bug fixes are in place, and the 3.1 update includes the patch to the SMS vulnerability hack exposed a while back, though I am surprised that they did not do anything about the weak WiFi signal problems that many users seemed to be having and the wonky Auto WiFi system.

iTunes 9
Genius Mixes
Well iTunes 9 does seem to gain quite a bit of functionality – Home Sharing (based on your iTunes account), Genius Mixes, more syncing options and App Management in iTunes itself. Well, Home Sharing sounded pretty cool at first (and I thought it would employ Bonjour technology), but once you realized it is in fact linked to your iTunes account, you realized that Apple’s Digital Media Usage policy has not changed a single bit. Well, at least it does make it easier for me to “sync” my music library when I get a few more Macs the next time. Genius Mixes (shown in the screenshot above) allows you to use Genius without a seed song – sort of like your personal DJ. I am testing it out now and it does seem pretty good. More syncing options allows you have greater control over what content from your excessively huge media library (mine is about 70GB – I like high quality songs – and growing) you want to sync over to your iPod/iPhone with such puny storage space. And for Mac and iPhoto users, you are in luck, you can select based on Events and FACES (perfect for you to keep pictures of your boyfriend/girlfriend or yourself to drool over – I kid, I kid.) Ah, and App Management from iTunes itself – finally – though it doesn’t seem to be that essential since 3.0. Of course, iTunes 9 features a few interface changes – Apple seems to have gone for a lighter design (white backgrounds for grid views, Applications now) over the previous darker one. Pretty good job with iTunes 9.

Oh I almost forgot – iTunes LP and Extras. But then, no surprise that I forgot about that. No iTunes Music Store in Singapore remember?

New iPods
Ah, the great anticlimax. First off, the 3rd Generation iPod Touch. Unless you count a price drop and the availability of a 64GB (ah, flash memory is getting cheaper by the day) version features or product upgrades, then there is no announced product updates. Of course, very likely the internals are updated with the latest processors (probably the 600MHz processors in the iPhone 3GS with 256MB RAM and a better graphics card to match the 3GS at the very least) Update: only the 32GB and 64GB versions have a new processor. The 8GB version still uses the same “slightly faster than the iPhone 3G” processor. We will have to wait till someone cracks open the brand new iPod Touch and take a peek at the insides before we know for sure what’s new. (should be soon)

Of course, the iPod Classic earned nothing more than a passing mention. More storage (160GB instead of the 120GB) for a lower price. I am a big fan of the Classic model since it is the only model that allows me to carry my entire media library with me but I am not at all surprised with the lack of attention and love that Apple gave it – the iPod Nanos and Touches are clearly more popular.

Well, even the iPod Shuffle seemed to get more love from Apple. New colors are now available for them (as well as a price drop), with a special edition Stainless Steel Model which does look pretty cool. But hey, it’s a Shuffle, the iPod for cheapos, so what’s the point of having a special model? Speaking of which, my mum’s 1st Generation iPod Shuffle is still working – those things are pretty long lasting huh?

And the greatest disappointment of all – the new iPod Nano. With a camera as rumored. Yes, that’s pretty cool, but once you realize that the camera only takes VGA quality video (that will probably only look decent on your iPod Nano’s screen and not any other screen larger than that) and not stills (as explained by Steve Jobs here), there is really nothing to be wowed by. Yes, it’s a pretty cool concept – but those with iPod Nanos are very likely to have phones with cameras that can take videos AND stills as well as (or even better) than the camera on the iPod Nano and so it’s really pretty much self-defeating. But the features that are truly worthy of mention for the iPod Nano is actually the new FM Radio that is built in and the Pedometer (which would really be great for runners). And of course, the larger screen (together with a lightly longer battery life for watching videos) is a nice touch.

Yes, there are a few pretty cool new tricks, but nothing truly revolutionary (especially disappointed with the new iPod Touch). Maybe it’s because Steve Jobs was away for a while, but now that he’s back, I hope Apple’s innovation comes back to them.

RSS was so 2005…

Many non geeky computer users probably do not even know what RSS is (though they probably have seen the icon on the left countless times), so let’s break it up with an introduction as to what exactly RSS is before a discussion of how the technology should evolve (in my own personal opinion). I know I should probably be studying for my prelim exams now, but I do need to take a break from all the halogenoalkanes and what have you.

Anyway, RSS is some sort of a subscription service – everyday, updates (in terms of content) get delivered from your favorite sites to your doorstep (or rather your RSS client – but we will get to that in a while). Subscribing to a RSS feed is like signing up for a newspaper subscription – the content comes to you instead of you having to go get it. It’s just like those newsletter email thing, just that you don’t have to give up the privacy of your email address and have your inbox flooded with useless newsletter even though you are no longer interested.

This may not be all so interesting to you when you think of maybe only subscribing to 1 or 2 sites – but it comes in real handy when you subscribe to over 20 feeds (for those of you on the social media wagon, think of feeds as like…Twitter streams). Imagine, instead of waiting for 20 websites to load, you get the content delivered to your computer or even your phone (if you are using an iPhone, may I suggest the ever elegant Newsstand) . You don’t have to spend time reading these websites – the feed contents are often stored locally, meaning that you can read them on the go, whenever you are free. And the updates are almost instantaneous (depending on how often your client checks for RSS updates), so you don’t have to keep refreshing those websites that interest you. The only thing you are probably going to miss is the unique site design – though that’s probably a good thing, after all, many sites are bogged down with unnecessary design elements and advertisements (not that RSS feeds are completely free of ads, but they are usually less distracting).

You probably may not understand the term RSS client. Basically, it’s a tool for you to collect all your RSS feeds together (sort of like a collection of bookmarks). Every few moments, the RSS clients will automatically send a request on your behalf and check for updates to RSS feeds. Whenever there is an update, the client will download the content from the server to store on your computer (or their own server – if it is an online client). But the user often does not see all of these – for some, it can be seen almost like a email subscription and that’s why some desktop email applications actually have a RSS client built in. (Apple Mail is one of them). But there are stand alone clients, such as Google Reader, NetNewsWire etc. that specialize in RSS subscriptions alone.

But these days, it seems that even RSS is lacking in features for some users, especially those that subscribe to many feeds, with each feed getting 20+ updates a day. I for example, subscribe to about 20 feeds, a few of which technology blogs (may I recommend TUAW and Engadget?), my friend’s blogs, news sites and of course other miscellaneous sites (such as Dilbert Comic Strip). Everyday, I get about 100+ unread articles – which means a lot of clutter. Usually I scan the titles – if something catches my eye, then I would read it in full detail – but still, it’s a lot to work with.

And that’s when I found Instapaper. Instapaper is like a bookmark manager for articles you want to read. Ever remember finding an article that you want to read later, but forgot all about it and can’t ever find it again? Or having your browser bookmarks so cluttered with articles that interested you? Well, instapaper is here to help. It comes with a handy bookmarklet (which is actually a small JavaScript script stored as a bookmark), so as you find interesting articles online, you can just add it to your instapaper account by a simple click. Pretty amazing stuff. And here’s the best part – Instapaper is integrated into many RSS clients, so you can simply throw those articles that interest you into your instapaper account. Of course, you can also flag them (or star them) for later viewing pleasure on your RSS client, but Instapaper is an online service, meaning you can sync them across devices (which is very important to me at least). After chucking those feeds that interest me to Instapaper, I mark everything as read on my RSS client and then proceed to slowly chew my way through my Instapaper collection.

But clearly there is a way that everything can be improved. And that’s something I want to try after my A levels – a project on a scale I have never tried before. I have no idea if I am even going to be able to finish it, but if it’s worth a try. But for now, while details are already quite solidly formed in my mind, it’s going to remain there for a little while 😉

Oh, my blog has a RSS feed too! Just in case you didn’t know: feed:// Or you can just follow me on Twitter, I use this excellent service, twitterfeed, to automatically update my Twitter account when I do have something new on my blog.