Psst! Are you Twittering yet?

It’s no secret: Using Twitter’s short and sweet message blasts can be a great way to communicate

Twitter terms

Tweets: The messages of 140 or fewer characters sent via Twitter.

Twitter feed: The stream of messages from a particular sender.

Twitterati: Heavy users of Twitter.

Twitterer: A person who uses Twitter.

Michael Sauers, technology innovation librarian at the Nebraska Library Commission, uses Twitter, a free message-routing and social-networking tool, to communicate with colleagues and spread the word about his organization’s reference service. He encourages others to check out Twitter for themselves — but don’t ask him to describe it.

“People are always asking me to explain it to them, and there really is no good way to do that,” Sauers said.

“My best answer is that it’s a mix between e-mail and chat, where you get the benefits of the group without requiring the group to be there all the time.”

Twitter might be hard to describe, but that hasn’t deterred thousands of people — including a growing number of government officials — from using the microblogging service to quickly and efficiently update others on their activities.

For example, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory use Twitter to send snippets of information about the Phoenix Mars Lander mission to interested parties via the Web, mobile phones and other communications platforms. The Twitter feed broke the news that ice had been discovered on Mars. It has gained the attention of nearly 33,000 loyal followers, which makes it the fifth most popular Twitter channel in the country, according to Twitterholic.com. Presidential candidate Barack Obama is No. 1 with about 60,000 followers.

“We seem to be reaching a different audience than we do with other venues, and it’s an audience that seems tailor-made for the types of information that we’re putting out,” said Veronica McGregor, media relations manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the author of its Twitter feed.

“They’re very much into technology, and as one person said recently, ‘This is exactly the amount of information I want to know per day about a mission,’” she added. “They don’t want to read a big, long article about the mission every few months. They just like these tiny bursts of information that allow them to know exactly what we’re up to today.”

Other government agencies are following suit. The Joint Forces Command began using Twitter in April to entice visitors to its Web site and spread the word about live blogs and speaking engagements by the organization’s commanders. The Office on Women’s Health in the Health and Human Services Department uses the tool to deliver the latest medical news and advice about preventive health care.

Many in government see Twitter as a way to connect with people they might not have reached before.

“What everyone is trying to do is to find a way to reach one more person by any means necessary to bring them into the work that your organization is doing,” said Gregg Your, command information officer at the Joint Forces Command. His Twitter channel has 90 followers, including active-duty members of the military, veterans, defense contractors and members of the general public. “People want to get their communications in their own way, and Twitter is another means that we can get it to them.”

To the point
The two-year-old Web 2.0 collaborative technology lets users send text-based messages to recipients who have signed up to receive them. Twitter messages must be no more than 140 characters long, which for many users is part of the appeal. The first sentence in this paragraph is 136 characters long, counting spaces, which means it’s almost the maximum length of a single Twitter message.

Messages appear as posts on the sender’s Twitter profile and are then sent to followers.

“It’s the closest we’ve seen online to a real-time group conversation,” said Shel Holtz, principal at Holtz Communication + Technology . “It’s not actually real time, but it’s close.”

The tool is not specific to any one platform so users can send and receive messages with the latest communication tools, including cell phones, instant messaging, e-mail or other Web 2.0 applications, such as Facebook or FriendFeed.

The service has more than 1 million users and has gotten so popular so quickly that the back-end system was overwhelmed and went off-line several times this summer.

“The key to Twitter is that you’re not receiving these messages in isolation,” Holtz said. “People are following you, and you may be following some of them, and they’re following other Twitterers, so they tend to be aware of more than the Twitter stream. They may also be reading each other’s blogs, so it quickly becomes a community of shared interests.”

That feature enables the service to be highly interactive. McGregor said that minutes after sending an alert about the Phoenix Mars Lander, she typically receives 15 to 20 questions in response.

“I try to respond to the best questions, or if there are multiple [versions] of the same question, I will post them to a frequently-asked-questions section on our Web site and direct them there,” she said. “But it’s manageable. And it’s fun, too. You’re hearing wonderful thoughts from the audience and some criticisms, too, but if you want to, you can respond immediately.”

Agencies can use Twitter for more than sending news alerts. They can gain insight into constituent concerns by subscribing to receive messages — or tweets — from other Twitterers or by allowing agency employees to Twitter within like-minded groups.

Agencies can also use the service internally to network, set up meetings, solicit recommendations or advice on ideas, announce job openings and ask for referrals, and collaborate on projects.

Kelly Corsette, public information manager for Peoria, Ariz., said he uses Twitter to announce public events, but thinks it could also be a good emergency response tool. He was inspired to create a Twitter feed after hearing that tweets from California residents during the 2006 wildfires supplied crucial information to first responders.

“It certainly bears consideration to figure out if this would help communicate useful information during an emergency situation,” Corsette said.

However, not every type of communication is appropriate for Twitter. Highly complex topics, sensitive information and messages that could easily be misconstrued are better left to other media. Agencies also must consider their audience. For example, employees at the American Embassy in London don’t send tweets to busy senior policy-makers. And McGregor is careful not to send too many Web links or answer the same question repeatedly because many of her messages go to mobile devices and she could end up annoying recipients.

“I think you have to be careful not to do a data dump, where you’re basically spamming people three or four times a day,” Corsette said. “I’d say that would make users unsubscribe to you pretty quickly.”
Still, most observers say Twitter’s flexibility and ease of use make it something agencies should experiment with.

“I think the uses to which it can be put and the ways it can be used are still being uncovered,” McGregor said. “It’s just becoming more and more a wonderful tool to use.” 

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