Twitter unpacked (Notes from our BBC Learning Lunch)

We were invited to BBC Cymru Wales last Friday to present a “Learning Lunch” about Twitter. Above are the slides we used.

It was a new presentation for us, with Tom and I alternating places. I’m very happy with the way it turned out. We wanted to expand the imagination around Twitter to show different uses of it, away from celebrity stories like Stephen Fry and Oprah Winfrey which have been already well publicised.

We also wanted to use Twitter as an example of a social web platform modelling the emerging culture of sharing. We didn’t want this to be tech evangelism for Twitter, we talked about the limitations of Twitter and its pitfalls (particularly around compliance issues in organisations, especially media) as well as the potential benefits.

Afterwards, someone raised the point that we didn’t introduce Twitter in the context of blogging. I think that’s because blogging is well established. Blogging lives. And what’s more blogging is in rude health! It has just diversified into different forms. Blogging is part of our culture for many people, particularly the young who are familiar with blog-like features on social networking sites and don’t remember a time when the web never existed. Again, blogging has so many forms and uses. On an elementary level a blog is a “website organised by time” (who first said that?). As such a blog is very flexible – anything you want and not just an “online diary”. Likewise for Twitter – which can trace some of its conventions and features back to blogging.

Here are some handy links related to our presentation.

Newbie’s Guide To Twitter by Chris Brogan

The comments are worth a look too.

Twitter For Absolute Beginners

A list of mere guidelines.

Twitter essentials

Sign up for an account at Twitter’s website. The default web interface can be clumsy, so Twhirl and Tweetdeck are fairly good desktop client programs. Mobile clients are plentiful – do a search for your phone or look at the tweetstream to see what other people are using.


This is the dominant software client for posting photographs taken on your mobile phone – arguably the best but not the only one.

URL shortening with

The 140-character limit of Twitter has led to widespread adoption of URL shortening services. Our favourite is because of the analytics data it gathers. In general, if you can measure something easily, then measure it. It might be useful later.

Joshua Schachter led a recent debate on the risks of trusting your URLs to a single point of failure. (In short, if the shortening service goes down, a large number of web links become inaccessible too.)

Twitter Search

It’s good for real time search. More difficult for finding older tweets (needle in a haystack problems).

Here’s an example of search feeds – if you’re interested in Caernarfon you can monitor mentions of the word (as well as the Welsh mutations). Twitter provides an RSS feed so you can avoid manually searching.


The central hashtags site has different analytics to Twitter Search.

Here are people using the hashtag #apprentice to talk about the TV programme The Apprentice (may have quietened by the time you read this). As far as we’re aware, this discussion and hashtag emerged without any official sanction from the programme itself.

Other tools for spotting/tracking emerging stories

There are stacks of applications that help you track events and news stories in real time. Here are just two. Twitscoop is a live display of words trending across Twitter as a whole, displayed as a live tag cloud. (This could be useful for generating “and finally” item ideas for news programmes, for example, as somebody pointed out afterwards.)

Monitter allows you to track search phrases, defaulting to the top three.


It seems like a distant memory now but when the snow hit the UK earlier this year, a hashtag convention emerged – #uksnow postcode mark-out-of-10e.g. for a slightly above average snowfall in the centre of Cardiff you could post “#uksnow CF11 6/10”. This hashtag convention spread. Noticing this, enterprising coder Ben Marsh wrote a small application to represent this data as a map. We mentioned this example because it was a fascinating use of the Twitter API which generated a new view on the UK snowfall when satellite images may have been difficult because of cloud cover. It demonstrates how rapidly these applications for mashing up data can be written (during a news event). Here’s the live map, looking green and mostly snow-free at the time of writing.

and here’s a blog post from Ben Marsh with an early screen shot from 2nd February 2009.

and links to media coverage of the software. Who in the UK can resist a bit of weather reporting?

Why do people write these mash-ups? Well – for fun, curiosity, kudos and occasionally for financial gain. is an open source Twitter-like service (“roll your own Twitter”) for when the public Twitter may not be appropriate for your application. It can also be installed on a private company intranet.

If you want to see it installed and in action, is the publicly hosted version.

Here’s another example of an installed and customised which was made by tech journalist Leo Laporte.