Twitter obsession

twitterYou probably came here from a link in one of my Tweets. I (like so many of you) am semi-obsessed with the social networking micro-blogging time-wasting lip smacking phenomenon that is Twitter (or “Twidder” for our American cousins ;) )

But what is the best way to view your friends tweets and post to your time line? I have been trying out a number of clients, including  dedicated programs and webpage applications. This is by no means a comprehensive review, but just a few thoughts on the ones I have tried. I am not including mobile applications here, but might cover them in a future post.

I will be considering the relevant merits of:

What are the key features? There are several things you might want to do on twitter and which client you favour will depend on what is most important to you. First of all is how to manage a large group of friends (or those you “follow” in Twitter parlance). If you have a large group, which probably comprises some real life friends, some celebrities, some automatic messenging “bots” (e.g. CNN breaking news @CNNbrk) and some people you randomly come across, you will have difficulty keeping up with and separating their tweets on the Twitter website. There it is one continuous stream and you have to scroll through or accept you will miss stuff as it goes by. Several clients allow you to make groups or lists and have them displayed either simultaneously in side-by-side columns (Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop) or with the ability to switch the group being viewed by clicking on a list in a side-bar (Friendfeed). Tweetdeck only allows 10 columns and this may limit you (you need to leave some free for searches and you main feed). However it is easy to add a long list of people to a group by ticking boxes from a list. Seesmic Desktop allows you unlimited columns which can be defined lists/groups or just search results, but it is a real pain to add a lot of people to a list because you have to add each one individually by right clicking a tweet from that user and then choosing from a pop up menu. Tedious for a large list.

Friendfeed (FF) takes a different approach. It is a website that you subscribe to that allows you to track friends not only by their Twitter feeds but also by any of the common social networking sites e.g. Tumblr, Flickr, Last.fm, Facebook etc. If a person has also subscribed to FF then they will have defined which of their services will show up in their FF feed. You just add them within FF. But what if some (or like me most) of your friends are not on FF? Well you can create an “imaginary friend” that will suck in their publically available feeds like Twitter (as long as it is not protected). It’s a slightly tedious process creating an imaginary friend profile for each of your Twitter friends just to use on FF but once you have done them, adding the odd one as and when you follow someone else isn’t too bad.

friendfeed logo

friendfeed

Another nice feature of Friendfeed is that small versions of pictures (e.g. Twitpics or Yfrog) will appear in the tweet. Same goes for any favourited YouTube videos or Flickr photostreams.

In FF you can define lists and then easily switch between them on the main page. The layout of the page is large and clear – one of the reasons I like it. It integrates well with Twitter. You can “comment” on a post in FF. This will show up as a post in Twitter (if you choose). In fact one of the main supposed advantages of FF over Twitter itself is the much better managing of discussions and conversations. However this really only works if all the people in the discussion use the FF site. If you visit the FF site and view some of the posts of some well known people (eg. Robert Scoble, technology commentator) you will see how the discussions work.

Talking of conversation following, this is one of the aspects of Twitter that I most enjoy. You see a tweet from a friend but it doesn’t fully make sense because you don’t know what question he was replying to. Most clients including the twitter website will mark such a tweet “in reply to @nnnn” Now you can usually click on this link to see the “source” tweet, but in most cases this will open a separate web page or broswer tab with the original tweet displayed. This is OK, but a bit clunky. Especially if the conversation goes back several layers. You end up with about half a dozen different tabs or windows open.

Is there a better way of seeing conversations? Well another web based site PeopleBrowsr (note no “e” in Browsr) has tried a different solution. This is an incredibly dense (as in “tightly packed” not as in “dumb”) and complex way of looking at twitter. However despite the interface being daunting at first glance it is very customisable and has a “basic” mode that strips away a lot of the complexity to make it more streamlined. It automatically integrates with your twitter account (once you input your details naturally) so you don’t need to add everyone individually like on Friendfeed. You can make as many lists/groups as you like and they are displayed very nicely in columns similar to Tweetdeck or Seesmic Desktop. The initial setting up of the groups is easy – just like Tweetdeck you choose from a list of your followees and tick boxes. However editing the list after it is setup is a little less intuitive requiring you to manually type in the @username. However it is not too difficult.

peoplebrowsr

The beauty of PeopleBrowsr is when there is a tweet that is part of a conversation (a reply-to someone else’s tweet) an icon appears next to the tweet and clicking this will instantly display all the related tweets from multiple people if necessary, right there next to the original tweet, without the need to open another page or tab. It is quite neat. The only problem is…. currently it does not seem to be working correctly. Not all conversations are correctly flagged with the “conversation” icon. However I have tweeted with the developer and I am confident it will get solved sooner or later. When it does it might make PeopleBrowsr my client of choice on the desktop.

peoplebrowsr conversation view

Are there any other options? Well the basic twitter webpage is quite basic. You can’t even easily re-tweet, except using copy & paste. Doh! However there are ways to enhance the usability of the basic http://www.twitter.com. If you use Firefox, you may be aware of the Greasemonkey addon. This is a script engine that allows custom scripts to be run within the broswer that alter the way certain webpages are displayed. If you use the “Endless Tweets” script (http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/24398) by @mislav certain enhancements are made to usual Twitter pages. As the name suggests, one feature is that when you scroll down to the bottom of the page of tweets, it automatically loads the next page so you can continue scolling back in the time line. It stops when it reaches the last tweet you have already read. However, even more useful in my view is the inline insertion of “in-reply-to” tweets. If you click on the “in-reply-to” link, instead of a new tab or browser window being opened, the source tweet will be displayed right there under the one you were viewing. If that tweet was also a reply you can click it’s in-reply-to link and so on until the whole conversation is displayed. Very slick.

You can view a video of how this works here. (Sorry tried to embed but couldn’t). It does other things too, like inline reply forms, conversion of geo-tagged co-ordinates in a person’s user profile to a Google map, and a sort of functional autocomplete for @names (doesn’t always work for me).

So, what is the best way to view Twitter on your desktop? Well so far none of the methods I have tried have been perfect. I haven’t mentioned DABR so far. It is really designed as a mobile web interface and it works well in this capacity. However on the desktop it looks quite sparse and the other options mentioned here are preferable.

I like the columns of Tweetdeck and Seesmic, but neither allow easy viewing of conversation threads. They each have some idiosyncrasies in operation although generally I like them both. Friendfeed I like because it allows me to get around the recent change to Twitter whereby you don’t get to see @replies from your friends unless you also follow the person they are replying to. I found this an interesting way to discover new conversations or people to follow and missed it when Twitter took it away. However it is annoying to have to add all your twitter friends individually to Friendfeed.

I am liking PeopleBrowsr more and more. It seems incredibly complex at first and the interface is very busy, but once you get used to it it is not too bad. It is endlessly customisable, and you can remove a lot of the features you don’t use. It updates automagically before your eyes, and once they fix the conversation threading it might be one of the best options for some people.

For simple searches and a quick check of your feed the original Twitter.com page is still good, especially when enhanced with a script like Endless Tweets.

So, for now, you pays your money and you takes your choice. (Or if you are like me you use them all simultaneously! :)  )

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