Twitter is IM (and why the limit is 140 characters)


This is the second posting in a series I’m calling Twitter 101 for all those that say “I don’t get it?”  The first post is here and if you want to see the outline it’s here.

In the first post I talked about how Twitter is a real-time news source where by subscribing to the NY Times, the Drudge Report, Wall Street Journal or TechCrunch you could see the headlines of their news stories as they were released online.

But Twitter is much more than just a news source.  I will cover all use cases in my series but in this post I want to talk about how Twitter is like IM (instant messaging) and like sending text messages.

Most young people and people with technology backgrounds use IM all the time and many people in the 40+ or non-tech crowd similarly “don’t get” IM.  I have been a big user of IM since the early 90’s when I used to program and design corporate computer systems using COBOL/CICS/DB2 (yes, I know, very unsexy).

We used to instant message people through our mainframe to tell them when we were going to compile our software code, when a team meeting was going to start or taunt them for their fantasy football loss during the weekend.  It was a little welcome relief from sitting all day at the computer.

Similarly since I ran 2 technology companies I ended up using IM to communicate with a lot of my staff.  We were in 6 different countries and IM was the easiest way of communicating for quick questions or updates.

Why not use email?  Email is asynchronous – meaning that you send me a message and then wait.  Sometimes you might end up waiting days.  I may not be checking my email or may have missed it in my massive inflow of emails.  But IM is synchronous and also gives you information about my “presence” (e.g. am I current sitting at my computer, am I busy in a meeting, am I away from my computer, am I totally offline).  So if you notice that I’m online and you send me an IM you pretty much know that I got the message right then and there.  IM also tends to be short messages so it’s easy to quickly respond with a short reply.  So for things that are time critical and where I want a quick response IM is fantastic.

Funnily enough IM is a very generational thing and I’m on the wrong side of the divide (41 as of July 2009).  I see many people in their 20’s who have everybody else’s IM addresses so it must be common place to give them out.  I don’t mind people knowing mine because I find that most people don’t abuse the privilege.  But I would never think of meeting a senior exec or anyone else in my age demo and saying, “hey man, can I have your IM address?” but I would gladly send them LinkedIn or Facebook requests.  Strange, huh?

I have IM accounts on Google (msuster), Yahoo! (marksuster), MS Live ( … yes, really stupid – I can’t change this without re “friending” all my contact list.  Microsoft – get a clue) and in Skype (msuster_work).  But I don’t want to log onto all of these sites individually.  I know that many people use Meebo for this (yes, I have an account there, too) but my favorite IM client is Digsby (which is the image you see at the top of the post).  Digsby allows me in one client to see all of my IM friends across networks as well as my Facebook IM, Facebook status updates, LinkedIn requests, Gmail mail and, yes, even Twitter.  It is a much more elegant version of older products like Trillian.

But there is a phenomenon present that I haven’t seen anybody else write about.  Once I link to you on Facebook we’ve given each other implicitly permission to IM each other because IM is a feature on Facebook for people you friend.  I think this is great and certainly don’t abuse the privilege.  One of my favorite entrepreneurs and often my example of “best practice,” Jason Nazar, often IM’s me at 11pm (or later!) when he sees me on Facebook.  It has actually been a great way to strengthen our relationship when I’m not busy with the daily grind.  If I didn’t want to be IM’d I supposed I could just log out of Facebook.  And I’m not flattered by Jason’s IM’s – several VC’s I know tell me this is his secret trick (sorry for giving your best trick away, Jas).

twitterSo finally to Twitter.  Twitter is almost instant messaging by definition.  If I send a message with an @username (no space in between) the message goes into a special inbox for that user, which is essentially IM.  I lacks some of the characteristics in that it doesn’t tell me your presence; however, if I noticed that you sent a Tweet 4 minutes ago I can guess you’re likely still online.  If you follow me then I can even send you a private message that nobody else can see by adding a “d” in front of your name (this time you need a space).

Twitter is unique in that people who IM each other through Twitter and the results are mostly public (excluding the D example above AND if my message starts with @username then you will only see it if you follow both me and the person I sent the message to.  If you want more people to see it start with any character before the @ sign).

More importantly Twitter goes one step further than Facebook.  On Facebook you can IM me if we are “connected,” whereas on Twitter anybody can IM me by sending a message with the @msuster in the message.  I love that people can more easily be in touch and especially that they are restricted to only 140 characters!  (as well the EXPECTATION of a restricted response).  If used in the right way this can be a very powerful relationship building exercise.  If used in the wrong way you can alienate somebody.  I will cover this in the next posting.

Finally, I said that Twitter was like text messaging.  I lived in Europe throughout the second half of the 90’s (and until 2005 actually) and worked a lot in the mobile sector.  I also lived and worked in Tokyo immediate after the launch of  i-mode by NTT DoCoMo in 1999.  So I saw the huge explosion of text messaging and mobile surfing (in Japan) well before it arrived in the US.  People want to communicate with other people when they’re on the road that the short form isi-modeactually quite liberating.

When Twitter was developed it was envisioned that lots of people would Tweet messages that would be send to peoples mobile phones and vice-versa (I doubt they gave much thought to the abundance of 3rd party readers on mobile devices that now exist).  The maximum size of an SMS message is 160 characters, which is why Twitter settled for the slightly smaller size of 140.  So now you know why Twitter limits the size of your messages – it was intended for SMS!

You can do a lot with text messaging in Twitter.  The way I use it is that I have it set to text message my mobile phone any time somebody sends me a DM (direct message).  Since I don’t get too many it isn’t a problem and it alerts me that I have something somebody deemed private on Twitter.  Since I’m not always on Twitter it’s nice to have this “called out.”  You can also set it to get a text message whenver a specific person sends you a Tweet.  I choose not to do this.

Next post is here –  how to get people that you want to follow you on Twitter to follow you and what to be careful of in wooing them.


4 Responses to Twitter is IM (and why the limit is 140 characters)

  1. […] two in the series is here.  I’ll be posting many more ideas of how to use Twitter in my […]

  2. I guess we weren’t that advanced in using UNIX talk on Solaris in the UCSD computer lab in the early 2000’s after all! It worked much better than the java-based AIM clone at the time and of course Meebo was years away.

  3. […] @ Both Sides of the Table) Posted Under : Product reviews Tags microblogging im instant messaging twitter mobility […]

  4. Mark,

    Another consideration of the 140 character limit is for search engines. Note the descriptions in search results are typically about 140 characters, but if the description is longer it results in ellipsis….

    Tweets avoid ellipsis and thus show up prominently is SERPs. You have only to Google you own name to see your description results. Add “Twitter” after your name and the ellipsis-free results rise to the top of the SERPs.

    I like your blog and will help bring it to the attention of others.


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