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What is Microblogging?

By Scott Nesbitt - Sunday, April 26, 2009

Social networking. That phrase has been all the rage over the last couple of years. With sites like Facebook, MySpace and the like, more and more people are connecting with each other and interacting online. Blogs, too, are a popular way of sharing information and attracting an audience of people with similar interests.

But more and more people are making that kind of interaction quicker and shorter. Instead of writing long posts or email messages, they're tapping out quick missives telling their friends (and the wider world) what they're up to at the moment.

How do they do that? By microblogging.


What is microblogging?

Microblogging is the act of posting short messages to the Web. And when we say short, we mean short. A microblog post, which is called an update (or, in the case of the most popular service out there, a tweet), can be a maximum of 140 characters, including spaces. In case you're wondering, the 140 character limit comes from microblogging's inspiration: SMS text messages sent from a mobile phone. A microblog update looks like this:

Presenting advice from Garr Reynolds: think naturalness not perfection - http://tinyurl.com/df26mj

Simply posting a 140 character message somewhere on the Web isn't the way it works, though. You have to use one of the many microblogging services that are out there. More on these in a moment. These services collect and publish updates in different ways. The central form of aggregation is called a timeline. That's just a collection of updates. The main page (or thereabouts) of most microblogging sites have a public timeline, which lists all of the latest posts from users. You can have a timeline of your own updates, which is on your own page (for example, http://identi.ca/scottnesbitt).

Microblogging services also allow people to subscribe to (also referred to as following) your updates, or at the very least read them. People can follow you or read your updates at the microblogging site or using software. A future TechTip will look at some popular microblogging clients.

As you've probably guessed, microblogging is very similar to conventional blogging. A microblog can focus on one topic, and can be used for personal or business reasons. The biggest difference is the length of the post and the immediacy. Microblogging is definitely more immediate – updates are instantaneous. In the time it takes for a conventional blogger to write and publish a post, a microblogger can post any number of updates.


Why do it?

Most microbloggers (in the words of a popular microblogging service) do it to “communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

A lot of people who microblog find it's an easier alternative to conventional blogging, or even using sites like FaceBook and MySpace. All you need to do is sign up and start typing. You don't have to worry about tweaking the look and feel of your microblog, or anything like that.

It's not just folks with time on their hands who do it, either. A lot of businesses and consultants put considerable effort into microblogging.


What's it good for?

Think of a group. Chances are that members of that group are microblogging. Friends microblog to keep up with each other, and to exchange information and gossip. Other people do it to share information or to promote their pet causes. Businesses microblog to get feedback from customers and to announce new products or share news. Consultants microblog to promote their business and to showcase their expertise.  There have even been cases in which writers serialize the stories or poems that they're working on at a microblogging site. Nigerian author Ben Okri, for example, recently published a poem on a popular microblogging site.

On a recent visit to Toronto, actor and Twitter user LeVar Burton posted a message asking for a good place to have a pint. Not only did he get the recommendation, he also met up with a bunch of fans at that venue for what was a meetup of microbloggers in the real world.

Something that's become popular is people microblogging during presentations and conferences. They're sharing their thoughts, and the thoughts and ideas of presenters, with both fellow conference attendees and the wider world. Believe us, it's a lot easier and more immediate than liveblogging.


Where does microblogging fall flat?

One complaint about microblogging is that it can be more than just a bit narcissistic. Remember Web pages, circa 1996 or 1997? Or most personal blogs? Updates can be just as vapid. For many, except maybe someone's followers, the fact that the microblogger just got back from walking the dog and is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich or that they're trying to read Finnegan's Wake for the sixth time isn't all that captivating.

While microblogging started as way of keeping friends, family, and classmates up to date, for many it's become a race to collect the most followers. They'll post updates about anything that will attract readers. Many purists view this as being insincere, since the person posting the updates really has little interest in what their writing about. They just want to be popular.


What services are out there?

The undisputed king of microblogging services is arguably Twitter. You've probably read about Twitter in a newspaper, a magazine, or a blog post. You might even know someone who regularly uses Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people use Twitter, and post countless updates (called tweets in the Twitter world).

Make sure to follow Geeks.com on Twitter!

But it's not the only game on the Web. While other microblogging service may not come close to denting Twitter's market share, they do offer alternatives to the service. The services (around 100 of them worldwide) all work in generally the same way. The only things that differ are the terminology they use, some of the features, and the number of users. Here are a few popular services:

First up, Jaiku. Now owned by Google, Jaiku allows you not only to post updates (called jaikus) to the general public, but also to channels which are collections of updates on a single topic.

A service that's gaining in popularity is identi.ca. What sets identi.ca apart from most other microblogging services is that it's built using Open Source software. In the words of the developers: “If you don't like how Identi.ca works, you can take your data and the source code and set up your own server (or move your account to another one).”

An interesting take on microblogging comes in the form of Yammer, which has been termed “Twitter with a business model”. What makes Yammer unique is that it's focused on internal communication in companies. Instead of being based on the question “what are you up to?”, Yammer is based on the question “What are you working on?”. It's like an internal discussion board, but limited to 140 characters.

Finally, there's Plurk. In addition to letting you post short text updates (called plurks), Plurk lets you share images and videos from YouTube with your followers. Being able to share images and video definitely adds a very interesting dimension to microblogging.


Is it right for you?

That depends. Some people will always think that microblogging is a waste of time and bandwidth. Others swear by it. We've met a number of people on both sides of that fence, and even more who inhabit the middle ground between them. The latter group uses microblogging, but isn't consumed by it.

The only way to find out if microblogging is right for you is to give it a try. Take a look at a microblogging service on the Web. Spend a week or two, and see how you like it – both as an updater and a follower. You might find that microblogging is a lot more fun and interesting than you thought it would be.

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