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Are You on Twitter Yet?

“I have found it to serve so many functions at once: a way to get news, connect with friends, meet new people, and learn, all while fitting snugly into the Blackberry Bold attached to my hip,” says David Levine (OJ).

The service gained notoriety for breaking news of the Mumbai attacks last November and the fateful US Airways crash last month.

By now most of you have heard of Twitter. The Internet’s most recent child star is the talk of the town thanks to its meteoric growth, ability to break news before traditional media, and adoption by high profile types like our newly-elected President Obama. Despite its growing popularly, Twitter remains mostly misunderstood by the masses. This article aims, in less time than it will take you to finish your shrimp tempura roll, to fix that problem.

At its core, Twitter is a platform for exchanging short messages – 140 characters to be exact. The limit was imposed to match the length of a cellphone text message and led to Twitter becoming synonymous with the term “microblogging”. Once signed up, you can send “tweets” and decide to follow others’ tweets. By following someone you will receive all of their updates they post to the platform. The “follower” relationship is one way and the person you follow does not have to follow you. The Twitterverse is a flat society — it is just as easy to follow a Congressman as it is to follow your childhood friend.

So what does one tweet, you say? Well it can be many things. Tweets range from Facebook status-like updates (“heading back to the Bay Area”) to interesting news items (“check out Sandeep’s new album – www.tinyurl.com/FromTheOutside”) to reflections on the day (“I think my learning team is disintegrating – oh well”). Eventually, you engage your community more deeply and Twitter becomes more like instant messaging, just not instant. By using the @ handle you can send a public reply to someone and start a conversation. Just last week, a debate ensued between members of the RC, EC, Class of 2008 and an HBS professor about whether R&R, the case used on day one of TEM, was a typical example of entrepreneurship (the names have been omitted to protect the social status of those involved). It’s a unique experience to “listen in” on a conversation, provided you’re following both users, and the ethos of Twitter is one that encourages jumping into the discussion.

People are on Twitter for a lot of reasons. Many use it as a way to find a community of like-minded people interested in similar topics. Unlike Facebook, most Twitter users follow a good number of people they don’t know in real life. Twitter is also much more up-to-the-minute than Facebook. The service gained notoriety for breaking news of the Mumbai attacks last November and the fateful US Airways crash last month. In fact, the first picture of the crash was taken by Janis Krums on his iPhone and linked to Twitter (via a service called TwitPic). Most media pundits now concede that Twitter is the definitive source for breaking news.

Once you’ve signed up at Twitter.com, you can get started by following some high profile celebrities/organizations (visit www.twitter.com/username to follow @username)

See what our President was thinking on the campaign trail (@barackobama)

Watch Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) and Demi Moore (@mrskutcher) chat about celebrity life

Check out what MC Hammer (@mchammer) is up to with his online dance video startup, DanceJam.com

Hear what startups and trends Union Square Ventures VC Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) is thinking about

The latest from Harvard Business Review (@harvardbiz)

Follow Shaq (@The_Real_Shaq) and his action on and off the court

Interact with Comcast Customer Service (@comcastcares) and get rapid tech support

For Harvard Business School, Twitter represents a way to extend our learning and connect further with each other. Everyday, we head into an Aldrich classroom for 80 minutes to take turns debating challenging business and organizational issues with some of the sharpest minds in the world. With Twitter, we can continue this “group conversation” and challenge each others’ thoughts and opinions in this semi-public realm.

By most estimates, there are already 50-100 HBS students on Twitter, including David Levine (OJ, @davealevine) who comments, “As probably the ‘loudest’ Tweeter at HBS, people often ask me why I like it so much. I guess it is because I have found it to serve so many functions at once: a way to get news, connect with friends, meet new people, and learn, all while fitting snugly into the Blackberry Bold attached to my hip.”

As a newer addition to the Twitter community, Monica Chambers (NC, @iammonix) expresses a more cautious optimism as she tweets, “Twitter has a sort of lurking element”, to which Zahra Kanji (NC, @zarouna) replies, “But simultaneously it’s oddly cool.”

In addition to students, many HBS professors have taken to tweeting including @klakhani, @teisenmann, @mpiskorksi, and @amcafee fully embracing the trend. Professor Tom Eisenmann commented, “Twitter is a lot of fun: the 140-character constraint brings out the best in many writers. It’s also provided me with a forum for testing new ideas and even refining teaching plans.”

Then there’s the more humorous side of Twitter. The Onion (@theonion) online newspaper has some of the funniest tweets around (“K-Y Introduces New Line Of Jam”). Recent alumnus Alex Bain has his cat Furio Bain (@furiobain) tweeting his feline thoughts (“A friend wants to set me up on a date with a much older cat who’s apparently very hot. Can I call her a cougar, or is that too literal.”) It’s clear to see that the Twitterverse is a unique place. As with most new technologies, there’s really no substitute for giving it a try yourself. We (@sunilnagaraj and @prewett) look forward to seeing your tweets soon!

February 23, 2009
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