While I’ve been a user of Twitter for well over a year I didn’t really get ituntil about 6 months ago. Initially I found it just to be a curiosity as its open API provided integration opportunities between applications that would otherwise not talk to each other (namely this blog and Facebook). Lately however I’ve actually been using it for what it was originally intended, I.E. blasting seemingly inane crap onto the Internet in close to real time. That hasn’t detracted from its real value as a communication platform however and I now find it invaluable for keeping up to date on people and things that I find interesting. I guess you could say that I use it mostly as a discovery tool.
Still this hasn’t stopped people from telling me that I’m still doing it wrong. You see, whilst I understand what I’m about to say is rather cliche, I’m actually quite a busy man. Usually the only times I have free to check up on my Twitter feed are on the trip into work and the time I spend waiting around to pick up my beautiful wife after work. Whilst I feel its ok to reply or retweet something many hours after its original posting time it seems my more active Twitter buddies are rather perturbed by my actions. I’ve also missed quite a few tweets from people who were looking to catch up with me because of this, but I’ve found the alternative to be rather…destructive.
Last weekend was one of the first in a while where I made some solid progress on Geon (which is now a codename thanks to every reasonable domain being taken). The topic of my flaunting of the accepted Twitter etiquette came up at a dinner I had had with some of my fellow twitterers the night before, so I decided to try their way of doing things for a day. In the morning I turned on my pc, loaded up Visual Studio and Firefox and kept the Twitter homepage open on one monitor whilst I bashed away at my code on the other. Whilst things were off to a great start a worrying trend started to appear.
That “X new tweets” button was the worst thing for my productivity since YouTube.
You see whenever something requires my attention, like say a new email or something like that, I always feel compelled to action it as soon as I can. If I’m doing some long task and another quick task comes my way I’ll usually put the larger task on hold to knock the smaller one out of the way so I don’t have to remember to do it later. It appears that this same behaviour is triggered by the new tweets alert popping up on the Twitter homepage as I usually only have maybe a dozen or so tweets appear every 5 minutes or so. Still because of this almost obsessive compulsive habit I have I was compelled to look them over to ensure that there was nothing in there that I might want to check out or might aid my current endeavours.
Any programmer will tell you that an interruption whilst you’re coding is a sure fire way to delay any useful work for at least 15 minutes. It’s not so much that we can’t work without distraction more that when you’re right in the middle of a problem or implementing an algorithm an interruption breaks your immersion. It’s akin to trying to find the page you were on in a book that the bookmark fell out of, you know where you were up to but you’re not going to land on that page instantly. Using Twitter in real time is devastating to this kind of work and soon after I begun the experiment it ended so that I could continue making progress.
The argument can be made that there’s a happy middle ground between the two ways I used Twitter and I’ll agree with that. The realtime option is devastating to real work and long times between uses renders the core ideal of Twitter meaningless. Still there are times when being on it constantly are worth it like my real time stream of Eurovision commentary and events that I’m interested in yet can not attend. In the end however whenever I’m trying to get something done Twitter will have to take the back seat, at least until I need to add value to what I’m doing.