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Book Review: The Twitter Book by Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein

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Recently baffling new terms have entered the national vocabulary: retweet, tweets, #followfriday, and just what does that # stand for? Others may be familiar with the lingo, but ask why Twitter matters.

Not surprisingly, bookstores already stock Twitter guidebooks, but few are as comprehensive yet brief as The Twitter Book by Tim O'Reilly and Sarah Milstein. Written and presented in Twitter style — short, conversational, and sporting minimal graphics — The Twitter Book serves as a helpful guide for both novices and experienced users.

As the authors rightly point out, Twitter possesses paradoxical characteristics. While the service seems user-friendly with its clean look and concise directions, “it can be surprisingly hard to figure out. The screens aren't particularly intuitive, and the jargon and symbols obscure.” Therefore this small manual clearly explains what “retweeting” is, and the function of hashtags (those terms starting with #). They also define the still emerging etiquette of Twitter, such as appropriate topics for posts and not bombarding new followers with messages such as “Thanx for the add! Can't wait to know ya!”

O'Reilly and Milstein illustrate the latter principle using a humorous example: Imagine attending a conference, chatting with a few people before the next presentation. “Suddenly, someone shouts across the room, 'Nice to meet you! You can learn more about me and my consulting service at www.iampushy.com.' From another corner of the room you hear, 'Thanks for being in the same room! Can't wait to get to know you!'” Obviously these outbursts irritate and seem overly aggressive. As in other sections of the guide, the authors draw analogies from everyday life to make Twitter more approachable and easily understood.

Some of the most interesting information The Twitter Book provides derives from their “tips” balloons, located at the bottom of numerous pages. Conducting faster searches using Twitter's “advanced search” screen, sorting messages, and subscribing to Twitter feeds using RSS are just a few little-known tricks buried within the site. Third party applications also receive attention, although the authors mainly focus on well-known programs such as Twhirl, TweetDeck, and mobile applications such as Tweetie and Twitterberry. Even more beneficial are lists of sites for checking topic trends, measuring how frequently certain tweets are read, and counting the number of hits for sites recommended through Twitter posts. Those bored with the turquoise background on their home page will find suggestions for creating, locating, and uploading new wallpaper absolutely crucial.

Finally, O'Reilly and Milstein devote the last section of The Twitter Book to explaining why Twitter is significant. They list uses for businesses, such as promotions, customer service, and even virtual meetings. In addition, they stress how not to use Twitter, particularly for spamming. If businesses want to attract followers, the authors contend, they should actually tweet infrequently about their own products; include information about related topics rather than relentlessly bombarding followers with advertisements.

Each page includes a screenshot on the left-hand page; while the visuals further explain various topics, the authors occasionally do not directly refer to the illustrations. In addition, the screenshots frequently appear a bit blurry, perhaps due to the matte paper. Higher quality graphics and more explicit references to the various examples would further clarify the authors' points.

Overall, the screenshot quality is a small issue compared to the general practicality of the book. The Twitter Book's compact size makes it convenient for storage and quick reference. Twitter novices will find brief yet informative definitions of the service, and why they should sign on. Experienced users may find some information too elementary, but should appreciate the suggested sites and programs for extending Twitter's numerous features. Reading The Twitter Book just may change the way people tweet – for the better.

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About Kit O'Toole