What does Twitter do? (Part 2)

Now that you've learned all about the most basic function of Twitter (communication) from my previous post... I actually started that post because I wanted to talk about using Twitter as a human-powered search engine, but I got to talking about the basics and soon enough I realized that if I wrote any more I was going to get boring. So here is a post dedicated entirely to Twitter as search engine.

2. Human-powered internet search (in real time!)

So, after using Twitter for a couple of months, and asking mostly rhetorical questions here and there with little response (I had few followers in those early days), I finally discovered the value of direct searching for useful info on Twitter—as opposed to simply scanning my feed for interesting stuff. Which is to say, I finally received a worthwhile response to a question.

The question: Anybody out there writing a serial Twitter novel yet?

I received a response quickly enough, and I didn't have to sort through dozens or hundreds of irrelevant search results to find what I was looking for. The simple answer to the query is "yes", and the detailed answer is, "Yes, in fact, there are at least two serialized novels being published exclusively on Twitter at the moment. They are: 'Fuel Dump' and 'Joy Motel'."

As soon as I saw the answer, I realized what probably many thousands discovered before me. But imagine: wouldn't Google be amazing if every search received a response based on a real persons' knowledge, ideally more than one person's—many more—but regardless... Twitter has that power.

Since then, I've asked questions to catch up on Coronation St. a couple of times when I've missed a week here and there; I've asked for help using Twitter itself; I've tried to unload my old stuff (turns out Craigslist is still better for this purpose), and others' stuff; I've looked for health answers and work answers and business reviews.

I don't always get the answers I'm seeking, but I usually start some conversation, which often offers up something else I'm after.

Asking your audience questions is a common tactic that bloggers use, so it's no surprise that it works with micro-blogging. Controversial questions are even better than regular ones, especially in the brevity that Twitter offers (try @nowtoronto http://bit.ly/nJNjE Who doesn't like Little Girls?).

I've used Twitter as a search engine in two ways: 1) by asking questions of my followers, and anyone to whom they care to pass on the question, 2) by using Twitter's own search power to exploit the thing's millions of users. I can simply enter a term into Twitter's search function, like "Stephen Harper" if I want to know what Canadians are saying about their prime minister, or "TTC" if I want to know what's happening on Toronto's transit system. Or I might want to know what fans are saying about my fave TV shows, True Blood and Mad Men. Or maybe I'm planning a trip somewhere exotic and I want to see what people are saying about St. Maarten or Costa Rica.

Once I see the results of those searches, I'll inevitably come across hashtags (like "#cdnpoli" for Canadian politics or "ttcu" for Toronto Transit Commission updates). Hashtags have a number of uses, but in general what they do is gather tweets on a particular topic or from a particular group so readers can find information easily. Taking the above tags as examples, instead of searching for the TTC in general, if I want to know what's happening on the TTC right now, I can click the #ttcu tag and instantly find out about delays, detours, and shuttles on the system. Or if I see the #cdnpoli tag, I can find what the top general political stories in Canada are right now, rather than those related only to Mr. Harper.

Of course, you can also peek at True Blood, or find out what the Twitter world is listening to. And you might find more information about your exotic destination with the #CostaRica tag than with the search term "Costa Rica".

I feel like I've gone on too long again!

Anyway, you're an imaginative person, and don't let me tell you how to use Twitter. Why don't you tell me how you use it?