Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The ultimate Twitter client

...is a Feed reader!

OK, not quite, but after some thinking about the top features the ideal Twitter client should have, I found feed readers have most. For the minor drawback of not being able to post messages, you get:

  • Marking messages as read

  • Marking mails as read is absolutely critical for email clients, since you can easily see at any time which messages are new. There's enough cognitive load on your brain already, it doesn't need to rescan again and again messages you've already seen. Paradoxically, many Twitter clients don't have this feature, and there are far more messages in a typical twitter timeline than in a typical email inbox.

  • Fixed replies

  • If you know what #fixreplies means, you know that some folks prefer to see the replies of their friends to people who are not also their friends. This is an excellent way to discover new people to follow and manages to capture a lot more interesting conversations. Well, if you track the individual feeds of your friends (more on that later), all of their replies are there.

  • Favorites of friends

  • Yeah, most Twitter clients let you see your own favorites, but that's backwards. Of course, you already know which tweets you've marked as favorites! What you really want to know is what others, mostly your friends have marked as favorites. You could see favorites' timelines of individual users, but who would want to check all of their friends' favorites manually? There's a real need to track an aggregated list of messages your friends recommend. The whole flood of retweet (aka "RT") messages are a response to this need. Retweeting is not a solution though, as it pollutes Twitter and especially search results with tweets with duplicate content. Ever searched for Scala on the day The Register published the article that Twitter is "dumping" Ruby for Scala (ignore the fact Twitter was not really dumping Ruby)?

  • Tracking

  • Remember the days of old when Twitter had Instant Messaging integration? And you could track messages from any user by a keyword? It couldn't scale, of course. Then there was Twitterspy, which provided identical functionality, but it fell down under the weight of popularity too. Well, you can use Twitter search. And you can create an atom feed out of your Twitter search. It does not have the real-time responsiveness of IM, but I'd take that over nothing.

  • No follow/unfollow counting

  • This is actually a feature. People have complained before that followers' count should go, since it serves no purpose other than trophy collecting and is no measure of the usefulness of someone's tweets.

    There's also Qwitter. It's a service, which shows you when someone quits, and the message after they quit. If you thought for a moment this is good, think again. Rarely ever someone decides you're not worth following after a single tweet. The corresponding reaction could be either to become too careful about what you tweet (you become too boring) or demanding an explanation from the qwitter (lame, but I heard some are doing it). Noone will chastise me if I unsubscribe from their blog because I have no time to read it, why take Twitter personally?

But some of these "features" require you to import the feed of every single one of your users. Noone in their right mind would do that manually, but there's a way to generate a list of feeds in the form of an OPML file (which many readers can import). First of all, get a list of your friends. Then apply the following XSL stylesheet:

<xsl:stylesheet version="1.0"

<xsl:output method="xml" encoding="ISO-8859-1" indent="yes"/>
<xsl:strip-space elements="*"/>

<xsl:template match="/">
<outline title="twitter">
<xsl:for-each select="/ids/id">
<xsl:attribute name="title"><xsl:value-of select="."/></xsl:attribute>
<xsl:attribute name="xmlUrl">http://twitter.com/statuses/user_timeline/<xsl:value-of select="."/>.atom</xsl:attribute>


This contains only the most essential elements of a feed, and the name of each feed is the ID, not the name, but Gooogle Reader imports the feed successfully and some readers can rename the feed from information provided in the RSS/Atom format.

For an OPML of your friends' favorites, replace "statuses/user_timeline" with favorites.