Twitter and the text message


How to send and receive Twitter messages using only SMS

After two years away I rejoined Twitter earlier this year. John, as excited as ever, told me how much the system had improved. ‘You’ll never send a text message again’, he said, trying to impress upon me the usefulness of direct messages and @replies.

It was deliberate hyperbole, and it was of course completely wrong. Direct messages can be useful but they’re no good in cases where you need to get the message in time.

But things are changing. If you’re a Vodafone or O2 customer in the UK (together the two companies cover around 50% of the mobile phone market), things just got a whole lot better. You can now use your mobile phone as you would Tweetie or Twitterific: as a Twitter client. You can send and receive messages, both public and private, as SMS text messages. And it’s free.

Turn off that firehose

By default you’ll receive messages sent by your followers as usual. Even by our modern standards of information overload, that sounds a bit too much to me — easily hundreds of messages a day. Turn that off to save your sanity. But you can set your phone up to receive only direct messages: from your devices settings change ‘devices updates’ to ‘direct messages’ and click save.

I can have a conversation on Twitter without being anywhere near a computer. I can speak to someone on my mobile without even knowing their number. Even better, I can receive text messages from people without giving out my number. If you’re not sure you want to give that needy client your number, follow each other on Twitter and tell them to send a direct message instead. Suddenly, I’m in charge of who can and can’t contact me.

More than that: think of the possibilities for personalised text messaging services. Want to receive a message every time a wicket falls in the Ashes this week? Write a web service to send yourself direct messages, and they’ll arrive on your mobile. Let someone else do the heavy lifting.

Usernames as interfaces

One of the first things humankind invented was identifiers. You, me, him. Then came names, and then addresses when humans started travelling further. Telephone numbers, possibly the worst interface to a technology yet invented (who decided an eleven-digit code was a good idea?) have been hanging around for the last few decades, but are now slowly disappearing — how many of your friends’ mobile numbers do you actually know?

And now it’s the turn of the username as an identifier. My Twitter username tells you where to find me, how to find me, and how you can contact me. And if I can give out riggbot, my easy-to-remember Twitter username, instead of a phone number, that’s alright by me. And, perhaps, if John tries his hyperbole in a few years time, he may well be right.