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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 October 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 6

Social Networking Issues

An Introduction to Twitter

In four short years, Twitter has evolved from an online social experiment to one of the most influential and used forms of online communication today. Where search engines formerly were the most-used method for retrieving information on current events, many users now turn to Twitter and rely on messages from users across the world as their source of pertinent information. Indeed, Twitter is much more than just a compendium of status messages about what your friends are doing. Many users now utilize Twitter for everything from tracking breaking news to playing online games.

Twitter has also changed the way that many respond to emergency situations. Shortly after the Nashville floods, a local pastor requested supplies and volunteers via Twitter. Hundreds of people responded and offered their assistance in a time of crisis. Government organizations use Twitter as a way to disseminate information. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey offers several earthquake-related Twitter services, largely based on real-time reports from its users.

Getting Connected

To connect to Twitter, simply create an account on Twitter's website. The sign-up process is pretty painless, and the website is relatively accessible with a screenreader. Although the website can be used to send messages, follow other users, or update one's profile, seasoned users will usually download one of the many Twitter clients that allow one to interface with the service using a computer or mobile device. A listing of some of the most popular accessible clients is provided below.

Qwitter is the most popular desktop client for the Windows operating system and was written specifically for screenreader users. It works using a hotkey system, offering access to its wide array of commands regardless of the user's current application.

Macintosh users can try Nambu, a client whose latest version has been made compatible with the VoiceOver screen access program.

Twitter clients are also available for some popular mobile phone platforms. iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad users can try Echofon, a free Twitter app that is fully accessible using the built-in VoiceOver screenreader. Users of Dragon's dictation software can also send a message using voice recognition. Tweets60 is the most popular choice for users of Symbian cell phones, such as the many models from Nokia.

As for notetakers, the Icon from LevelStar includes a Twitter client in its built-in software, which offers basic functionality. Users of other notetakers can access Twitter through the website.

The developers of Accessible Twitter offer a Web-based interface to Twitter with strict accessibility standards at the forefront of their development. Some screen-access users may prefer this version.

Using Twitter

The foundation of Twitter is short messages commonly referred to as "tweets." A single tweet can be up to 140 characters long, so as you might expect, a lot of shorthand is used. A tweet may include a status update of what you are doing, a link to a website you wish to share, or simply some random musings. There's practically no limit to the types of messages that people tweet, as you'll quickly realize by browsing other people's accounts. It's also important to note that you are not required to tweet anything to use Twitter. Many users will spend most of their time reading messages from others instead of sending lots of their own updates.

If you wish to read another person's tweets as they send them, you will have to "follow" that person. Twitter will show you updates from the people you follow in near real-time as they post them. You can also see a list of people who are following you from your Twitter client or the website.

Twitter has adopted several special types of tweets, allowing you to reply to other people or send a message about a particular topic. For example, one can reply to another person's message by putting an at sign (@) before their Twitter name. If you would rather send someone a message privately, putting a "D", a space, and then their Twitter username before the message does just that. This is called a direct message, and the person you are writing to must be following you in order for you to send it. Many Twitter clients will include built-in commands to send replies and direct messages, so remembering these codes becomes unnecessary.

Hashtags are a way for Twitter users to follow a particular event and read tweets from people on a specific topic. Hashtags are so named because one types a hash or number sign before the word in a tweet. For instance, participants of the 2010 California State University-Northridge International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (CSUN) in San Diego used the hashtag #csun10 to talk about the various sessions, exhibits, and other events happening at the conference. You can search for a particular tag to follow an event or topic.

Twitter offers a feature called "trends" that allows users to keep on top of the most popular discussions at a given moment. Most clients offer a way to view the top trends on Twitter based on the words or phrases most tweeted by users. Often, names of famous people, places, or sports teams will appear as trends when news has recently occurred that involves them.

Staying Safe

When you send a standard tweet, it is normally stored and posted to Twitter's website for anyone to view, regardless of whether they are following you. A small number of users, however, make their accounts private so only those who are following you can read your comments. If you choose to keep your tweets public, it is highly recommended that you avoid posting sensitive information, such as your address, passwords, or anything you wouldn't want to turn up on a Google search. Although it is possible to delete a message you have posted, it may be archived on a search engine or by other users. Alternatively, direct messages are private, so these will not be searchable by other users.

Like most forms of online communication, Twitter users are sometimes susceptible to spam and malicious attacks. These generally can be avoided by following a couple simple rules. First, make sure you set a strong password that includes both letters and numbers and would not be easy to guess. Malicious users have hacked into Twitter accounts with weak passwords and sent messages to all of their followers without the account holder's knowledge. Also, be wary of suspicious messages from other users with website links to places you do not recognize. One Twitter scam involved sending users links to a quiz website that ultimately compromised their account. If you are unsure, you can reply back to the original author and have them verify the link. Generally speaking, however, a few smart decisions will help you to stay safe while using Twitter.

Who to Follow

With millions of users, Twitter offers a vast amount of information--so much so that it may be hard to find people to follow at first. Here are a few I recommend.

BreakingNews is one of the most popular accounts to follow for raw news highlights as they happen. Often, information on major events is posted here before it reaches other major news outlets. Also, check to see if your local television station or newspaper uses Twitter to post news updates. Stay safe by following the stream of severe weather watches and warnings from Severewarn, which will tweet whenever a major weather alert is sent out anywhere in the country. Similarly, amber_alert will let you know of missing children in the hopes you may have information that can be used to find them.

The White House posts updates on Twitter, logically using the screen name "whitehouse." Many state and local politicians also maintain Twitter accounts to communicate with their constituents. On the lighter side, consider searching for your favorite celebrity, musician, or band as most have Twitter accounts to talk to their fans or post updates.

Many popular organizations for the blind use Twitter to update their users on their latest happenings. Bookshare and RFBandD are two such examples. Alternatively, for updates on the latest assistive technology news, try Serotek's SeroTalk account or BlindBargains.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention AFB's own Twitter account, a simple way to keep up with the latest happenings AFB news. The Twitter username is AFB1921, signifying the year the organization was founded.

Conclusion

Twitter is rapidly changing the way we communicate, and for once, plenty of accessibility options exist that allow blind and visually impaired computer users to be a part of the revolution. From organizing aid for local disasters to talking about the happenings of your favorite sports team, Twitter offers limitless opportunities for account holders. More than just a fad, it is quickly becoming a necessary lifestyle tool to stay ahead in business and be a part of the social scene.

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Copyright © 2010 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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