Use a Twitter Client

April 7, 2009

Use a Twitter Client

Photo by Kristian D. (license), adapted by Jon Reid

It’s easy to assume (especially for anybody used to Facebook) that the way to use Twitter is to go to the website and log in. This works and is a quick way to get started, but is probably the least effective way to read and write Twitter messages (or “tweets”). For the best user experience, free yourself from your web browser and use a Twitter client.

Not the Website?

So why would you not use the Twitter website? I mean, Twitter is a web thing like Facebook, right? …No, it’s not. Twitter is a data service; the website is one way of accessing that data.

You still need to be familiar with the web interface because you will use it from time to time:

Twitter web interface

I added red lines to highlight the most important parts. The largest section, of course, is the list of recent updates from the people you follow; this is called your timeline. Beside that in the right column are two important parts that are easily overlooked: mentions of your name (formerly @Replies) and direct messages. (See Twitter Symbols if you do not know what these are.)

But as I said, the website is just one way to interact with Twitter. Because Twitter is a data service, any computer program can interact with those services and let you access them in different ways. If you’re having trouble understanding this, think of Twitter’s 140-character limit: The whole point of this design was to make it easy to use cell phone text messaging with Twitter. So free your mind of the notion that Twitter is a “web thing”!

On Your Computer

There are many Twitter clients you can use on your computer. The most popular is TweetDeck, but I want to steer you away from that if you’re just getting used to Twitter. That’s because TweetDeck is like the Swiss Army Knife of Twitter clients; it has a lot of controls and options for power users, making it especially suited for people who follow the tweets of hundreds or thousands of people. And it’s complicated.

No, I want to keep things simple. In fact, for the sake of simplicity, I am not going to give you a list of Twitter clients with all their pros and cons. Let me just show you what I use:

"Spaz" Twitter client

This is a Twitter client called Spaz. I like it for these reasons:

  • The interface is compact and simple.
  • All messages, including direct messages, are displayed together, not separately.
  • I can see just the @replies and direct messages by clicking “Toggle”.
  • Tweets containing my @username somewhere else in the message are treated as though they were @replies.
  • Shortened web addresses (which you see as gobbledygook links in the web interface) are semi-expanded to show the name of the host site, so I can have a sense of where a link is pointing.
  • Messages I’ve read are grayed-out, while unread messages are clear black. The message I am currently reading is highlighted.
  • For Mac users, the number of unread messages is shown in the Dock:

Spaz in the Dock

(I wrote “for Mac users” because Spaz works on Mac, Windows and Linux.)

Other Twitter Clients

Your tastes and needs may vary from mine, of course. How can you learn about other Twitter clients? One way is to see what other people use. Each tweet concludes with when it was sent and how it was sent, which you can see if you look closely at the screenshots above. For example, in the Spaz example you can see “13 min ago from twitterific” which tells you that that particular tweet was sent using a client called “twitterific.” You can learn more about any Twitter client by clicking on its name.

I don’t have an iPhone, but once in a while I get to steal borrow my wife’s. The iPhone application I found that is most Spaz-like is TwitterFon.

Of course, the mighty Google can lead you to lists of Twitter clients for various platforms.

Limits of Twitter Clients

Whatever your choice, one thing to be aware of is that Twitter places a “speed limit” on clients to keep their service from being overwhelmed. So when you start up your Twitter client, it will initially fetch up to 100 tweets and nothing more. When you are only following a few dozen people, this is not a problem. But if your list grows past one hundred and some of them are prolific tweeters, some old messages may fall past your limit and not be shown.

Twitter works to make sure you don’t lose important messages, so clients actually make three separate calls to the service: “Send me direct messages,” then “Send me @replies,” and finally “Send me ordinary messages.” By giving first crack direct messages and replies, these will get through even with the limits. But any other messages that are old enough to fall beyond the limit might be missed, including any mentions of your @username, such as repeating a tweet or “retweet.” (Expect Twitter to change this soon, combining “mentions” with “replies”.)

As I said, you won’t regularly bump up against this “speed limit” until you are following a lot of people. Or perhaps (God forbid!) you take a Twitter vacation for a few days and then want to catch up. How do you do that?

  • To read someone’s old tweets, go to their profile. You can get there from a Twitter client by clicking the person. Sometimes, knowing a particular username, I will go to the Twitter website and manually add slash and the username to the address, like
  • To find old retweets or mentions of your username, use Twitter search. For example, I can find retweets of my messages by searching for “RT @jonmreid”. (The quotes make it a single phrase to search for rather than two phrases.)
  • The Twitter website has no “speed limit” restrictions, so you can always use it as a fallback.

As you can see, web interfaces to the Twitter services are still valuable; keep them not as “Twitter is a web thing” but as part of a set of tools for interacting with Twitter.

What About You?

What about you: Do you have a favorite Twitter client? Tell us what you like about it in the comments below. You may want to mention the number of people you follow and how often you are online so that people can match their usage patterns to what you describe.

Twitter Practical How-to’s series:

  1. Twitter Symbols: What Do @, d, RT, # Mean?
  2. Use a Twitter Client
  3. What to Tweet (and What Not To)
  4. Who to Follow on Twitter
  5. I’m Being Followed on Twitter!

More Twitter resources:

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.