Twitter and me
I have been using twitter for a couple of months now, and I've come to some simple conclusions.
There are, as far as I can see, only two good reasons to use twitter: to "monitor the zeitgeist in real time," as you might say, or to see who's talking about you.
Those two systems are completely different.
In the first case, you run one of the many twitter clients, subscribe to a lot of people's feeds, and just let the random 140-character-or-less messages flash on your screen, embedding themselves into your subconscious. I think this could be very valuable for, say, people interested in marketing to some combination of geeks and teenage girls, which seem to be twitter's primary audiences. I'm not (entirely) kidding; if you're into market research, I think this twitter stuff could actually be useful to you.
The name "twitter" comes from this idea. The original concept of "twitter" comes from radio. If you mistune your radio completely, you get noise; if you mistune it by just a little, you get something as unintelligible as noise, but which actually contains a lot of signal. You just can't make out what the signal is... but if you listen just a little bit closer, then maybe...
I tried that method for about three days. Then I turned it off; it's not for me. The way I see it, background twitter uses up about one slot in your brain. Rumour has it that the average human mind can hold around 7 things in it at once; some people, maybe only 5 or 6, and if you're super-smart, maybe 8 or 9, but 7 is about normal. So if you're normally a 7, twitter makes you about a 6. It effectively lowers your ability to think; in exchange, you get more raw information, and maybe you don't need to think as much.
And like I said, that works fine for some people. But if you're a programmer, you need to get into The Zone. The Zone is that state where all the slots in your mind are fully engaged in solving one specific problem. If you waste one of those slots, you're not just 6/7ths as effective; you could be 1/10 or 1/30 as effective. Effective zoning is where the rumoured 10x difference between "great" and "good" programmers comes from.
So anyway, that's not for me.
But I still use twitter for reason #2: tracking keywords. This is awesome, and takes very little work, and it doesn't have to interrupt you. Just go to search.twitter.com and sign up for some rss feeds that track whatever words you think are interesting, like your name, or the name of your company, or some products you made / care about / etc.
Like magic, you'll suddenly be tied into a real-time feed from perfect strangers telling you how people feel about those topics at that exact moment. If you chose your topics wisely, this can be extremely useful.
For example, I randomly mentioned on twitter that I was frustrated with signing up for Microsoft Bizspark, because you had to go through a value-added reseller, and they all kept wanting to add value ("come meet with us!") and I didn't really need any added value, I needed free freakin' MSDN. Well, it turns out someone (actually a few people) at Microsoft had a twitter search for anyone using the word "Bizspark." They had me signed up for Bizspark within five minutes. I don't know if twitter is gimmicky, or a big fad, or the next big thing, or what, but I love those guys now. It seems like an awfully cheap and easy way to do the same for your own customers too.
Random suggestion to Google
Wouldn't it be awesome if there was a "Google Alerts" for the whole web, not just news? I'm almost never in the news, and the companies I work with are often too small or early stage to be in the news. But people still mention them. I don't really need twitter at all; I just want to know when people are talking about certain things.