Why Twitter?

While many on the tech scene are extremely familiar with Twitter, I’ve heard several in the over-30 crowd remark recently that they’ve either never used Twitter, rarely use it, or have questions about the intent or functionality.  This post is mostly for those who don’t already use Twitter on a regular basis.

twitter logoHistory
Twitter is an Internet microblogging service created in March, 2006, by Jack Dorsey (@jack), who later also founded Square (which we reviewed here last year.)  Twitter grew up in the world of SMS text messaging, allowing users to post status updates of up to 140 characters in length using the cell phone technology available at the time.  SMS text messaging actually has a 160 character limit, but twitter reserves 20 characters for the user’s address.

Many users’ Twitter feeds represent stream of consciousness musings or short status updates on their day’s activities.  Twitter feeds maintained by a brand or limited to a specific topic are also very common.  An example of a single tweet is shown below.

a tweet

Twitter Conventions
Twitter allows a user to follow another’s Twitter feed, and receive those tweets in a variety of means including via the original SMS.

Twitter usernames are aways preceded by the @ symbol, such as @snnyc.  All usernames must be unique.  In certain instances, you see text displayed just prior to the @ symbol as well.  That text is a descriptive name, and does not need to be unique.  The use of the @ symbol has caused some confusion given it’s prior use as a separator in e-mail addresses.  The two uses are distinct and unrelated, so you can forget what you know about e-mail for the moment.

Hashtags are preceded by the pound sign #, and typically mark a general topic that you think others may be looking for or talking about.  These days, it’s common to see a Twitter hashtag pop up at the beginning of a television show, as the network hopes that you’ll discuss the show using the specified hashtag, potentially raising the show’s profile among would-be watchers.  An example might be #NCIS.  Hashtags are often used for trending news topics as well.

Twitter offers the option to retweet a tweet that you’ve seen posted from another user.  Some posts will blatantly ask for re-tweets in an effort to reach a larger audience.  I somewhat regularly retweet tech links that I find interesting.

At the time of this writing, Twitter is #10 on Alexa’s list of top sites on the Internet, behind the likes of Google (#1), Facebook (#2) and YouTube (#3).  As of last Fall, Twitter officially has 100,000,000 users, as reported by Time.  Some of the biggest stories of the year drove thousands of tweets per second.

These days the types of Twitter clients have proliferated.  In addition to using SMS or Twitter.com, users can post updates, follow other users and browse particular topics from: clients for Apple’s iOS and Mac OS X, Google Android, Microsoft Windows, and even from 3rd-party clients for Linux.  Functionality has been added over time as well, in keeping with web and mobile technical advancements.  With the modern-day Twitter client for Apple iOS, for instance, one can post a tweet that includes both a photo and one’s current location derived via the phone’s GPS function.

Most web content creators now offer the option to easily tweet their content or follow them, along with other actions such as Liking them on Facebook.

Many web applications are taking advantage of Twitter’s proliferation and adding it to their own product.  For instance, the business networking site LinkedIn allows its users to add their Twitter username, automatically include their tweets in their LinkedIn profile, and broadcast tweets out to one’s LinkedIn network.  I would never take advantage of this particular integration myself, as occasionally I tweet a political or religious comment that I’d rather not tie directly to the resume that would-be employers often see first.  On the other hand, I do like the Twitter integration in the right column of this blog, which we’ll talk more about in a few paragraphs.

Most large companies now actively monitor Twitter for mentions of their brand or products.  For instance, last year I mentioned State Farm in a tweet, and received a response from @StateFarm.  More recently, I tweeted a technical question to @mediatemple regarding their WordPress hosting service, and received the answer by reply in about four minutes.  Among other topics, it’s probably wise not to tweet about job interviews or business dealings that have yet to be finalized, as any organizations mentioned will notice.

Given the convenience of communicating to an audience, Twitter has become a key tool in communicating among like-minded participants in political and social movements.  Many have suggested that Twitter helped amplify the 2011 Egyptian revolution and ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak.  More recently, Occupy Wall Street (@OccupyWallSt) has used Twitter and other social media to communicate their cause.  In part due to Twitter’s power of communication, the FCC is now seeking feedback on whether it is appropriate for law enforcement to have the ability to shut down cell phone networks in certain instances.  (I vote no.)

Twitter offers two levels of openness.  You can allow anyone, including total strangers, to follow you, as probably the majority of users do.  That’s kind of the point on Twitter.  Or you can set yourself up to protect your tweets so that only people who you allow can follow you, more in keeping with a Facebook experience.  Second, you can post a public tweet or alternately send a direct message to an individual recipient, the latter of which is supposed to be private.  Despite the fact that it’s fairly simple to use, several people have fallen victim to publicly tweeting something that they meant to keep private.  As Representative Anthony Weiner recently reminded us all, never tweet something that you wouldn’t want to read about in The New York Times, or you soon may be reading there about your own downfall.  The best policy is to use enough discretion up front that you welcome the wider world to read any of your tweets should they be interested.

Secondarily, exercise discretion over including your location on your tweets, either in the text itself or as a location tag from your GPS-enabled smartphone.  It’s probably not the best idea to provide real-time tweets describing your vacation while you’re 1500 miles from home.  Second, it’s probably not wise to include a location tag on a message such as “Sitting on my couch at home” that reveals the precise location of your residence.  Finally, be aware that your photo can contain a geotag revealing the location that it was taken.  The US Military is becoming sensitive to soldiers creating geotagged photos of military bases and operations that our enemies could use to their advantage.

Personal Use
I personally use Twitter for basically two things.  First, you’ll note the most recent posts from my Twitter feed @snnyc to the right, close to the top of this blog.  While I can’t write a full article as often as I’d like, there are many items of significance going on in the tech industry at any time.  I attempt to make the tweets relevant to readers of the snnyc blog, versus, say, covering where I ate lunch that day.  And when I do post a new full-length article on my blog, I tweet out a link as well to potentially draw in a few curious readers.  In the last week, Twitter referred 15 readers to my blog, as reported by Google Analytics.

Secondly, I use Twitter as a primary news source.  Having chosen to follow the Twitter feeds of a decent number of journalists, politicians, newsmakers, comedians and technical sources, my Twitter account’s home screen on my iPhone typically contains several recent mentions of any developing story.  By following enough diverse sources, pulling up Twitter on my iPhone is like my own personal version of Google News.

Twitter Home Screen

Twitter on iOS

Final Thoughts
So why use Twitter?  I suppose we could just as easily ask, “Why Blog?”  Why post your thoughts in a public forum for all the world to see?  And why read content that others have posted?  Perhaps we all want to feel like our voice matters.  We want to feel like we’re a part of something.  That we’re connected to others.  And while we may be sacrificing true connectedness for digital hyperconnectedness these days, for some of us, that’s better than nothing.  So I tweet.  And I blog.  And I enjoy both a fair amount.  Maybe you will too.

Get Paid With Square

By now, many are at least casually familiar with Square, the startup company whose credit card reader and user-friendly software enable any small business or individual in the United States to accept credit card payments anytime and anywhere on their iPhone, iPad and Android phones.  While Square is currently making great strides, processing a reported $4 Million in credit card payments per day in June, founder Jack Dorsey is no stranger to innovation.  He also created Twitter.  And he gets around, having recently sat down with President Obama for the first Twitter Town Hall.  Square Inc. recently secured $100 million in Series C financing led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, based on a valuation of more than $1 billion.  It’s high time that we take a closer look at Square from a technical standpoint here.

What is Square?
Square’s most visible product is their square-shaped credit card reader attachment that plugs into the headphone jack of an iPhone, iPad or Android phone.  The Square readers are free via the web, and can be purchased for $9.95 at an Apple Store.  Naturally, Square provides accompanying software for those mobile platforms as well.  Finally, in collaboration with Chase, Square provides the credit card transaction processing and payment.  Square’s simplicity extends through their card reader and software all the way to their service fees.  Square charges merchants 2.75% of every swiped Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover transaction.  (Manual entry is allowed for situations where a card can’t be swiped, however service fees for those entries will cost 3.5% + 15¢ per transaction.)  At 2.75% of every swiped transaction, many established merchants discover that they’re money ahead with Square versus a competitor who may have a monthly fee and a flat fee per transaction on top of their own percentage fee.

[Image courtesy of Square.]

What Square is Not
Having shown the Square device to several people in the past week, the most frequent initial misconception is that the reader is for individuals to swipe their own credit card when making online purchases from a retailer such as Amazon.com.  While it would be nice to not have to key in your credit card number on a web site, saving a few seconds by swiping wouldn’t necessarily be groundbreaking.  Again, the reader, software and service are for individuals and small businesses to accept credit card payments from their customers.

Initial Setup
As I’m the type who prefers to set up an account first via a real computer rather than on my iPhone, I began with a visit to https://squareup.com.  You can also download the Square app to your mobile device and sign up from there.  At the time of this writing, visitors to squareup.com are prompted with the opportunity to set up a new account for free from the home page.

  1. I began by providing my e-mail address and a desired password, before moving on to provide my name, current address, social security number and other personal details to verify my identity.  Square provides the same level of scrutiny as a typical online credit application, asking multiple-choice trivia questions from your credit history to validate your identity.  It’s unlikely that you could establish an account using a fabricated identity or steal that of a real person.
  2. Next, Square alerted me that they would be sending a free credit card reader.
  3. I was then presented with an option to send a text link to my iPhone to download the Square app.
  4. Though optional, I linked my personal checking account to my Square account to receive payments.
  5. I provided a PO box address as my ‘receipt address’ that any customers would see.  If you are a freelancer selling items or services while on the go, you may wish to specify a PO box as your receipt address so as to avoid providing strangers the location of your personal residence.
  6. Before signing out of the web site, I added the snnyc blog icon as my logo.
  7. Finally, I used the text link on my iPhone to install the software.  I promptly signed in to my account to confirm that it was working.  Afterward, I was left to wait patiently until my free reader device arrived.

Using The Reader (AKA, The Fun Part)
My Square reader arrived in my mailbox four business days later, having been shipped from California to the East Coast.  There was no mistaking from the outside what I’d find folded neatly within the 5 by 8 inch envelope.  Opening Square’s package delivers a decent presentation experience – especially considering the free pricetag – with the device encapsulated in the center of a foam block wrapped by paper wings providing additional information.  Square even throws in a window sticker with the Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover logos, similar to what you’ve seen in every merchant’s window that accepts credit cards.

After pulling my Square reader out of the package, I plugged it into the headphone jack of my color-coordinated white iPhone 4 and and fired up the software.  The following is my first sample transaction.

  1. I specified the amount of my sample transaction at $25.  I typed in a description for the product as ‘Square Evaluation.’  And then I swiped an American Express Gift Card to continue.
  2. The prior screen faded to gray and ‘Authorizing’ appeared for less than 30 seconds.
  3. Next, I was prompted to sign for my transaction using my finger.  While I anticipated that this might be impractical, my signature came came out about as well as it does on many in-store credit card terminals.
  4. After signing, I was prompted with the opportunity to receive a receipt via SMS or e-mail.  (The e-mailed receipts look better.)
  5. Finally, I was presented with a ‘thank you’ screen.

After a transaction has been completed, the Square merchant receives an e-mail indicating the transaction amount and the total balance in the merchant’s Square account.  On the earlier sample transaction, I received $24.31 based on a transaction of $25.00.  Merchants can later review their recent transactions from the Square app or the web site at any time.

Transfer to Bank
Because I’d earlier linked my Square account to my Citibank checking account, my first two trial transactions were transferred to my account around two business days following my scans.  Going forward, Square transactions are deposited to my checking account on the following day.  It takes my bank another day or two to credit the deposits to my account.

Not The Only Game in Town
VeriFone, a well-known provider of electronic payment solutions, announced PAYware Mobile for iPhone in February, 2010, around the same time as Square.  For a cost breakdown between Square and VeriFone, see the FeeFighters interactive calculator.  As you’ll see from that tool, VeriFone offers a more complex series of fees that may be cheaper or more expensive than Square depending on the size and volume of your transactions.  Generally speaking, small transactions cost less with Square while very large transactions cost less with VeriFone.  Intuit has since jumped into the game as well with GoPayment, undercutting Square’s pricing model by 0.05% percent at the time of this writing.

Fraud Concerns?
As there’s more than one method of fraud, different audiences will likely have different concerns about it.  One part-time merchant to whom I demonstrated Square immediately asked about the potential for chargebacks.  She feared the idea of selling her merchandise to a stranger and accepting credit card payment, only to later have the payment reversed after the person was long gone with the merchandise.  This is a legitimate concern, as merchants may be charged back for any fraudulent Square transactions, just as they would from other credit card payment systems.  Some businesses factor in this risk as part of the cost of doing business, while others try to reduce the risk by other means such as asking for a photo ID.

Fraud concerns go both ways, with potential customers worrying that a merchant could rip them off as well.  Somehow we put this fear aside every time we hand our credit card to a waiter at a restaurant, but we’re far more conscious of it in other circumstances.  VeriFone has been on something of a kick trying to call attention to a perceived security problem with Square, namely that data is not encrypted between the Square reader itself and the phone that it is plugged into.  (Data is encrypted between the Square application and the Internet-based processing servers.)  From VeriFone’s perspective, the unencrypted link between Square’s reader and a phone could allow a malicious merchant to write a counterfeit Square application that surreptitiously steals the data of customers whose cards are swiped.  VeriFone fails to mention that many credit card swipes built into PC keyboards and point-of-sale terminals similarly don’t encrypt data between the card swipe and the computer itself, and are subject to the same hypothetical scenario and others.  As a security-minded consumer and professional, it would be easier for me to give VeriFone’s view more credence if their focus on and rebuttal of Square didn’t strike me as particularly self-serving.

Spur New Business?
One recurring theme that I heard when showing off the Square to my salaried peers was, “Now we need to think of a sideline business where we can make use of this.”  There’s something about Square’s dramatic simplification of credit card payment processing that really strikes a chord when witnessed firsthand.  When it’s this easy, we all want to be merchants.

The Bottom Line
The ease and low cost of deploying Square are second to none.  You can get started today with no financial investment and only a few minutes of your time.  You’ll pay a consistent 2.75% of every swiped transaction going forward.  The terms are fair.  The ease of use, combined with the ultimate mobility, may spur you on to business ideas that you haven’t considered yet.  Taken as a whole, Square offers a compelling proposition.  Whether you ultimately go with Square or a similar competitor, this type of service may well be the future of payment processing for as long as we still use plastic cards.