Talking to Twitter

Integrating Twitter into your application is easy, fun and useful.

I'm a very quick adopter of many new software technologies. I try new programming languages, browsers, databases and frameworks without hesitation. But when it comes to social networks, I'm a bit of a Luddite, waiting to see what all the fuss is about before making them a part of my life. Sure, I signed up for Facebook almost as soon as it was available, but I haven't really posted much there. I do use LinkedIn, mostly to collect and find contacts, but I don't post there very often either, unless I'm announcing a presentation that I've added to SlideShare.

Twitter is something of a different story. There are people, it seems, for whom Twitter is the ultimate in communication. I've been on Twitter for some time, but other than an occasional foray into that world, I didn't really pay it much attention. Even now, after having decided several months ago that I should try to get into Twitter more heavily, I find that while I look through my feed several times a day, I tweet only once every few weeks. Call me a dinosaur, but I still prefer to use e-mail to be in touch with friends and family, rather than 140-character messages.

Although I don't see Twitter as a great medium for interpersonal communication, I recently have begun to appreciate it for other reasons. Specifically, I have discovered (perhaps long after the rest of the world has done so) that using Twitter as a sort of public logfile can make a Web application more visible, updating the rest of the world as to the status of your work and your on-line community. Doing so not only lets people hear about what you are doing—and potentially rebroadcast it to the world, by "retweeting" your message to followers—but it also increases your application's SEO, or visibility on various search engines. Finally, you can use Twitter to bring attention to your on-line presence by following other people. (The idea is that when they receive your follow request, they may try to find out more about you, exploring your site or even following you back.)

I might sound like a social-media consultant, but I've seen the difference that Twitter can make in an application. I recently connected my PhD dissertation project (the Modeling Commons) to Twitter, such that each public action is sent to the Twitter feed. The combination of tweeting updates and following other people has had a remarkable and direct effect on the number of visitors who come to my site, the length of time they remain and the number of pages they view. Now, I'm not talking about millions of visitors per month. My application is still of interest mainly to a small community of people working with the NetLogo modeling environment. But the change has been obvious, and I grudgingly admit that I owe some of it to Twitter.

In this article, I explore some of the things I did to use Twitter in my application. From a technology perspective, you'll see that the implementation was fairly straightforward. But I think that what I've learned can be of interest to anyone running a Web application, particularly one that is trying to get the word out to the public. In addition, although there are plenty of good reasons to question Twitter's business practices and its relationship with developers, there is no doubt that its attention to detail with its API offers a model for all of us who want to provide APIs to our applications.

Registering with Twitter

I'm going to assume that anyone reading this article already has created a Twitter account or is able to figure out how to do so at Twitter.com. And of course, via the Twitter.com Web site, you can do all the things that you might expect, such as tweeting, retweeting, following and searching.

Twitter's API allows you to do all of these things via code. That is, you don't need to go and compose tweets personally. You can write a program that will do so for you. In order for this to happen, you need to do two things: register with Twitter's API service and install a library that knows how to communicate with the Twitter API.

In order to register with the Twitter API, you need to go to the "developer" site at http://dev.twitter.com. Note that you need to sign in with your Twitter user name and password, even if you already are signed in to the main Twitter site. The two sites do not seem to share login sessions.

Once you're on the developer site, you need to create a new application. The application name needs to be unique, but don't worry about it too much. You need to provide not only a name, but also a description and a URL that is associated with the application. Agree to the terms, fill in the Captcha, and you'll be on your way. Note that many types of Twitter applications exist, with many applications (including mobile) that post to Twitter on behalf of a user. The model I demonstrate in this article is of an application sending updates to Twitter, which means you won't have such issues—you don't need a callback URL or any special login configuration.

Perhaps the most confusing thing (to me, at least) about setting things up with Twitter was that the default permissions for an application allows you to retrieve tweets, but not post to them. To allow your application read-write access, go to the settings tab and indicate that you want the read-write access, or even read, write and direct message. You won't be using all of these capabilities for this example, but without write permission, your application will not be able to post to Twitter.

And now for the most important part, the keys: Twitter's authentication model requires two tokens. First, there is your access token, which allows you to access Twitter via the API. The second is the "consumer key", which describes your particular application and usage. Each of these keys has an accompanying secret, which you should treat as a password. As such, putting these secrets directly in your application probably is a bad idea. You would be better off putting them in environment variables, thus avoiding having the secrets in version control.

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Reuven M. Lerner, Linux Journal Senior Columnist, a longtime Web developer, consultant and trainer, is completing his PhD in learning sciences at Northwestern University.

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