Fewer twitter interruptions with TwitterFox

Update: I was wrong about the popup preference not working. I had forgotten to turn off popup balloons on one of my computers, and missed a return statement while reading the source code. So my changes are unnecessary.

I am a big fan of twitter. I use it all the time. I follow a lot of people. Some I know personally, some I’ve only met online, and some I have never met. I like to interact with people on twitter in real time.

Of course, the benefits of twitter come at the cost of time. The little bits of time here and there spent reading and posting tweets add up. It can also cause interruptions, making it hard to focus.

twitter.com and twhirl

I used twitter.com at first, then twhirl, and twitter.com again before I discovered TwitterFox.

The biggest problem with using twitter.com is that I have to load twitter.com to check for new tweets, whether or not there are any new tweets. It takes a while to load a web page. Usually that is an interruption in itself. Usually I either miss the action on twitter or I obsessively check twitter.com to see if there are any new tweets. On days when I’m feeling less motivated or more curious about what’s happening on twitter it is usually the latter.

For a month or two I used twhirl to access twitter. There are two different ways of using it, each of which has its own problems. One way is the default, where it pops up new messages in the lower-right corner of the screen. This is the way most desktop twitter clients work. The problem with this is obvious: it’s an interruption, plain and simple. If I’m in the zone, I will likely get distracted. The other way of using twhirl is to turn off pop-up messages, and to either give the window some space on the screen or to switch to it using Alt-Tab to check tweets. The problem with this is it quickly devolves into a glancing or Alt-Tab frenzy, as at any time when I’m even slightly curious about what’s happening on twitter, I can check in an instant. Often times when I would check I would find no new tweets.

the twitter urge

Every so often I get the urge to check twitter. It’s perfectly natural for anyone who has discovered the joy of using twitter. What matters is what I do with those urges. If every urge turns into reading a list of twitter messages, it can turn into a real productivity killer.

For a while I’ve known the way that I would like to be able to use twitter. I would like a number of new messages on the screen. Then, if I got the twitter urge and there weren’t any new messages, it would only cause a split-second of interruption. If there were any new messages, I would know, and if I didn’t check even though there were new messages, I could give myself a pat on the back for staying productive, and know that once I got more work done I would have something to read.

After a week of being frustrated with twitter, I decided to do something about it. So I looked at the list of twitter clients again and tried a couple out. I wanted one that was open source and easy to customize.

TwitterFox

I spend enough time in Firefox, both at work and on my laptop, that having something in the Firefox status bar is pretty much as good as having something in the taskbar, if not better. Firefox extensions are also easy to customize (unless the code is a mess), so I gave it a try. When I saw the number of new tweets in the lower-right corner of my Firefox window, I was elated. This is exactly what I wanted!

It worked really well for me, once I figured out how to turn off popup balloons, where it would show the latest tweet(s) in the bottom-right corner, much like twhirl. At first, I thought the preference wasn’t working, so I made changes to the source code. I found tinkering with the source code to be relatively easy. Since I’m a web developer, I’m very comfortable working in JavaScript.

The tiny difference between TwitterFox and twhirl that makes it work for me is that the number of messages appears on a part of the screen that I see regularly. The information I need is there, and presented in a way that is not distracting. This is also the way I keep tabs on my e-mail (GMail) and my RSS Feeds (Google Reader), though I like the way TwitterFox shows the number better. GMail and Google Reader have the number of new items in their titles, which appear in the Firefox tab bar. Sometime I’d like to find or make extensions that will show the number of new items in those two web apps in the Firefox status bar.

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