Twitter via text messaging, on the cheap

homeless guy on his phone
Image by Malingering via Flickr

UPDATE: Right after I posted this article, David Herrold told me (very nicely) that you can indeed turn device updates on for individual Twitter friends via the Twitter interface or by texting “on username” to 40404 from the phone number you’ve connected to your Twitter account. So you don’t need to convert RSS to SMS to get text updates from specific Twitter users. Still, the strategy I outline below is helpful for following Twitter search queries and hashtags via text messaging.

Technically, Twitter is designed with that frustrating 140-character limit so it can work even over the barest of bare-bones cell phones via text messaging. But even so, twittering by text messaging is cumbersome and a little financially risky.

A colleague e-mailed me with a Twitter question. She wants to use her mobile phone to send and receive tweets via SMS text messaging, but doesn’t have a data plan for her phone. (Hey, there’s a recession on, you might have heard.)

Yes, you can indeed read and post to Twitter solely via text messaging if you choose. I do think it’s a good idea to get set up to post to Twitter via text. You never know when you might need it.

The tricky part lies in receiving tweets via text messaging, while controlling costs…

Currently, Twitter only gives you the option to receive (via text message) either all tweets or no tweets from everyone you follow. When you turn “device updates” on from the main settings for your Twitter account, you run the risk of unpredictably running up extra texting charges, depending on the text messaging plan you have with your cell carrier.

Not to mention the annoyance factor of getting pinged every couple of minutes — or more frequently — depending on how many people you follow on Twitter, and how prolific they are.

I realize that there are far more people with bare-bones cell phones out there than who have smartphones or regular internet access. Why shouldn’t these folks be able to follow however many people they want on their Twitter account, while also exercising some control over the amount of text messages they receive from Twitter, to limit cost and annoyance?

I’ve discovered one possible hack to help in this situation.

There are some free services that convert RSS feeds to text messages. A free one I just tried out is Pingie, which I found on Lifehacker.

Every Twitter user’s account gets its own RSS feed. (Here’s mine.) Similarly, any Twitter search query also gets its own feed (like this one for the hashtag #homeless). When you set up a Pingie account, you can add to it any RSS feed. Once you have this set up, when a Twitter user you’ve added to your Pingie account tweets, the tweet goes out on their RSS feed. Pingie sees it, turns it into a text message, and routes it to your cell phone.

So if there are just a few Twitter users whose tweets you really want to get via text, or a few hashtags or search terms you really want to follow, you can use a tool like this to receive just those tweets . This is one way to control texting costs and annoyance.

…It’s not a perfect system, of course.

For instance, if one of your chosen few Twitter-by-text friends decides to post 100 tweets in three hours, you will receive all of them as text messages — and pay for them, depending on your mobile plan.

Also, as far as I can tell, you cannot delete a particular feed from your Pingie account via text message. So if a Twitter friend goes on an unexpected rampage, you probably won’t be able to stop the flood until you can access the Pingie site via a browser. Which could cost you money in the meantime, so there is still some risk.

And with Pingie you must add feeds individually. Depending on how many Twitter users or search terms you want to receive via text, this could be tedious to set up.

Finally, I don’t know how reliable Pingie is over time. I tried it, and it does work — but I don’t know whether it has outages, misses some tweets, or has other glitches or service delays. Also, other RSS-to-text services might offer different features.

Still, a service like Pingie at least makes Twitter less financially risky for people with VERY limited technology, web access, and budgets. A version of it more tailored to meeting that growing need might be surprisingly popular.

For instance, a surprising number of low-income and homeless people have cell phones that are SMS-ready, and also occasionally access the net from public terminals. What if a local social service agency used Twitter to broadcast announcements of services and opportunities, and also to solicit feedback from clients? What if a news organization set up a Twitter account that posts just a couple of headlines daily especially relevant to the working poor, or used Twitter to establish a dialogue with that community? The advantage of doing this via Twitter, rather than simply via direct text messaging, is that the content of these announcements and discussions would be more widely visible and findable as well as accessible.

Giving people more ways to exercise a certain amount of control over how much Twitter by text might cost them could create a whole new market for Twitter, and offer new options to people with scarce resources. And it might help make the Twittersphere a bit more economically diverse — which would be a cultural benefit and useful reality-check, I think. And social media might reflect society just a bit more accurately.

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6 thoughts on Twitter via text messaging, on the cheap

  1. It certainly is about time opportunities and benefits offered by new technology is somehow shared with those who would commonly be considered economically and/or socially disadvantaged. There is huge untapped potential in what mobile phones especially can offer in the way people organise and empower themselves. The same can be said for this potential in the developing world as a tool for poverty alleviation and democracy building.
    Good to see more and more commentators discussing these issues in public forums. Thanks Amy.

  2. Pingback: Tweetin’ via SMS « Mr. R’s Blogspot 2.0

  3. i have at&t. i have unlimited texting. i only want to send “tweets” to my twitter and i dont care for receiving tweets from others. if i text twitter, will it cost me money? or will it be free since i have unlimited texting?

  4. Let me invite you to try out FeedTwit, who will send your @ replies to you as text messages through Twitter’s direct messages. This way you don’t have to give someone else your cell phone number- like Pingie- or only get text messages from people you have specifically told Twitter you want to receive.

    I’d love to see a review of FeedTwit in your blog

    Thanks, FeedTwit

  5. this is the same situation for me. i just wanna update my twitter from my phone because i don’t carry my laptop around everywhere i go. i have unlimited text, but will twitter cost me?

  6. Hey, thanks for this. I found your post after running a Google search for “twitter text message.” The people I know who use Twitter all have iPhones or other such smartphones and all use their exorbitant data plans. I don’t have enough money in my budget to sign up for a data plan, so I always just assumed that Twitter would not be an option for me at least until I got some more funds.

    Anyway, thanks again. Your post was concise and informational. Looks like you’ve got a good site here.

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