Regular readers of this column know it focuses on mainframe data and database management topics. Although that’s still the case, I will be stretching the confines of that definition a bit to discuss the micro-messaging phenomenon, Twitter. If you’ve tried twittering (or tweeting, as it’s also called), you know it can be addictive, but it’s also growing in popularity as a business tool for communication, even though this might seem hard to believe when you first dive into Twitter.

The basic idea of Twitter is simple: It offers a platform for users to publish messages of no more than 140 characters at a time. That can seem limiting, until you’ve used Twitter for a while. When you tweet—that is, send a Twitter message—it’s broadcast to all your followers. Likewise, when anyone you follow sends a tweet, it’s broadcast to you.

I send out regular tweets (www.twitter.com/craigmullins) for many things, including when I post a new blog entry, to share the highlights of interesting user group or conference sessions, updates on my speaking schedule, to notify folks when I’ve published a new article or column, and to share useful links and stories.

OK, so what are the business uses of Twitter? Well, sharing information is a key use; I frequently hear about things on Twitter that I would never hear about otherwise. A well-developed feed of folks you follow on Twitter can be a useful conduit for news, trends, issues, and ideas.

There are many diverse individuals participating on Twitter, from comedians to musicians to movie stars to politicians. But more pertinent are the IT people you can follow, including luminaries such as Bill Gates (@BillGates), Robert Scoble (@scobleizer), Don Tapscott (@dtapscott), and many others. There are also quite a few industry analysts using Twitter.

Honing in closer to home for z/Journal readers, you can follow publisher Bob Thomas at www.twitter.com/mainframezone. In addition, there are many DB2 and mainframe professionals who tweet. Willie Favero and Troy Coleman are regular Twitter users, and there are Twitter accounts for industry conferences such as IDUG and IOD, too. Additionally, most mainframe vendors (including IBM, BMC Software, and CA) have Twitter accounts their customers can follow.

Twitter also allows users to create lists of Twitter users they can follow in one fell swoop. Instead of digging around, looking for relevant Twitter-ers, you can just follow lists that others have already created. For example, I created a list of relevant DB2 Twitter users at http://twitter.com/craigmullins/db2-folks. Other very helpful lists you might want to consider following include Martin Packer’s mainframe professionals list at http://twitter.com/martinpacker/mainframe and the list of official IBM Twitter users at http://twitter.com/eric_andersen/ibm-official. Twitter is a real-time means of sharing information with like-minded individuals.

You can also send direct messages to other users who follow you. This can reduce the use of email for short communiqués that don’t require in-depth follow-up or attachments. Some forward-thinking companies have Twitter customer advocates who keep a watchful eye on the tweetstream and respond to complaints, comments, and suggestions.

Of course, there are downsides to Twitter, too. First and foremost is that corporate management may view it as a time waster. Some organizations have blocked Twitter usage from their networks (just as they’ve blocked other social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn). But that doesn’t preclude you from using Twitter at home.

Another potential problem with Twitter is the avalanche of information it provides. As you begin to follow more and more people, the flow of information increases and it can be difficult to keep up with. By its very nature, the information shared on Twitter is off-the-cuff and varied, so not everything will be work-related or even interesting. However, there’s enough there to warrant its use.

You can also link your other social media accounts to Twitter. That way, whenever you change your Facebook status, it can be automatically tweeted to your followers. LinkedIn also offers a similar level of integration with Twitter.

In today’s social media-savvy, Web 2.0 era, online networking using tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are becoming ubiquitous. Your social media presence can help further your career through learning, sharing, and even job searching. But be careful, because anything you share on a social media Website becomes accessible, so take care before you tweet …