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Sockets and Nodes—An Experiment, Part I

In anticipation of Full Frontal tomorrow, I decided to play around with two hot new tools, node.js and socket.io, in putting together a useful ‘toy’ application. Over a few blog posts, I’ll demonstrate how to build a lightweight app to track live Twitter feeds, starting with something incredibly basic and adding features incrementally.


Start by installing node.js, npm (the node package manager), and a couple of JS libraries. Using homebrew:

brew install node npm  
# Add NODE_PATH to your shell environment and config at the same time!
`echo 'export NODE_PATH=/usr/local/lib/node' | tee -a ~/.zsh_profile`

npm install socket.io  
npm install twitter-node  

Installation instructions for other systems may be found on the internet. I have faith in your Googling abilities.


Version zero’s client will consist of a single HTML file; start with a basic skeleton in a file called index.html:

<!DOCTYPE html>  

    <!-- jQuery -->
    <script src="http://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/1.4.3/jquery.min.js"></script>

    <!-- socket.io client library -->
    <script src="/socket.io/socket.io.js"></script>

    <!-- this is where the main body of the app will go: -->

    <ul id="tweets">
      <!-- this list initially empty -->

Now for the client JavaScript (which you should add to the empty <script>):

var socket = new io.Socket();


$(function () {
  var tweets = $("#tweets");
  socket.on('message', function (tweet) {
    var tweetLi = $("<li/>").text(tweet.text);

socket.io will work out the connection parameters itself, by assuming some sensible defaults. The behaviour is easy enough to understand; the socket receives messages (in this case, tweet objects), and adds the tweet text to the beginning of the <ul>.


Add the following to a file called serve.js, in the same directory as index.html:

var http = require('http'),  
    fs = require('fs'),
    TwitterNode = require('twitter-node').TwitterNode,
    io = require('socket.io');

// Serves 'index.html' from the current directory.
server = http.createServer(function (req, res) {  
  res.writeHead(200, {'Content-Type': 'text/html'});
  fs.readFile("index.html", function (err, data) {
    if (err) throw err;


// The twitter client (populate with your own credentials).
var twit = new TwitterNode({user: 'foo', password: 'bar'});

var socket = io.listen(server);

socket.on('connection', function (client) {  
  // Just send the tweet objects directly to the client.
  var tweetReceived = function (tweet) { client.send(tweet); };
  twit.addListener('tweet', tweetReceived);
  client.on('disconnect', function () {
    twit.removeListener('tweet', tweetReceived);

// Set up the tracking. Modify to suit your tastes.
twit.headers['User-Agent'] = 'bieber.zacharyvoase.com';  
// If you don't listen for them, errors will be thrown.
twit.addListener('error', function (err) { console.log(err.message); });  
twit.addListener('tweet', function (tweet) {  
  console.log("Tweet received: " + tweet.id_str);
// Start the Twitter client.

The server-side component, as you can see, is a little more involved. There are three components to this app (which could do with being split into separate files):

  1. The HTTP server, which will just serve index.html from the current directory on port 4000.

  2. The WebSocket server, which deals with clients connecting/disconnecting.

  3. The Twitter client.

The easiest way to send tweets to WS clients is to hook them up directly to the Twitter feed, using their send() methods as listeners. When a WS client disconnects, we simply remove that listener from the Twitter client.

Running the application

If you’ve set node.js up correctly, you should be able to run the following from your working directory:

node serve.js  

Now browse to http://localhost:4000/. You should see a fast-moving stream of tweets about Justin Bieber.

Next time

In the next chapter I’ll focus on the server-side app: modularizing the code base and adding new features (like enabling hot-swapping of the tracking parameters).