First, there was MySpace (Friendster in Asia), then came Facebook. Now, it's Twitter.
(screenshot of my TweetDeck)
(Twitter on the web)
What is Twitter?
It's a form of electronic networking designed to instantly answer the timeless question, "What are you doing?" At first glance, Twitter is not much different from e-mail or textmessaging; you simply sign up for a free account at Twitter's website and start sending and receiving "tweets" via computer, cellphone, or other hand-held device. But unlike textmessaging or IMs, a tweet can reach potentially thousands of pre-approved "friends" at once, and there is a space limit of no more than 140 characters per tweet.
Who's using it?
Twitter has now some 14 million users who spend an average of half an hour a day posting a total of about 2.25 million tweets. The site, which debuted March 2006, received about 10 million visitors in February. Users include everyone from teenagers who crave constant contact with their friends to celebrities who use the service to build their fan bases to politicians who want to stay in touch with constituents. Known "tweeters" include President Obama, Martha Stewart, Oprah, Demi Moore, and of course, Ashton Kutcher.
What are these people saying?
In general, nothing in substance. Whether the tweeters are famous actors or middle-class housewives, their communiques tend toward the mundane. Tweeters describe what they are eating, comment on news events, or express joy when their favorite team wins.
Are all these tweets banal?
No. Sometimes they can approach haiku in their simplicity of expression and complexity of message. The English comedian Stephen Fry keeps his nearly 200,000 followers amused with such wry tweets as one sent while stuck in an elevator: "Hell's teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo, and widdle." But Twitter is not just a silly distraction.
How else has it been used?
To save lives, mobilize masses, and scoop the news media. After Demi Moore received a Twitter message from a woman threatening to kill herself, she used Twitter to rally her fans to the woman's cause. The woman was reportedly touched by the outpouring that she changed her mind. Earlier this month, the anti-Communist activists in Moldova used Twitter to generate massive protest against the government. And among the first reports of the US Airways jetliner's miraculous landing in January- transmitted before any news organization reported on the story- was this tweet from Florida businessman Janis Krums: "There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry to pick up the people. Crazy."
How did this all get started?
Twitter was the brainchild of three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. They were inspired by the "away messages" that many people leave on their computers to let others know their whereabouts. Twitter takes no advertising, and employs only about 30 people. But because it attracts so many eyeballs, it's estimated by some venture capitalists to be worth $250 million.
Does Twitter have critics?
Plenty. Many see Twitter as the latest example of the self-indulgent, 24/7 exhibitionism that has been honed to a fine art in chat rooms, and on Facebook and other social-networking sites.
Are there other concerns?
Yes. Surveys show that the majority of tweets are sent from the workplace, resulting in productivity losses that could be in the billions. And while Twitter is often touted as a way to establish and maintain relationships, it has also been known to strain them. Jennifer Aniston reportedly dumped boyfriend John Mayer because he was too busy tweeting to answer her calls. The wife of Ian Schafer, an online marketer, recently exploded when she caught him tweeting once too often. She said, "You would pay more attention to me if I were digital."
The Week, May 1, 2009 issue