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So, what exactly is Twitter and why should you care?

General, Internet Content, Technology | November 22nd, 2008 2 Comments

Jack Dorsey's original sketch of TwitterIt’s well over two years since Twitter launched, and in that time the service has been adopted by more than two million users. Which is odd, really, since virtually no-one I speak with outside of the technology and blogging community has even heard of Twitter, or if they have they simply can’t understand what purpose it serves.

Twitter is one of the first and certainly the largest of what are known as “micro-blogging” or “micro-content” services. The premise of Twitter is extremely simple: in 140 characters or fewer, tell the world what you are doing right now. Not the world, in fact, but rather the people who choose to “follow” you on Twitter. If they do so, they receive updates (”tweets”), either on their cellphone or their computer, as you update your status. In theory the 140 characters constrain you to saying what’s really important and relevant, but in practice it’s often used for the boring, the trivial and the tragic.

Most people use their cellphones to update Twitter via SMS (text message – once you’ve registered your cellphone number with the service, simply send your messages to 21212), instant messaging, or a range of desktop applications such as Twhirl or Twitterific. But you can also browse to the Twitter site, sign in and leave your updates the old fashioned way.

How Twitter really can be useful

But let’s get to the point… So far, if you’re new to Twitter, you’re probably thinking “Why on earth would I want to add this nonsense to my already busy day?” How can Twitter actually be useful? Well look at it this way, Twitter is perhaps the simplest way of sharing a picture of your life and work with the people who are interested. Some things aren’t worth an email or a phone call, but your friends may want to know about them nonetheless. If you’re in a restaurant enjoying a wonderful meal, then the spontaneity of telling people in the moment can be valuable and interesting, and it takes seconds to send one text message. Or if you’ve just published a great blog post then an update via Twitter is just as immediate but far less intrusive than emailing the link to your entire address book. Most importantly, you’re reaching people who have chosen to follow your updates — essentially they’ve opted-in to knowing what’s going on in your world.

Twitter isn’t just about broadcast, either. You can reply to individual tweets, and send direct messages to individuals, or link to tweets on your blog or website if you want to share something particularly interesting or timely in another format. In short, Twitter perfectly encapsulates the phrase “deceptively simple”. There’s nothing to it at first, but the possibilities are huge once you dive in and get started.

Carrie and Danielle Twitter Update

In some cases, Twitter can be an early warning system for breaking news, and politicians such as Barack Obama use the service to keep in contact with their geographically distributed followers. But for us the value is much simpler — Twitter represents the new social media model of distributing information, in which content is a conversation, not a sermon from on high.

Finally, for a wonderfully creative introduction to Twitter, head over to CommonCraft and check out their video guide.

Photo courtesy of Jack Dorsey.

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