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Discover Twitter

The new way to stay totally in touch

By Bill Camarda

Not distracted enough by email, instant messaging, and cellphone texting? Then you need to know about Twitter: the newest way to stay relentlessly, totally, constantly in touch.
What is Twitter? It’s a free service for sending and receiving quick text-based messages (a.k.a., “tweets”) of no more than 140 characters.
How many characters are 140? Well, the previous paragraph contained 139. So 140 isn’t much, especially if you’re accustomed to “longer form” missives like email (or even old-fashioned letters – remember them?)

Extending those online friendships
Twitter was originally intended for messages about what you or your pals are doing right now (that’s one reason the messages are so short). Some folks doubted that people would want that much information about each others’ lives. But it turned out otherwise: many of us had an insatiable desire for that kind of constant connection.
Typically, Twitter users set up a “circle of friends” who’ll receive all their updates unless they specify otherwise. Those friends need to become Twitter members, too. (Maybe they are already. In just two years, Twitter has attracted more than 3.2 million users.)
Your tweets can be delivered in just about any way imaginable: via Twitter.com, or cellphone text messaging, or “RSS” feeds, the same way blog subscription updates are delivered; or via old-fashioned email; or on Facebook via a special Twitter application.
Twitter prompts you to write new tweets with the question “What are you doing?” But it didn’t take long for people to think up all kinds of new ways to use it, far beyond telling the world that you’re driving your daughter to soccer or watching Grey’s Anatomy. Twitter quickly proved to be a great tool for organizing get-togethers... passing along family updates... carrying on group conversations that don’t lend themselves easily to text messaging.

And even that only scratched the surface of what Twitter could do.

Not just for friends
For example, Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines have used Twitter to provide up-to-the-minute flight information. The Los Angeles Fire Department used it to help coordinate its battle against last year’s California wildfires. CNN uses it to broadcast breaking news headlines, and to solicit comments that are often read on the air. And, in what is sometimes called “microjournalism,” print reporters are using it to send tiny dispatches from the events they’re covering: reports with immediacy that was never possible even on the Internet.
Colleges are incorporating Twitter into their emergency communications plans. Twitter is increasingly used by social activists to coordinate their events and protests. And, in a recent report called “Potential for Terrorist Use of Twitter,” the U.S. military speculates that terrorists might someday try to coordinate their bombings with Twitter, too -- though there’s absolutely no evidence this has happened yet.

Coming up with new ways to use Twitter has become something of a cottage industry. For example, blogger “Chip86” recently posted his own great usage tips – including tracking your work as you do it, so it’s easier to compile status reports later; keeping organized with colleagues at conferences or events, where it’s all too easy to lose track of them; using Twitter as a central location for “notes to self” about things you’d otherwise forget to do; and recording your travels.

Friends vs. “Followers”
Your continuing tweets (and those sent to you) are called a stream. You can make your tweet stream private – in other words, limit it to specific people you already know. But if you don’t do that, anyone can sign up as a “follower,” to receive your tweets.

If folks find you interesting, your tweet stream could get quite popular: one twitterer, Paul Terry Walhaus, reportedly has over 9,000 Twitter friends and another 1,850+ followers.
Twitter also publishes a “public timeline” – a running display of public tweets as they’re posted -- so strangers could see your tweets of wisdom pass by, along with thousands of others. (And, of course, like everything else you post on the Internet, you’ve got to assume that a tweet post – once public – could conceivably be found by anyone, forever. So be careful what you tweet!)

Some folks welcome strangers and are working hard to build audiences. For example, as The New York Times reported, the lexicographer Erin McKean has created a tweet stream to post newly-invented words, and a group of venture capitalists now offers a tweet stream providing expert tips to entrepreneurs. And, for others, it’s proving a handy tool for attracting new business referrals.

Here to stay?
Since Twitter’s creators have made a “programming interface” available to software developers, programmers have been creating innovative applications that link Twitter to everything from Outlook and Windows Live Messenger. There’s even one for Google Maps -- so you can watch those public streams go by, on a map that shows where each tweet is coming from.

It remains to be seen whether twittering will last, or turn out to be a passing fad. It’s not for everyone, but plenty of people who didn’t expect to find it useful have been very pleasantly surprised. You might just be one of them – and, thanks to Twitter’s quick and easy signup process, it only takes a few minutes to start finding out.

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.

Comment by Nelly, posted 11/11/2008, 12:17 AM:

It seems interesting, I would like to learn more about twitter.
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