Tech for Grownups: What is Twitter and Why You (Might) Need It

I’ve actually heard a few adults I know in the real world mention blogs lately.  This is a good thing, as blogs are not just the nerd-infested web diaries many people (still) think they are.  Rather, blogs are a new, convenient and (at least theoretically) interactive content management platform.  As more and more “old media” sites migrate to a blogging platform, the distinction between blogs and traditional media continues to blur.  The bottom line is that the content determines the usefulness of a web site, not the software used to publish that content.  Producers of good (read accurate, reliable and well written) content will thrive and producers of bad content will not.

dsom Take the Drudge Report, for example.  That web site looks like something some kid tossed up on Geocities back in the nineties (as does all of MySpace, for that matter).  Notwithstanding these aesthetical challenges, the Drudge Report is one of the most popular and useful web sites in the world.  I check it at least once a day for news.  It’s not a blog by any definition, but it is extremely useful.  On the other hand, consider TechCrunch, the once and perhaps future home of nobody’s spittoon, Mike Arrington.  While TechCrunch is a blog by any rational definition, the content published there has the same quality and characteristics of an old media site (except for some of the temper tantrums).  Same with Mashable (sans the tantrums).  These are blogs, and they are also extremely useful.

Again, a blog, like the web in general, is a medium for distribution of content.  It is not the content itself.  As blogging platforms and other methods to publish and manage information make it easier and faster for content producers to deliver content to their readers, everyone benefits.  Much like the internet made the evening news stale and redundant years ago, these new platforms are making traditional “old media” internet formats stale and redundant.

Along with the expansion of the blogging platform, other applications have sprung up to facilitate the efficient (e.g., faster) delivery of watercooler information.  One of the most popular of these is Twitter.  Twitter is a virtual water cooler where people share information and post short, generally one-off messages.  It’s not so much an evolution of the blogging platform as the message board platform.  Now that Google has taken care of the archival requirements for internet information, where information is stored becomes largely irrelevant.  For example, if you search Google for “William Gay Books,” it doesn’t really matter where the information you find is located.  If Google is working as designed, you can zero in on the information you’re looking for, courtesy of Google’s algorithm.  The content can be spread all over the place, as long as Google or some other search engine helps you find it.  While not yet archival, Twitter takes advantage of and helps manage this sort of broadly originating content.  It allows you to consolidate information and communication from various people into a stream of information, at reasonably close to real-time speed.  Just as you can choose what blog content to read via Google Reader, you can also decide whose Twitter posts to read.  You “follow” those whose posts you want to see, and not those whose posts do not interest you.  A good way to find people who share your interests is to search Twitter posts via keywords.

Wikipedia describes Twitter as follows:

Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users’ updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length.

Like blogging in general, people use Twitter for various reasons.  Some treat is as a popularity contest, trying to amass as many followers as possible.  Others (and I am in this camp) follow less people so the level of interactivity will be higher.  Some people, most notably Robert Scoble (one of the early bloggers who did as much as anyone to bring blogging to the mainstream), have the ability to follow an insanely large number of people, while remaining fairly interactive.  Some use Twitter as an interactive business card.  Others use Twitter as a graffiti board to send random thoughts or notices of new blog posts.  Others, of course, use Twitter to spam or to impersonate famous people.  I was so excited today when I thought the Dalai Lama was following me on Twitter, only to find out it was not the Dalai Lama, despite lots of news reports to the contrary.  On the other hand, some celebrities do blog, including Demi Moore.

For me, Twitter is a quick and easy way to find pointers to events and breaking news stories.  When that airplane crash-landed into the Hudson River last month, Twitter was an early and reasonably accurate source of information.  It’s just another faucet for a quick drink of information.

Twitter is not perfect.  It’s not terribly interactive- like in real life and the blogosphere, most people are much more interested in talking than listening.  There are some users who are looking only for self-promotion opportunities.  And just like every real and virtual schoolyard, there are some who want to create distinctions between those “in the secret club” and those who aren’t.  But even with the warts, Twitter is a free and often interesting tool that gives you access to near real-time information with very little investment.

It’s not for everyone, but maybe it’s for you.  There’s only one way to find out.

If you are (or end up) on Twitter, here’s my Twitter page.

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