Twitter Inc. has spawned a new way to communicate by limiting messages to 140 keystrokes. So here's a way to describe the Internet's latest craze within Twitter's space restrictions:
It's a potluck of pithy self-expression simmering with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, hucksterism, tedium and sometimes useful information.
One vital ingredient has been missing from the mix so far — revenue. That raises questions about whether the nearly 3-year-old service can make the leap from intriguing fad to sustainable business.
Twitter intends to start testing ways to make money this spring. And co-founder Evan Williams promises it won't drive away the more than 6 million people who have set up accounts on the unconventional communications network.
"We don't see any reason why this can't be a very large and profitable entity," said Williams, the San Francisco-based company's chief executive. "We have enough traffic on our website that we could put ads on there and maybe we could make enough to pay our bills, but that's not the most interesting thing we can do."
Williams, 36, won't say what he has in mind besides selling ads, but he and the handful of other people who own privately held Twitter seem confident the mystery strategy will pay off — even as a devastating recession destroys much-larger companies.
Just three months ago, Twitter rejected a $500 million takeover offer from an even bigger phenomenon, Facebook Inc., the owner of the world's largest online hangout.
Although shooing away Facebook was risky, Twitter still isn't under immense pressure to generate revenue. The 29-employee company has already raised $55 million, including a $35 million round recently completed with Benchmark Capital and Institutional Venture Partners.
Like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and other communal websites that have become Internet sensations, Twitter gives people a stage where they can express themselves and connect with kindred spirits.
Twitter's twist is a more succinct approach, which has been likened to the 21st-century version of a telegraph.
Here's how Twitter works: After setting up a free account, people are encouraged to post frequent updates about what they are doing, seeing and feeling. The messages, known as "tweets," must be limited to 140 characters and can be sent from a mobile phone or a computer.
Although the updates are available for anyone to see, Twitter users usually set up their accounts to monitor the tweets of people they know or admire. These "followers" are automatically fed tweets from the people they are shadowing.
With more than 265,000 people tracking his messages, President Barack Obama has the most Twitter followers even though neither he nor his staff have tweeted since he moved into the White House last month.
Many other politicians and celebrities, such as basketball star Shaquille O'Neal (more than 72,000 followers) and former rap music sensation MC Hammer (more than 55,000) regularly share tweets.
Twitter also has become a way to peek at dramas unfolding behind closed doors.
When Yahoo Inc. laid off hundreds of workers last year, some of the casualties used Twitter to provide a blow-by-blow account of their final day at the office. Surgeons at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit recently gave a rare glimpse inside an operating room by tweeting about the removal of a tumor from a patient's kidney.