It's just after 10 on a chilly Saturday night, and the acolytes are arriving on cue. Faces bathed in the glow of iPhones, we dutifully form a line that snakes across an empty nightclub parking lot in this seaside enclave of Los Angeles.
The object of our desire: the Kogi Korean BBQ truck, one of L.A.'s newest tourist attractions and a roving tribute to the social-media steamroller known as Twitter.
Launched five months ago, Kogi's two mobile taco trucks — dubbed Roja and Verde — roam the L.A. basin dispensing such mouth-watering concoctions as chocolate Oreo balls and tortilla-wrapped short ribs slathered with soy sesame chili. But it's the way Kogi markets and communicates its locations to customers that has made them famous: via Twitter, the explosively popular, Web-based service that lets users send and receive messages ("tweets") of up to 140 characters each.
Derided as an avalanche of self-absorbed, stream-of-consciousness updates that reads like a foreign language to non-participants, Twitter has nevertheless hitched a ride among cyber-savvy travelers looking for real-time inspiration, information and deals.
What I learned by trolling the Twittersphere for tips before and during a recent L.A. getaway:
kriswallsmith Embassy Hotel & Apartments. Very pleasant and quiet. Wouldn't stay anywhere else. #santamonica Http://twitpic.com/1vi0r
I don't know Kris Wallsmith from Kris Kringle. But when I turned to Twitter for a place to stay, I discovered the Portland, Ore.-based Web developer's review by using a Santa Monica hashtag (a word or phrase to target others interested in the same topic). Intrigued by his description and photo, I surfed over to TripAdvisor.com — and found mostly positive reviews of the Embassy, a reasonably priced, 1927 Moorish classic just two blocks from oceanfront Palisades Park. A follow-up tweet from Santa Monica travel writer Alex Beauchamp (@alextravels) confirmed my choice, and led me to a tips-packed blog post about her hometown at hyggehouse.com.
So far, so good.
laurably Alaska Airlines may be touting in-flight wifi (without power outlets), but they're not on Twitter. At DC counter: "what IS it, anyway?"
Travel businesses from museums to visitor bureaus are now using Twitter as a viral-marketing tool — something I was reminded of when posted that tweet at Washington's Reagan National Airport after querying check-in staff and scanning a current in-flight magazine column that described the airline's high-tech services but never mentioned Twitter. By the time I landed at LAX five hours later, my original missive had been re-tweeted several times. And I learned that Alaska did, indeed, have a Twitter presence — from a tweet sent by the airline itself (Twitter account @AlaskaAir).
Among @AlaskaAir's recent tweets to its 6,000-plus followers: daily updates on which of its flights have trial Wi-Fi, news of a one-day, 30% off sale on flights to Victoria, B.C., and a reply to a swine flu query from @vegaskim that "aircraft arriving from Mexico are being disinfected per CDC guidelines."
BkwdGreenComet Bar Pinxto, very friendly small tapas bar just off Ocean Ave on SaMo Blvd http://www.barpintxo.com/— also Babalu @ 10th/Montana
Though several of my travel requests wafted through the Twittersphere unanswered, Santa Monica technical writer Paul Sholar (@BkwdGreenComet) came through. I'd tweeted for restaurant recommendations near the just-opened Annenberg Community Beach House, home to the refurbished guesthouse William Randolph Hearst built for paramour Marion Davies. I was ready to relax after a windblown bike ride and tour of the new center, and
Bar Pinxto turned out to be both convivial and cheap: I caught the tail end of happy hour, when jamón sofrito and other tapas were six for $6.
kogibbq VERDE: 6PM-9PM@Toyota and Alpine Headquarters — Toyota Way & Van Ness; 10PM-2AM@The Brig — Abbot Kinney and Palm in Venice
Jet-lagged and a tad dubious, I punched Kogi's Venice location into my iPhone and rallied for the short drive down the coast. The 20-minute wait was less than I'd expected, and I spent it chatting with buddies Scott Trieglaff (@ScottTrieglaff) and Daniel Sahagun (@DanielSahagun), whose band The Broken Column is named after a Frida Kahlo painting. Our verdict: Kogi's $2 short-rib taco is the bomb.
Ninjkabat Woah. I just saw a sign telling visitors of this weekends' Festival of Books to tag their tweets with #LATfob. Internet and reality colide!
It may have been misspelled, but @ninjkabat's enthusiasm wasn't misplaced. The Los Angeles Times' annual book festival on the UCLA campus attracted scores of tweeters eager to merge old media with new, and inspired Pasadena social media consultant Dan Portnoy (@danportnoy) to convene a tweetup — meeting, in Twitter parlance — to discuss homelessness in L.A.
Only a handful of us showed up that Sunday afternoon. But the conversation, punctuated by frequent tweets, was lively. It ranged from the benefits of Twitter — "it doesn't matter who you are, but what you say," said homeless advocate Mark Horvath (@hardlynormal) — to the accuracy of The Soloist, the new movie based on Times reporter Steve Lopez' columns and book about a homeless musician living on L.A.'s Skid Row.
laurably Joy of #travel: Meeting folks like seatmates @axelwoolfolk of @bravenewfilms and war vet @rick_reyes, a new John Kerry http://tr.im/jKbY
So, is Twitter a useful travel tool, or an overheated fad that has already jumped the shark?
"Back home, Twitter can distract you from the doldrums of your home life. But on the road it will only detract from all the potentially amazing experiences that come when you leave yourself open to your new surroundings," says travel writer Rolf Potts, who urges travelers to "cut loose from the electronic umbilical cord" of cellphones and social media.
Potts has a point. I cringe at Twitter's barrage of inane ramblings, marketing pitches and companion "ranking sites" that reek of high school popularity contests, and I can see the downsides of subbing an iPhoned tweet for quiet reflection and gratitude for being in a new place.
As a Twitter newbie, I've enjoyed interacting with followers and keeping up on the latest industry gossip. But without a critical mass of followers (or even with one), getting answers to queries can be problematic, and its usefulness to everyday travelers pales in comparison with more targeted sites such as Fodors.com, Tripadvisor.com or Yelp.
And let's be honest: Do would-be cruise passengers on the Golden Princess reallyneed daily tweets updating them on the ship's progress through dry-dock renovations?
But Twitter did introduce me to short-rib tacos. And it didn't keep me from an engrossing, cross-country conversation — touched off by a question about iPhone apps — with my Alaska Airlines seatmates Axel Woolfolk and Rick Reyes.
Woolfolk, spokesman for an Internet-based documentary film company called Brave New Films, was returning home to L.A. with Reyes, an Iraq and Afghanistan Marine veteran who'd just testified about the dangers of a stepped-up Afghanistan military operation at a Senate hearing chaired by Sen. John Kerry.
In true 21st-century style, the two had met through Facebook only a month or two earlier — after Reyes sent a message to Brave New Films' founder congratulating him on his work.
KateNasser People-Skills Tip: Expand ur Twitter networking efforts by talking 2 ppl u meet in life. Recent trip:I learned loads by talking 2 travelers!
Thx, @KateNasser. I couldn't have tweeted it better myself.