Illustration: Greg ClarkeIt seems that everyone is atwitter about Twitter. Yes, other microblog services with insufferably cute names, such as Pownce, Jaiku, and Plurk, are around. But Twitter has quickly become the de facto choice for creating really, really short blogs.
Twitter has grown by 600 percent in the past year, according to cofounder Biz Stone. Aside from telling the world what they're doing every blessed moment, people often use Twitter to drive traffic to Web sites or to promote products and services. But users have begun adapting it for a variety of other tasks--and before long, you too may be using it for the things in this list. (A list on the next page identifies obstacles that may trip up Twitter. But first, the eight positives.)
Forget rain-soaked reporters in flapping windbreakers. You want real-time updates as the hurricane, tornado, or brush fire approaches? Tune in Twitter on your cell phone.
"I like to use the earthquake this summer in Southern California as an example," says Twitter's Stone. "It struck at 11:42 a.m. That very same minute the first tweets starting coming in. Nine minutes later the Associated Press put out a 57-word wire story, but by then we already had 3600 updates containing the word 'quake'."
When Jackie Peters, founding partner of marketing firm Heavybag Media, was looking for a new social media strategist, she naturally turned to Twitter. "Using Monster.com or Craigslist would have generated a stack of resumes from unqualified candidates," she says. "I figured if the candidate wasn't on Twitter, they most likely weren't right for the job."
It can help people seeking work as well. Stephanie Martin's quest for a job started with searching Twitter for people in her field (public relations) and in her target market (Phoenix). She began following the head of PR for her alma mater, Northern Arizona University. Soon she was following--and being followed by--some of the top PR agencies in the area, and then flying to Phoenix for interviews. "The hardest part was explaining how I knew the person who'd arranged the interviews," Martin says. "Because I'd never met or spoken to him; we just tweeted."
Human-powered search engines like Mahalo.com and ChaCha.com may be struggling to capture a small fraction of Google's market share, but Twitter trumps them without breaking a sweat.
"Twitter has displaced Google for some kinds of searches," says Jonathan Yarmis, who tracks emerging technologies for AMR Research. "Sometimes Google results are good, and sometimes they're funky. When I put a query out on Twitter, I instantly get back two or three contextually relevant answers."
Take Meetup.com, add Twitter, and you get tweetups--where Twitter users agree to meet at some IRL (in real life) location. There's no way to measure how many Twitterati attend them, but a Google search reveals thousands of tweetups in locales from Tokyo to Tallahassee.
The biggest challenge, according to Yarmis, who has attended tweetups in the Boston area, is getting people to stop tweeting on their cell phones long enough to actually talk to each other.
And the first Twitter TV star is...CNN's Rick Sanchez? The newscaster broke new ground in August when he put viewer tweets--along with cell-phone photos and videos taken from Facebook and MySpace--on screen during his daily program.
At press time, Al Gore's Current TV cable station announced that it would stream filtered user tweets across the screen during this fall's presidential debates. Expect more tweet-on-the-street reports coming to a television set near you.
Got a beef with a company? Twitter may be your best route to the people who can help. At the same time, a company can gauge what customers are saying about it and prevent small problems from becoming big ones.
Online shoe store Zappos encourages its employees to use Twitter, and the company set up its own Twitter site to capture every tweet that mentions it, says CEO Tony Hsieh. "Customers really like feeling more personally connected," says Hsieh, who occasionally gathers feedback on new ideas from his more than 11,000 followers. "It's a way to develop a deeper relationship with them."
Comcast, Dell, Kodak, and JetBlue also use Twitter for customer outreach and support. Of course, the odds of your getting a personal reply from a firm's CEO are slim. But you might get lucky.
Berkeley grad student James Karl Buck discovered the life-saving properties of Twitter when he was arrested by Egyptian authorities last April after photographing an antigovernment protest. He had time to tweet one word--"Arrested"--on his cell phone before he was hauled off. Buck's Twitter friends besieged the U.S. embassy with inquiries, and he was released a day later.
The State Department recently began using Twitter to issue advisories to citizens traveling abroad. So, should you ever find yourself in a tight spot while overseas, Twitter could be your get-out-of-jail-free card. Talk about changing your life in a single tweet!
CNN Breaking News, MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal all maintain Twitter feeds. Nevertheless, tiny operations such as BreakingNewsOn that also have a Twitter presence can sometimes beat them to stories, and mere citizen journalists often provide live snapshots of important events as they unfold.
When police arrested protesters at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis last August, Twitter-fueled news teams were out in force. As MinnPost blogger David Brauer wrote, "By late afternoon...a well-fed Twitter 'follower' would've seen far more of the landscape than anyone not at a surveillance camera: live raid video (via iPhone!), detainee interviews, search warrants, press conferences, post-bust interiors, maps, and more."
Four Reasons Twitter Could Tumble
Twitter's ascendancy from Web 2.0 curiosity to essential tool isn't a sure thing. It could still be tripped up in several ways, assuming that it isn't snapped up first by an industry biggie like Microsoft, Google, or Facebook. It faces at least four pitfalls.
Too often Twitter users log on, only to see the "fail whale"--the cetacean icon Twitter shows when the volume of tweets overwhelms the site's ability to keep up. The site claims better than 99 percent uptime for the previous three months, says Biz Stone. That's with an estimated 3 million users, per the Twitdir user directory. (Twitter doesn't release actual subscriber numbers.) What happens when the user number reaches 30 million?
Does anyone else really care what your cat ate for lunch? Whether the shamÂpoo you just tried out makes your hair oh so shiny? As Twitter continues to grow, the volume of self-indulgent tweets may drown out more-useful information--and drive more productive tweeters to other venues.
Twitter spam is already a depressing reality, though the company has dedicated staff to eradicating the fake profiles that spammers set up. "Spam is an ongoing battle, and we're not backing down," says Stone.
"Spam is an issue for Twitter, but the lack of a business model is or should be of far greater concern with respect to Twitter's viability," says Kevin Restivo, a senior analyst with IDC.
The flip side of the issue? An advertising-based model might turn off people drawn to Twitter because it's both free and ad-free. Stone says Twitter has experimented with advertising on its Japanese site, but he won't comment on future plans. AMR's Yarmis believes that ads or fees are probably inevitable.
"I think we're getting to the point where Twitter will offer privacy for sale," says Yarmis. In other words, if you don't want to see ads, you may have to pay for the privilege or get a less functional version of the service.
Birth: Ah, the miracle of birth, filled with joy, wonder, screaming, and blood. And yet, Carmen Leilani tweeted it all. As she notes in her blog, "Some people think it's insane that I was updating my Twitter stream throughout my childbirth/labor experience--as in during my contractions, from the hospital bed, through my water breaking, my epidural, and immediately after pushing out the Pod." What's worse, we wonder--obsessively announcing how many centimeters you're dilated, or referring to your newborn as "the Pod"?
Death: Reporter Bernie Morson of the Rocky Mountain News probably thought he was being cutting edge when he tweeted the funeral of a three-year-old boy, but it was just morbid. Let's hope we never have to read "family members shovel earth into grave" on Twitter again.
Therapy: In September, licensed clinical hypnotherapist Wendi Friesen launched "hypno-twitter," which she says "will use my hypnosis skills to give my tweeples an instant hypnotic boost of confidence, stress relief, focus, and mental toughness during their day." Right now, we are feeling sleepy, very sleepy. Soon we will submit to being called "tweeples."
- Total Twitter accounts: 2,980,083
- Most followed: Barack Obama, 79,693
- Most tweets: Internet Radio, 511,402 updates
- Average tweets per hour (3 pm UTC): 27,000
- Number of Twitter tools and add-ons: 140+
Note: All figures as of 6 PM ET, September 16, 2008. Sources: Twitdir, Twitterholic, TweetRush, Mashable