up and re-imagined, and, not so coincidentally, where Twitter first rolled out in 2007. As someone who was oversubscribed on Facebook, overwhelmed by the computer-generated RSS feeds of news that came flying at me, and swamped by incoming e-mail messages, the last thing I wanted was one more Web-borne intrusion into my life.
And then there was the name. Twitter.
In the pantheon of digital nomenclature — brands within a sector of the economy that grew so fast that all the sensible names were quickly taken — it would be hard to come up with a noun more trite than Twitter. It impugns itself, promising something slight and inconsequential, yet another way to make hours disappear and have nothing to show for it. And just in case the noun is not sufficiently indicting, the verb, “to tweet” is even more embarrassing.
Beyond the dippy lingo, the idea that something intelligent, something worthy of mindshare, might occur in the space of 140 characters — Twitter’s parameters were set by what would fit in a text message on a phone — seems unlikely.
But it was clear that at the conference, the primary news platform was Twitter, with real-time annotation of the panels on stage and critical updates about what was happening elsewhere at a very hectic convention. At 52, I succumbed, partly out of professional necessity.
And now, nearly a year later, has Twitter turned my brain to mush? No, I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible, and instead of spending a half-hour surfing in search of illumination, I get a sense of the day’s news and how people are reacting to it in the time that it takes to wait for coffee at Starbucks. Yes, I worry about my ability to think long thoughts — where was I, anyway? — but the tradeoff has been worth it.
Some time soon, the company won’t say when, the 100-millionth person will have signed on to Twitter to follow and be followed by friends and strangers. That may sound like a MySpace waiting to happen — remember MySpace? — but I’m convinced Twitter is here to stay.
And I’m not alone.
“The history of the Internet suggests that there have been cool Web sites that go in and out of fashion and then there have been open standards that become plumbing,” said Steven Johnson, the author and technology observer who wrote a seminal piece about Twitter for Time last June. “Twitter is looking more and more like plumbing, and plumbing is eternal.”
Really? What could anyone possibly find useful in this cacophony of short-burst communication?
Well, that depends on whom you ask, but more importantly whom you follow. On Twitter, anyone may follow anyone, but there is very little expectation of reciprocity. By carefully curating the people you follow, Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people in their respective fields, whose tweets are often full of links to incredibly vital, timely information.
The most frequent objection to Twitter is a predictable one: “I don’t need to know someone is eating a donut right now.” But if that someone is a serious user of Twitter, she or he might actually be eating the curmudgeon’s lunch, racing ahead with a clear, up-to-the-second picture of an increasingly connected, busy world. The service has obvious utility for a journalist, but no matter what business you are in, imagine knowing what the thought leaders in your industry were reading and considering. And beyond following specific individuals, Twitter hash tags allow you to go deep into interests and obsession: #rollerderby, #physics, #puppets and #Avatar, to name just a few of many thousands.
The act of publishing on Twitter is so friction-free — a few keystrokes and hit send — that you can forget that others are out there listening. I was on a Virgin America cross-country flight, and used its wireless connection to tweet about the fact that the guy next to me seemed to be the leader of a cult involving Axe body spray. A half-hour later, a steward approached me and said he wondered if I would be more comfortable with a seat in the bulkhead. (He turned out to be a great guy, but I was doing a story involving another part of the company, so I had to decline the offer. @VirginAmerica, its corporate Twitter account, sent me a message afterward saying perhaps it should develop a screening process for Axe. It was creepy and comforting all at once.)
Like many newbies on Twitter, I vastly overestimated the importance of broadcasting on Twitter and after a while, I realized that I was not Moses and neither Twitter nor its users were wondering what I thought. Nearly a year in, I’ve come to understand that the real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice.