I was surprised at the results of our current web site poll, about social networking. Only one respondent uses the web service Twitter.
When I first heard about Twitter, I thought it was the stupidest idea I ever heard. I tried it out at one point, shrugged and went "eh," and cancelled my account after a couple of weeks.
But last summer, when I attended a conference on blogging and new media in Nashville, I began to understand a little more about Twitter's usefulness. I set up a new account and have been using it ever since.
Twitter is difficult to explain, and most explanations of it will leave you with my initial reaction. It's one of those things you actually have to try out to understand.
Twitter (twitter.com) is a service that lets you post very brief messages -- 140 characters or fewer -- by computer or cell phone. Your messages (called "updates" or sometimes "tweets") can be seen by people who have signed up to "follow" you on Twitter. You can block people whom you don't want following you, and it isn't required to be a two-way relationship.
You can read Twitter updates online or on your cellphone or other wireless device.
The most common type of Twitter update (and, in many ways, the least interesting) is a sort of miniature blog post about the user's life.
"Home from work. The dog has gotten into the garbage again."
If that were the only application of Twitter, I think it would have long since faded away. But people have found other ways of using Twitter that are far more interesting.
One place Twitter really shines is during an event. When I was at the new media conference (called "BarCamp") last summer, many of those in attendance had laptops with wireless access, and many of them were Twittering about the conference. I didn't have a laptop, or wireless, but I had the good fortune of sitting next to a computer monitor where a special BarCamp Twitter conversation was displayed. People were reacting, in real time, to what was being said on stage -- having a Twitter conversation even as the event was taking place.
Recently, one of the presidential debates was taking place, and even though I wasn't watching the debate, several people whom I follow regularly were watching it on TV and conversing about it on Twitter. I've seen similar conversations about things like awards shows or "American Idol."
A tweet is also a great way to post a link to something you've found and want to share with your friends, like a blog post, web site or online video.
Over the weekend, a casual acquaintance (I've only met her in person once) posted a tweet from her cell phone asking someone with web access to call her. I did so. She was driving through an unfamiliar part of North Carolina, through some storms, and the sky looked threatening. She turned on her radio, but couldn't figure out which stations were local and might carry tornado warning information.
I got onto a weather web site and confirmed that while there were thunderstorm warnings for the area, there were no tornado watches or warnings. She was relieved, and continued carefully on her journey rather than stopping to seek shelter.
Twitter is one of those social networking sites (like MySpace or Facebook) that you can't really use in a vacuum. It doesn't do you any good unless you have people to converse with. But the signup process offers ways of searching your address book to see if any of your existing contacts are already using Twitter.
You might find, like me, that you don't quite "get it" at first. But you might also find, like me, that it starts to grow on you after a while.