What is Twitter, and how do I make it go away?

When I first heard about Twitter a few years ago, it was easy to ignore as part of the background noise of new Web 2.0 properties. In fact, I felt justified in my decision to delay adopting Twitter by a blog post titled “Top Ten Reasons Why Web 2.0 Sucks,” which included the challenge to “walk outside your door and try to find a Twitter user… You’ve got six hours. Go. Trust me, we’re talking to ourselves.” The author was right.

Nowadays, however, it wouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to find a Twitter user. (Ok, maybe only if you’re in a very densely populated area, but still.) When I finally caved and setup my Twitter account two weeks ago (initiating it with the same skepticism and reluctance I used to launch this blog), a search of my Gmail address book discovered I already knew 140 people on Twitter including my dad, one of my favourite novelists and my mother in law.

In the world of internet trends there’s a technical term for this. It’s called being “fashionably late.”

So, if you’re still hoping that Twitter will vanish before you have to learn to understand it, you may be out of luck. It’s here to stay, at least for the next few years. If you’re hearing the word come up with increased frequency in business or social circles, it might be time to try it out.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is an internet application that allows you to keep other people (friends, co-workers, strangers) up to date on your status. You can also use it to share quick thoughts, links, pictures, or pretty much anything you want. The only catch: you have to do it all in 140 characters or less. For example, so far I’ve used it to announce an upcoming musical performance, let people know I was on my way to watch an improv show (and then post a map link once I arrived), complain that I was getting sick, and announce that my train was arriving 45 minutes late.

These tweets, as they’re called, are very similar to a Facebook profile’s status line. (In fact, you can configure Twitter to automatically update your Facebook status.) They can also be described as “micro-blog” posts, good for quick hits that don’t warrant a long-form post, or that perhaps have not yet been flushed out into one.

Why would I use Twitter?

So if Twitter is just a glorified Facebook status, or a blog without any substance (yes, I am contending that some blogs contain substance), why does it matter, and why would anyone want to use it? Here are a few reasons I’ve discovered in my first few weeks:

  1. Twitter is a public conversation. All public tweets are searchable, which means you’re not just talking with yourself or with your friends: you’re interacting with other people who are talking about the same things you are, in real time. The applications for this vary from entertainment (people watching TV, or sharing random thoughts) to practical (people updating each other on the TTC’s status) to news (people reporting on and reacting to real time news events).
  2. Twitter is fluid and versatile. Users can tag their posts with any keyword they want on the fly (#carcrash, #iPhone, #dinner) to instantly create a limitless number of categories and conversations. No need for an administrator to create the conversation; the conversation begins as soon as the first phrase is muttered. You can search the public feed or see what people are taking about right now using trending.
  3. Twitter plays well with others. Instead of taking time away from your Facebook account, your blog and your other online activities, Twitter integrates with them and enhances them. Your blog can update your Twitter account, your Twitter account can update your blog, your Twitter account can update your Facebook status, etc.
  4. Twitter is highly mobile. So far I’ve updated Twitter using the web, an iPhone app, a BlackBerry app and a simple SMS text message, and I haven’t even exhausted all the options. That means that unlike most other things you do online, there are very low barriers to regular, spontaneous use.
  5. Twitter is low commitment. On most social networks (like Facebook) all connections must be mutual (if you want to be friends with me, I have to friend you back). Not so with Twitter, where the people who follow you and the people you follow don’t have to be identical. For example, I can chose to follow the updates of Toronto Mayor David Miller and city councillor Adam Giambrone whether they want to follow me back or not. (In case you’re wondering, the latter does, the former does not.)

Happy tweeting.

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