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Twitter reaches the media class

I'm not sure what the trigger was, if anything. It may have been the press coverage of the use of Twitter in disseminating news about the Mumbai attacks. Maybe it's all the press coverage Rachel Maddow's been getting that never fails to mention that she uses Twitter. Or maybe it was just an inevitable step in the growth of the service, but whatever the explanation, Twitter has reached the media class.

I mean that in a genuinely immediate sense. Like just the last week or two. Obviously Twitter has been popular for a long time, almost from its introduction as I recall, but the nature of its adoption seems to have shifted since around Thanksgiving. Within a day of each other, Kathleen Parker wrote about Twitter in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal did a similar overview and N.Y. Times columnist Nicholas Kristof signed on.

(No, I don't think it has anything to do with Rick Sanchez.)

Shaquille O'Neal felt strongly enough about the significance of Twitter that a couple of weeks ago he signed up to foil an imposter. (And I learned of that story from Kanye West, who chose Twitter as the method with which to respond to Stephen Colbert's Operation Humble Kanye.)

As of the drafting of this entry, Michelle Malkin began Twittering 7 hours ago.

So since I've never really written a Twitter overview and questions have come up in comments on this blog and elsewhere I'll give you my nutshell perspective (because it's way more simple than some of the hype makes it seem).

Twitter is word of mouth made visual. That's what makes it so exciting. The Kathleen Parker piece mentioned above gets it backward because she buys into the Twitter catch phrase "What are you doing?" The best part of Twitter is not the talking about what you're doing but the listening to others. You listen in two ways, you search or you follow.

Search for Mumbai while terror attacks are happening there and you get a noisy but occasionally very immediate view from people on the scene. With the Maddow show I've been encouraging fans to search for Maddow and to also Tweet Maddow during the show. Their tweets show up in the search results and form a sort of chat room from which fans can network.

Following is a little more difficult because you have to find people worth following. There are a few services out there to help you do that (I'm still waiting to hear from Mr. Tweet). And Google will produce a lot of lists. I began by following a few names from the "most followed" list at Twitterholic.

Once you start following a few people your list is bound to grow because you'll see their recommendations and who they're talking to and who they're following and it's really easy to add and subtract from your follow list. My personal account is only following 40 or so people. But I also monitor the Maddow account and she's following 544 people. Surprisingly, it's not an unmanageable amount of content. The beauty of the "follow" is that unlike blogging that requires a steady stream of content to maintain and grow an audience, with Twitter, your followers are standing by, ready when you are. And if you're not tweeting, you're not wasting anyone's time.

There is some drama associated with following and being followed. Some people care very much about the ratio of followers to followed - if you're not watching as many people as are watching you, you're a snob. Similar accusations come up when people don't "follow back." Not unlike blogroll drama with some bloggers, I've seen some Twitter users have to announce their "follow policy" to avoid any hard feelings. As with anything, if you look for drama you'll find it.

I've mentioned that I use Twhirl to follow Twitter activity. I like it because it makes Twitter resemble an instant messenger. Sometimes I notice there can be a lag between something showing up on Twitter and the time it takes to arrive in Twhirl but it works good enough for me. A lot of people use Twitter exclusively on their phones. You'll notice that after every tweet is a note of when it was sent and where it was sent from. Watch what other people are posting from for suggestions on other apps you might want to try.

The only codes you really need:

  • @ sends a public message to someone else
  • d sends a private message to someone else
  • # doesn't send a message but does tag your Tweet so it comes up in searches for that tag
  • RT means retweet and it's usually followed by @ to indicate the source of the tweet you're relaying. The networking word-of-mouth power of Twitter is well illustrated when one person tweets a message and a follower retweets that message to their own followers.

Lastly, because you're only allowed 140 characters per tweet, if you're sharing a link you can eat up a lot of valuable character real estate. Twitterers use URL shortening services like tinyurl.com to reduce the space taken up by long links.

Hopefully this will serve as good grounding for the new wave of hype that's surely on the way.