For its critics, Twitter is the most pointless service on the internet. It's a text box, and a question: 'What are you doing?'
You might well wonder.
You type your latest update into the box (using a maximum of 140 characters), hit [Enter] and out it goes to anyone who's following you. In return, you get to read about what they're doing.
Never before has there been so great a chance to show the world just how dull your life is; now we all know that you can afford to waste precious seconds announcing that you quite like crispy bacon in the morning. Except that isn't what Twitter is. Not any more.
You can use it like that if you want to, but increasingly the service is becoming something much more interesting – a whole platform built entirely on short messages. It doesn't have much interesting technology behind it – the basic functionality can be whipped up in a day by any even vaguely capable programmer – but it has something that no amount of code alone can get you: a massive, ever-growing audience.
Twitter's model is simple. You follow other people and get followed in return. If someone follows you, then you can send them a private message, which works like an email. If not, you can send them a public message by typing @username, for example: '@richardcobbett Stop promoting your Twitter account'.
Depending on the client being used, the recipient of an @reply message may not see these in their main feed, but it's easy to choose to see only replies to your status and the people who sent them, and thus start off conversations. Not long ones, though – if only for the sake of the other people following you.
The wisdom of crowds
Individual posts – called 'tweets' – are usually pretty pointless, but you're not really meant to read someone's feed directly. The fun comes from the posts thrown together into your own custom stream, which mashes up conversations, celebrity stalking, pictures, or whatever else you happen to be following.
The result is a handy digest of interesting things, almost all ephemeral and disposable, but with the potential to hook you up, chat with people of interest, and – in one of Twitter's more useful features – hear about things that you didn't know by hooking into the personal grapevines of people who make it their business to have the news first.
Google's recent outage is a good example of this. For about an hour back in January, its malware detector started claiming that every website 'may harm your computer'. Before Google had a chance to respond, before blogs had a chance to write posts, Twitter users had already done the important investigation – that yes, it was a problem on Google's end, that no, it wasn't spyware at fault – and broadcast it.
To spread the word, they used a 'hashtag' – a unique post identifier that anyone can search for – to connect the subject's posts. This didn't require any new technology at Twitter's end. People posting simply had to add the phrase '#googmayharm' to their posts and they'd appear to anyone searching.
Another recent hashtag is '#mov', which is used by the Bad Movie Club to coordinate its simultaneous global commenting on films such as The Happening (everyone watches the movie at an agreed time and tweets their thoughts on it live). Celebrities involved included Phill Jupitus (@jupitusphillip) and Father Ted writer Graham Linehan (@glinner).
Twitter has also proved itself to be important in more urgent situations, including the Mumbai bombings, the water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York and the arrest of a student for photographing an anti-government protest in Egypt. By Twittering about his arrest, the student's college was able to have a lawyer ready to defend him by the morning and make sure that the US Embassy and press were informed.
When Twitter was first set up, there were two basic ways to use it: via phone (SMS, hence the 140 character limit) and via the web interface. Both are still available, although receiving SMS alerts has been deactivated in the UK. Increasingly, however, people are moving to dedicated clients or more advanced services built on the technology. Twitterfeed, for example, reads any RSS feed you give it and posts links to Twitter.
Splitweet is a straight replacement for the standard Twitter screen, but it supports multiple accounts and has built-in support for letting you know when you, your website or your projects are being mentioned. The main problem with Twitter projects is that the only way to use them is to hand over your username and password – and when they're gone, they're gone.
The service badly needs an authentication system along the lines of Flickr, where sites are only given permission to hook into your feed and you can revoke their rights at any time. Twitter is many things, but carefully engineered is not one of them.
It's struggled with stability and scalability for most of its short life, with the curious upshot of making an internet star out of the silly cartoon whale (the 'fail whale') that the service shows on its error page. The most slapdash part of the whole thing, however, is that nobody has a clue about how the service can make money.
We occasionally hear that there are plans – from offering proper tracking systems for companies' tweets to charging famous users for having too many followers – but all of them are firmly in the land of rumour and conjecture, and most don't make a lot of sense. Twitter claims to have a plan beyond burning through money from hopeful venture capitalists. If so, it's about time the rest of us heard about it.
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