If you haven't taken a stance on the raging Twitter debate, don't feel bad. The free, fledgling Web service counts only around 80,000 subscribers. And while Twitter has been around for a year, things didn't start heating up until early March. Since then, bloggers have debated whether Twitter represents a leap forward in online communication--or the faint, first chirps of an attention apocalypse.
Twitter is a twist on instant messaging. It lets subscribers send short updates about their every move and thought to the cell phones and personalized Web sites of groups of folks, rather than just to individuals. When it was launched a year ago by Obvious Corp., a startup formed by blogging technology pioneer Evan Williams, the idea was to offer a simple service people could use to send text message updates to the cell phones of their friends. Late last year, the service was tweaked to let users get and send updates without first entering their phone number. And they could send them from instant messaging services and a personalized Twitter site. That's when bloggers started buzzing. Even digi-savvy Presidential candidate John Edwards signed up, sending out updates such as "Washington D.C. today. About to make remarks at the Int'l Assoc. of Firefighters."
Twitter really caught fire, though, at the South by Southwest music and digital conference, held Mar. 9-18 in Austin, Tex. Obvious cleverly prepared the ground, setting up two 51-inch plasma screens next to the conference registration desk and in a hallway where panels let out. As the techie crowd milled around, they began paying attention to the scrolling updates from bloggers about hot parties, panels, and restaurants. "You would go into a panel room and 20% of the people would be staring at their phones, sending out or getting updates," says Narendra Rocherolle, an early Twitter user.
Twitter taps into a basic need of many Web users: to suck up every last crumb of personalized information, instantly. Steve Rubel, a public-relations exec who can't seem to stop blogging about Twitter despite protests from some of his readers, points to how Twitter was his first source of news for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's conviction. Other Twitter fans boast that they beat the U.S. Geological Survey in relaying news about a recent moderate quake in San Francisco. For some, Twitter reflects the increasing power of word-of-mouth networks to change how news is made and defined and how marketing is distributed.
But in pointing to a world where the noise of the social crowd is amped up exponentially, Twitter forces into the open a basic schism--between those who want to know what everyone is doing all the time and those who are revolted at the idea of giving up that information or caring about anyone else's. "We're hitting a world where we're constantly connected," says Dave Cote, a marketing consultant who wrote a blog post entitled Twitter is for Twits. "It's creepy to me. Why does someone need to know I am putting on my socks?" he asks.
In a recent blog post, RIP Twitter (2007-2007), Mathieu Balez, a Web entrepreneur, knocked the mundane nature of Twitter posts ("Going to the gym," "Groceries with mother-in-law") and the voyeurism of readers. Twitter will be history by the yearend, abandoned by former fans too tired to keep up with endless streams of quotidian tidbits, he predicted. Balez's blog was soon flooded with comments, pro and con. "Yeah sure," one Twitter supporter replied. "Twitter will die. Just as text messages, mobile phones, blogs, the Internet..."
Of course, there's another possibility: that Twitter will begin to provide services that have more obvious value. In different contexts, say among friends or colleagues, knowing that someone is sick or at lunch explains why they aren't returning your call or why they're so cranky, argues Ross Mayfield, chief executive of corporate wiki outfit Socialtext Inc.
For that to happen, the information--or time required to enter it--can't be overwhelming. And Twitter must refine its filters. Right now it's possible to direct updates to one person, but imagine if you could selectively reach certain groups of colleagues and filter recipients according to subjects, like restaurants. Already, Twitter tools are popping up, such as maps that show where people are twittering and a Twitter search engine.
Twitter may or may not survive the year. But the idea behind it could live on--and result in the sort of message you truly do want to hear.
By Heather Green