My Guardian column this week is a tribute to Twitter. Since I haven’t written about that much in the blog, here’s the full text:
When I first used the microblogging platform Twitter – which enables users to publish 140-character-long messages via the web and mobile phones – I thought it was silly. Or rather, the uses to which it was being put were silly: people announcing that they’d just woken up or what they’d had for breakfast. I couldn’t have cared less. But then I should confess that when I first used blogs and podcasts, I didn’t fully comprehend their impact either. So, when my son and webmaster told me I should take another stab at Twitter, I did. And I now see it is an important evolutionary step in the rise of blogging.
I just Twittered this: “I’m writing a column about Twitter and Twittering that.” Not everybody on Twitter saw that update on my life, only those people who care to follow me on the site. That is a critical characteristic of Twitter: it’s selective, in that users choose whether to follow me. And it’s social, in that I choose whom to follow. So we’re not publishing to the big, wide world. We’re talking with our friends and acquaintances.
But at the same time, I can choose to automatically feed my tweet – as an individual Twitter message is called – on to my Facebook profile and also on to my blog page, where more friends can see what I’m up to. That’s another key attribute of the service: it creates feeds. I believe we will be seeing more and more news and other content presented as feeds rather than as packaged products.
I read feeds of my friends’ updates on twitter.com or on my phone via SMS (that is what sets the 140-character limit on messages). I also read feeds of news headlines from the Guardian and individual reporters. Jim Long, a network news photographer, Twitters from White House trips. Ana Marie Cox, the former Wonkette blogger and queen of the snarky political post, has been using Twitter to cover the US primaries for Time.com. I blogged about that, saying she has found the perfect medium for her bon mots and snipes. She responded that Twitter is the perfect medium for covering a campaign. The format gives us a glimpse into what’s happening right now, and cuts to the bone. It’s a hack’s haiku.
Some samples from Cox: “Spin room has already started. Can hear the gentle murmur of BS already sloshing about in the hall … McCain donor just announced he was footing the bar bill for the night. You can start calling him ‘ambassador’ now … Ron Paul compresses coal into diamonds in his mouth … Mitt has so many things ‘in my bloodstream’ (cars, Michigan, business) you could make a v powerful vaccine out of him … First washing-of-underwear-in-sink of presidential cycle 2008!… Enjoying immensely that the pundits got it all, all globally wrong. In most professions, you’d lose your job.”
Because Twitter opened itself up with an API – a programming interface that enables developers to create new services on top of it – all sorts of new inventions are springing up. CommuterFeed is a Twitter service that lets fellow travellers share alerts about problems on their routes to work. Whenever you broadcast a live mobile video on Qik.com, it enables you to send a post to Twitter to alert all your friends to watch. PR people are searching Twitter to find hot topics. I used Twitter to create a tool for collaborative criticism (imagine seeing your friends’ snide remarks as you all watch Pop Idol at the same time, each from your own couches). News sites are using Twitter to get witnesses to share updates on major news events, like earthquakes.
Says political blogger Patrick Ruffini: “Traditional news operated on a 24-hour cycle. Blogs shortened this to minutes and hours. Twitter shortens it further to seconds. It’s not right for every piece of information. But when it comes to instantly assembling raw data from several sources that then go into fully baked news stories, nothing beats it.”
All this springs from a deceptively simple idea and tool. And that is what never ceases to amaze me about the internet: create a platform, make it open, and people will do things with it that you never could have imagined. Considering that Twitter was cofounded by Evan Williams, who also cofounded the company that created Blogger and popularised personal publishing, I should have seen it coming. I just forgot that, on the web, big things often come in small packages.