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We’re Connecting — and Wasting Time — on Twitter

June 24, 2008

By Patrick May, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Jun. 22–Some have called Twitter “the ‘Seinfeld’ of the Internet — a Web site about nothing.” And at first glance, this micro-blogging tool that connects users around the world through short bursts of real-time text messages can seem mindlessly superficial.

“just ate a great burrito,” types one Twitterer.

“time for a nap,” says another.

But drill down a bit, its fans say, and the San Francisco-based network has all the makings of an Internet phenomenon with vast potential for social, business, political and cultural applications. Critics say Twitter, which can be accessed by computer, instant messaging, PDAs and cell phones, is prone to system crashes, has yet to show how it will turn a profit, and seduces its addicted users into unproductive dead zones — “a time-suck” says one critic, “for those not able to stay away.”

But don’t tell that to the users — 1.2 million unique visitors in May, by one account — who have embraced the 2-year-old tool and use it to trade sports scores, organize protests and even hire new employees. Many who try Twitter are smitten.

“Once I figured out how to filter through all the content, I was hooked,” said Christine Perkett, a mother of two using Twitter to trade parenting tips on everything from Montessori schools to the most absorbent diapers. “As your Twitter network expands, you really start to learn from these other parents.”

“It’s nowhere near mainstream,” says Rodney Rumford, whose “Definitive Guide to Twitter” is about to be published. “But it represents a fundamental shift in the way people communicate. Just like blogging changed the way people share information, Twitter does that, too.”

Co-founder and Chief Executive Jack Dorsey came up with the idea of friends sharing real-time “status updates” of 140 characters or less. The 31-year-old Missourian compares Twitter to the latest in “a progression from telegraph to phone to e-mail to instant messaging.” Twitter, he says, removes the conversation and focuses simply on updates.

The concept is deceptively simple. Sign up online for free. In the search box, enter a professional or personal interest, such as “food.” A list of Twitterers — iLuvFood, for example — pops up and you select some of these strangers to “follow.” In a box below the words “What are you doing?” you start to Twitter, firing off shorts bursts of 140 characters or less. Before you know it, many of the folks you’re following are following you, too.

Despite its appeal to the so-called early adopters who jump on the latest tech toy, some analysts question whether Twitter will find a larger audience. “Too geeky for the mainstream,” says Mark Glaser of PBS’s MediaShift blog, “even though usage right now is exploding.”

Business model?

Founder Dorsey won’t say how many users Twitter has or how it plans to make money. Revenue could come from ads, which Twitter is now testing on its popular Japanese site. While assessments differ widely, Nielsen/NetRatings estimated there were more than a million unique visitors to Twitter.com in May. And while that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the 26 million visitors to Facebook in the same month, Twitter’s traffic has more than doubled since March.

Even so, Jeremiah Owyang, senior analyst with Forrester Research, says “to expect everyone to use this tool is very unlikely; it will be for only a small percentage of Internet users. And it will absolutely have competition, once the cell phone industry figures out another way to enhance their text-messaging systems and charge for it.”

In the meantime, Twitterers are using it for an array of purposes. They’re sharing product recommendations and restaurant mini-reviews. They’re composing Twitter novels, organizing spontaneous parties, sharing diet diaries. They’re Tweeting live updates from Disneyland on Twisney, one of hundreds of third-party sites that have sprung up across the Twitosphere.

In April, for example, Tibetan activists protesting the Olympic torch relay through San Francisco used Twitter to keep tabs on each other, their opponents and the elusive flame.

Yet the same qualities that draw some people to become obsessive Twitterers can drive others crazy. Scott Karp, a well-known media-tech blogger, describes Twitter as a “massive waste of time” and “the temptation to Tweet for the sake of Tweeting is way too high.”

Others point out that the tool, along with lesser-known competitors like Pownce and Jaiku, can be easily abused by self-promoters, aggressive marketers and online ego-trippers trying to build a bigger network than the next guy.

“Some users are actually competing for followers,” says Rod Bauer, 53, a marketing consultant who works out of his sailboat in Sausalito. “They’re either celebrities or they’re promoting their own businesses. It can get a bit tiresome, but it’s part of the culture.”

Twitter’s origins

That culture was born in early 2006 at podcasting service Odeo, where Dorsey worked with blogging pioneer Biz Stone, now 34 and Twitter’s co-founder and creative director. Brainstorming new ideas, Stone said he and Dorsey, “let our minds drift a bit. What if we could reduce some of the functions of the social-network sites, like journaling, but make it less verbose and more lightweight?”

Simplify, they thought. Write code that would allow users to post “status messages” online or with their phones “and you could access them anytime and anywhere and find out what your friends were up to,” Stone says. They ran the idea by Nebraska native Evan Williams, now Twitter’s chief product officer, who had worked with Stone at Google before starting up Odeo. Williams gave the green light, says Stone, so “we built a prototype in two weeks and let our friends try it. Everyone liked it. The immediacy of it really clicked with people.”

In early 2007, they formed Twitter with the help of venture-capital and other investors. Wildfires in Southern California and the South by Southwest music conference in Austin showed that a micro-blogging tool like Twitter could be used to organize conferencegoers, as well as broadcast updates among firefighters, news media and residents in the fires’ path.

Some of the more intriguing Twitter adopters have included Fortune 500 companies like Comcast and Dell, which along with JetBlue Airways, the New York Times and scores of smaller businesses like online shoe seller Zappos, are using the tool for customer service, hiring, instant polls and marketing.

Job seekers are also trolling for openings, commiserating with their fellow unemployed, and in the words of aspiring marketer Clara Kuo, 25, of San Jose, doing a little “personal branding.”

“That’s a big thing right now for people my age,” she says. “There are lots of smart people out there, but you have to differentiate yourself from everyone else.”

So instead of sending out resumes on her own, Kuo’s hoping the 104 people she’s following through Twitter might help lead the way.

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