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Oprah tweets, Twitter arrives

With more than 14 million users, rumors of deals with Google, and celebrity Twitterers, the social networking tool has become all the rage.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2009

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey sits down with Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter, during a live broadcast of her TV show.

George Burns/Harpo Productions/AP

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San Francisco

It was probably the highest profile tweet-up in the brief life of tweet-ups.

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Oprah Winfrey met Evan Williams, cofounder of the social networking site Twitter, on her Friday talk show. Oprah wanted to tweet. Mr. Williams tweets. And the two make Twitter history.

Since its launch in March 2006, Twitter has had a meteoric rise, growing to more than 14 million users – much of that just in the past few months. The micro-blogging tool has helped create new online communities and spread information – about protests, parties, and, sometimes, just gossip – around the Internet at an ever-faster pace.

It even has its own language. According to the “twictionary” website (the name comes from meshing the words Twitter and dictionary), a tweet-up is a real-life get together between two or more people who connected through Twitter.

A tweet is a 140-character message posted on Twitter.

But can all of this twittering make Twitter money – it hasn’t yet – and how will it influence the growing number of businesses, celebrities, and politicians that are excited by the marketing potential on the site?

Twitter is still figuring all that out, says Dom Sagolla, a software engineer who helped create Twitter and author of the forthcoming book “140 Characters,” about how to effectively communicate on the site.

Mr. Sagolla, who now works for Adobe and is an independent computer consultant, too, was user No. 9 on Twitter when he worked with the San Francisco start-up that hatched the idea. His first substantive message on the site: “Oh this is going to be addictive.”

(Oprah’s first message? “HI TWITTERS. THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. FEELING REALLY 21st CENTURY.”)

Sagolla says Twitter is focused on building value before building a profit. “And the value is this huge community,” he says. “No one knew they needed Twitter until they had it.”

And now that many have it, they appear to be hooked.

Much of the draw has been due to the growing crop of celebrity Twitterers – the most popular being actor Ashton Kutcher. Mr. Kutcher had challenged CNN to a competition to see who could cross the 1 million mark. On Thursday night, he won.

What’s the best use for Twitter? That depends, says Sagolla, on what you want to say, who you want to hear, and what you want to do with the site. “The possibilities just exponentiate,” he says.

“The best way to use Twitter is just to use it a lot and recognize when you are being successful and when you are failing,” Sagolla says.

But where does all this Twittering lead? And will it be a useful tool to businesses as a valuable marketplace?

Unlikely, says Barbara Quint, technology expert and editor of Searcher Magazine.

People are under the impression that they are talking to the world when trying to market themselves on social networking sites, she says. “But they are only talking to a small niche,” she says.

Twitter does have a lot of users. In fact, it saw a 131 percent rise in unique users in March alone, according to Internet research company comScore Inc. Capturing the bulk of those users, however, can be a challenge. Oprah and Mr. Kutcher can do it. But few have their brand power.

“The thing they have that everybody wants is eyeballs, but how do you monitize eyeballs?” says Ms. Quint, “Google has found a way to do it.”'

But can Twitter?

There have been rumors that Google, which turned a higher-than-expected profit during the first quarter of this year with $1.42 billion in earnings, may use some of that cash to buy Twitter.

But that’s not where Twitter founders appear to be going – at least not just yet. According to business magazine Fast Company, Twitter cofounder Biz Stone says they have talked to Google. But that’s all it’s been so far: just talk.