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Twitter: How news and politics plays on a popular social networking service

It lets users know what their friends are up to and also serves as an alert service for breaking news.

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To be sure, Twittering may not be for everyone. While it allows friends to stay in touch with each other, it can be overwhelming – like being surrounded by people who are talking all the time.

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And if your cellphone service does not offer a "short message service" package, you can end up with a tidy little bill. (Don't worry: When you send a message via Twitter to 1,000 members in your community, you're not charged for 1,000 messages, just one. The big charges come from sending tweets all day.)

But Twitter seems to be morphing into something more than a way for friends to chat endlessly: During the Los Angeles fires last summer, the fire department used Twitter to issue alerts and updates. They still use it.

Rob Patterson, a Canadian blogger and social-networking pioneer, has been talking about journalistic uses for Twitter on his website. He writes: "Have an [individual] in every … newsroom set up their own Twitter account and have them dig deep into their own broadcast area – link all of these into a … Twitter Network. Now you have the US covered. Not a mouse could sneeze without a Twitter stringer [finding out]. Tornado coming to your town – real time Twittering. Plane crash in your state – a witness Twitters."

Already, some reporters and bloggers use Twitter to build readership. For example: the Pop Candy Blog at usatoday.com, written by Whitney Matheson. After a recent panel discussion in which we both participated, Ms. Matheson told me she twitters with her readers all day. They generate ideas for her blog or let her know about events before they pop up in the news, she says.

Twitter also made itself known during the Iowa caucuses. Political ac­­­­tivist Patrick Ruffini and website Tech­resident.com set up an experiment to see if Twitter could "do a better job at covering election night than the media," Mr. Ruffini writes. Participants who were also caucusing sent updates on how the selection of candidates was evolving – often providing faster access to events than any cable TV network.

Other news organizations, including USA Today, National Public Radio, and The New York Times are also using Twitter to help get the news out.

Twitter may not be for everyone. But as it continues to find new uses, you might be surprised to find yourself sending a tweet one day yourself.

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