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.

By , Columnist

As William Shakespeare wrote, "brevity is the soul of wit." But it's hard to say what the Bard would make of Twitter, the social networking/short message service/"micro-blogging" application that some say will be the new Facebook for the tech world. While the "tweets" that users send to each other are certainly short (no more than 140 characters), one would never get the idea that the messages had been labored over before being sent.

But the real benefit of Twitter, and probably the reason that it's grown in popularity, is its mobility. It liberates users from their computer desktops, letting them stay in constant contact with friends or colleagues. It also has had some surprising uses in politics, emergency services, and reporting.

Twitter started as a research and development project in March 2006 at Obvious, a start-up company in San Francisco. Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey said he got the idea while figuring out how to broadcast messages to ambulances, cabs, and bicycle messengers in major cities. Mr. Dorsey realized that average people might like to use the same kind of service. Instant messaging had proven to be wildly popular, but normally a person had to be at a computer to send a message.

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In April 2007, Obvious launched the free service as Twitter.

In the past, many cellphones offered access to traditional instant messaging providers such as AOL as part of their service package, so the idea of mobile instant messaging is not completely new.

But that's where Twitter's "micro-blogging" aspect comes to the fore. Instead of just IM'ing with one person, on Twitter, you can create a whole community of friends who can send "tweets" to each other all day long – and everyone in the community can see what all the other group members are twittering.

While it sounds a lot like text messaging, Andy Carvin, a social-networking expert and longtime Twitter user, points out three differences:

•It works across different platforms. "Users can send and receive messages from either the Web, text message, instant messaging, RSS, and a whole mess of third-party clients. No matter what device you're using, you'll potentially have access to it."

•It acts as a customized chat room. You only follow the people you wish to follow. So you're not just sending and receiving text messages, but holding a conversation with only the folks that interest you most.

•It's full of influential bloggers, as well as people who pass along messages. "When someone posts something important on it, like primary results, or an earthquake, or the Bhutto assassination, it spreads like wildfire. I usually find out about breaking news on Twitter faster than any other network – broadcast or otherwise," Mr. Carvin says.

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.

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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