So what is Twitter, and why all the rage over it?

On Blogs

April 01, 2007|By Troy McCullough | Troy McCullough,Sun Columnist

Calling Twitter the latest viral Web application would be a severe understatement - it's been downright epidemic.

Since the influential South by Southwest Interactive Conference last month, prominent bloggers and tech media types have been hyping this little "micro blogging" site no end.

Twitter membership has jumped in recent days into the tens of thousands. It's been one of the top search terms on blog tracker Technorati for days. And its "Next Big Thing" status is undisputed.

And yet no one seems to be able to articulate why.

At first glance, the application is as simple as they come: Users sign up for an account and then are able to post very short blog-like messages on the Twitter site. Twitter suggests that people use the site to answer one simple question: What are you doing right now?

"The basis of Twitter's popularity is very simple, elegant, and potentially addictive: Send super-short messages (maximum 140 characters) to groups of `followers' via web, SMS, or IM and receive the same messages from all of your `friends,' " writes Eric Berlin of Blogcritics magazine.

Praise has come from some of the highest corners of the blog world.

"Twitter is the first thing on the Web that I've been excited about in ages," gushed blogger Jason Kottke, whose long-running blog, kottke. org, is one of the most read and most influential sites online today.

"Playing with Twitter reminds me of blogging circa 2000," he adds. "Back then, all weblogs were personal in nature and most people used them to communicate with their friends and family. If I wanted to know what my friends were up to back then, I read their blogs. Now I follow Twitter (and Flickr and Vox)."

Connecting with friends seems to be one of Twitter's selling points. But friends have been doing this for years on "traditional" blogs and through social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Twitter's major distinction from past applications appears to be its scaled-down simplicity.

But consider a random sampling of Twitter posts:

"Lunchtime. ... Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, low sodium and low fat," wrote one Twitter user.

"Oh boy! Time for history class. I wonder if the vandalized computers in the classrooms are working yet?" posted another.

"Soar throat? [sic] Gargle with one teaspoon of cayenne pepper powder in a glass of warm water," suggested a third.

Sore throat sufferers aside, even friends of these Twitter users would struggle to find something interesting here.

"Is it just me, or is the Internet becoming more and more like passing notes in 7th grade?" asked a skeptical reader on Kottke's site.

"So YouTube is out and Twitter is in? Wow, I guess the Internet is only useful for people 13-24," echoed a commenter in a discussion on Meta- Filter.

In response to the growing question of how to use this thing that everybody says is brilliant but nobody can quite figure out, went as far as to create a productivity guide ( twitter-use-it-productively.html). People can use Twitter for a to-do list, to keep friends and co-workers up to date on daily events or as a scaled-down newsletter, Lifehack suggests.

But again, it's not easy to see how this differs from the way people are already using the Internet. Twitter is new and has been sanctioned by blogging's upper echelon, and that appears to be enough for now.

And that same upper echelon has been quick to defend its new favorite Web site from detractors. Criticizing Twitter runs the risk of being labeled a backward-thinking dolt by the converts.

But count me among the unenlightened.

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