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Twittering Away

Spring brings the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive, film and music festivals and conferences to Austin, Texas. This year, the events also spawned new interest in Twitter, the first microblog and originally an R&D project of Odeo. Tech celebrities at SXSW made heavy use of Twitter and created tremendous attention for it in their blogs and in the media. Winning the Web Award in the blog category increased the hype around it, though some users find the 140 character limitation difficult to work with.
Members of the media have been critical. Lee Gomes, venerable tech reporter for The Wall Street Journal, indicated his irritation with Twitter in a column on July 11, 2007, stating, “Why did I need to know that blogger X just had a chicken sandwich for lunch?”
True enough, but my experience with Twitter has been different. As Clive Thompson pointed out in the July issue of Wired, “Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.” Indeed, this is what I like about Twitter–the feeling that I’m connected to others in various countries who are often, amazingly, doing the same thing I am in their daily lives. Within seconds of signing up, I was reading posts by an engineer in China who was riding in a taxi in Beijing. OK, not earth-shattering, but it certainly supports the notion that we are more similar than not.
Waste of time vs. technical touchstone
Is Twitter the Internet equivalent of pollution and a waste of time? If you’re looking for ultimate wisdom, it’s true that Twitter may not be of interest. For me, Twitter acts as a kind of technical touchstone–a reminder that we’re all in this together whether we’re Karl Rove, Martha Stewart, a yoga instructor or the bus driver that passed you this morning on the freeway.
When I was kid hiking with a group of friends, we entered a cave. In the inky black without a flashlight, I was certain I was next to a wall. I tapped and patted to measure what was unseen but surrounding me. Twitter feels the same way. In sailing, it’s called point-to-point navigation, a process by which sailors memorize landmarks or points as guides to help them get to their destination in low-visibility weather. Twitter is definitely not about depth–for that there are face-to-face discussions, email, phones, a blog, word processing software and other methods of communication. Instead, I see it as a series of quick touches to stay checked-in and balanced.
Whether Twitter maintains its high rate of adoption remains to be seen. I’m betting it’s the harbinger of more technology that lets people express themselves quickly, easily, wherever they are and whenever they choose.

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