Twitter is here to stay. It’s not all LOLCats any more, or even just meeting Shaq in a diner on a whim. Twitter is a new communications medium, or maybe just an old one, repurposed: the water cooler, sized to global scale.
People have made fun of Twitter, calling it “140 characters of inanity”. I’ve seen Twitter play three crucial roles lately that make me think that its use will grow rather than shrink in the months and years ahead. This tool is now an instant news feed, a better and crowdsourced RSS reader, and a way to ask questions both of a small group of friends you know and a vast pool of people containing some you might like to know. Despite our confusion with what to Twitter sometimes, it’s here to stay.
Twitter already provides a real-time news feed, locally sourced, on almost any topic. Today the “feed” is a bit thin for non-major events, but search on http://search.twitter.com for even the most obscure subjects and you will get some contextual information. Because this tool is commonly accessed via a mobile phone, Twitter is also local to the news. Search for geeky information (#sxsw) and serious information, say US Airways 1549 — the airplane that successfully crash-landed in a river — and you get the idea. Not only the “what’s happening today”, but what, where, and when it happened is captured in an easy-to-digest stream.
Twitter is also a valuable, “crowdsourced” RSS reader. Every day I learn about silly, fun, and poignant content on the Internet just because of the people I follow on Twitter. With the advent of analytic tools like Twist, you can also see if the rest of the world thinks your LOLCats are funny or if it’s just you. Seriously, Twitter now provides an almost-real time feed to links and RSS feeds (and increasingly documents and pictures as well) using the same 140 characters that also funnel you interesting news, banal observations, and “where are u” Tweets.
Perhaps the most interesting incarnation of Twitter is the ability to ask questions of your “friends” and of the Twitterverse in general. You can use the #tag format to identify common themes, or simply ask a question to a person using an @reply, e.g. @grmeyer to ask me when my cat will start twittering. There are also services like Mahalo Answers that allow you to ask a question through Twitter to other communities and to receive replies. This type of integration is a powerful tool even in 140 character format.
Twitter is limited to 140 characters. Yet it provides focused, dynamic links into a larger world of information. By using Twitter to consume news, learn about new content, and communicate with friends (both in RL and online), we’re expanding the old medium of the water cooler to something new. Mobile water cooler? Not quite. All-knowing hive mind? Not quite. Something new and interesting, worth spending your time reviewing? Definitely.