Tweets from the Edge: The Ins and Outs (and Ups and Downs) of Twitter

If you already know all about Twitter—if you spent mid-March in Austin tweeting away with your pals at South by Southwest, if you can explain the differences between Twhirl and Twitterrific and Tweetdeck, and if you’ve already mastered thinking in 140-character fragments—this week’s column is not for you. It’s for all the other people, the ones who have recently been coming up to me—their resident technology columnist—and asking “What is Twitter, anyway, and why should I care about it?”

For the uninitiated, here’s a simple way to think about Twitter. It’s a tool for mass-mailing postcards to everyone who cares enough about you to sign up to receive them. These people are called your followers. At the same time, it’s a tool for collecting postcards from the people you care about—the people you follow. The thing is that on Twitter, the postcards are electronic, they can carry no more than 140 characters of text, and they’re delivered very fast, many times a day, no postage necessary.

Now, if you look at the history of actual postcards, there are some interesting parallels to the emergence of Twitter. Postcards were invented in the late 1860s (in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of all places), but for decades, only government postal services were allowed to print and sell them. Around the turn of the century—1898 in America, 1900 in Japan—private companies finally obtained the right to publish postcards. This not only led to an explosion of creative postcard designs, but encouraged millions of people to adopt this abbreviated form of communication, which was much more convenient than putting a letter in an envelope. In 1908, Americans sent one another 677 million postcards—more than seven per citizen.

The Internet was conceived by government scientists in the late 1960s and was handed over to the private sector in the late 1980s. Twitter came along more or less on schedule in 2006. Like postcards, Twitter messages—“tweets” in the parlance developed by Twitter users—are brief by necessity. They’ve caught on in part because they’re so much easier to generate than the alternative: e-mail messages with hundreds or thousands of recipients into the cc: line. And as with postcards, no one really expects a response to their tweets.

Twitter iconsTwitter messages are breezy, entertaining, and only occasionally informative—you’d never use Twitter for something important like, say, inviting a friend to dinner. Tweets are also ephemeral—they’re usually glanced at and forgotten, which is necessary, since if you follow lots of people, you likely get hundreds of tweets a day. (You can check them on your page at, or you can use a specialized desktop Twitter “client” like the aforementioned Twhirl, Twitterrific, and Tweetdeck.) So Twitter isn’t at all like your e-mail inbox, where each message demands some kind of action. It’s more like a constantly flowing stream that you can dip into at your leisure.

If tweets are so trivial, then why should you care about Twitter? The truth is that right now, you don’t need to, any more than you care about postcards. Sitting out Twitter is not going to cripple your career or leave you socially isolated in the way that sitting out e-mail or the Web might.

On the other hand, Twitter is undoubtedly the most unexpected and fast-growing social phenomenon on the Internet of 2008-2009. It’s probably here to stay, in one form or another, and could turn out to be just as significant as wikis, blogs, and social networks. (Interestingly, one of the founders of Twitter, Evan Williams, was also the co-founder of Blogger, which made the first easy-to-use blog publishing tool.) So if you want to understand how millions of people are experiencing cutting-edge social media today, you should probably sign up for a Twitter account and start following a few people. You can follow me by going to and clicking the “Follow” button.

What’s not to like about Twitter? Well, for one thing, it can quickly lead to what you might call “communication saturation” or “Twitter litter.” It might nice to receive one or two postcards from your friend who’s vacationing in Greece. But if he sends you eight postcards from Athens, seven from Santorini, and five more from Mykonos, you’ll start to think he’s a little weird. In the same way, many people tweet too often, about matters that—no matter how piquantly phrased—fall below the threshold of interest to other busy humans. (A recent Current SuperNews cartoon, embedded at the end of this column, makes wicked fun of this kind of Twitter self-absorption.)

Luckily, it’s easy to unfollow Twitter bores. In my own experience, there are plenty of people who tweet with more care, sharing insights and factoids that are truly likely to engage or enlighten their followers. And if you want to witness a genuine wisdom-of-crowds moment, wait until you have a few hundred followers, then tweet a frantic request like “Help, my TiVo erased Nip/Tuck, is it online somewhere?” or “Quick, I need a limerick about bowling.” You’ll get a wealth of useful, or at least good-humored, responses.

By the way, you can ignore Twitter’s own description of what Twitter is about: “A service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” It may have started out that way—and some people still use it that way—but the fact is that there are now as many different styles of tweets as there are styles of blogs. People share anecdotes, links, complaints, jokes, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Tweets from the Edge: The Ins and Outs (and Ups and Downs) of Twitter”

  1. This is a terrific Twitter overview for folks who are just beginning. It’s honest and clear. Thanks.

  2. If used in the spirit you describe, Twitter is a great addition to how we communicate. I have ~160 followers and about the same number following me. I find them very interesting and learn a great deal from their expertise and interests.

    I feel the number one mistake people make with Twitter is they get discouraged. Watch the video on the home page and you will understand the basics and take off from that point.

    Twitter in some form is here to stay, much like websites and mobile phones. More and more Twitter will come off the web and into the mobile environment for more of us “non I-Phone” folks. Blackberry, what are you waiting for with Twitter? Or is it Twitter that is stalling?