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Twitter Offers E-Messages on Users' Terms

It seems like there's a new, faster way to communicate introduced every few weeks. But if you've ever been embarrassed by your cell phone ringing at exactly the wrong moment, or frustrated by a perpetually overflowing email inbox, you've doubtless wondered if being constantly connected is such a good thing. For those suffering from information overload, reporter Mike Osborne has good news: a communications tool you can choose to ignore without feeling the least bit guilty.

Have you ever tried NOT answering a ringing phone? It's nearly impossible to do. E-mail's much the same. You feel compelled to answer every message, no matter how trivial. That brings us to Twitter. One of the best things about this latest entry in the communications sweepstakes is that it doesn't insist on your complete attention.

The technical name for services like Twitter is micro-blogging. Subscribers type in short messages on their cell phones or computers, and these 'tweets' are distributed instantly to their circle of friends. Those friends, or followers in Twitter-speak, can respond immediately, save the post for later, or ignore it all together.

Computer programmer and Twitter enthusiast Bryan Booth uses the service several times a day. "Anytime I send out a tweet," he says, "of the 200 people or so who follow me, maybe only one of them sees it. Maybe all 200 do. It depends on if they're on line; if they're paying attention."

Twitter combines the community of social networking, the portability of cell phones, and the immediacy of instant messaging. Booth says if his followers read his post, it might start a conversation. "But it doesn't demand the same kind of attention that other forms of communications do."

Making your point in 140 characters or less

Educational instruction designer Mary Nunaley is tweeting at the tennis court as she watches her son practice. Nunaley can send and receive tweets on her cell phone because Twitter posts are blessedly short. Tweets are limited to 140 characters each. That's what Nunaley likes about it. "It really forces you to think clearly about what you want to say and how you're going to get that across to people. One hundred forty characters, if you think about it, is about a sentence, and so you really need to be precise."

Twitter turns social networking on its head. With services like Facebook, people invite you to be part of their circle of friends. With Twitter you choose the people you want to follow.

Nunaley says a simple keyword or name search is all it takes to locate topics or people of interest. "The key thing is finding people on Twitter that you want to follow. Then," she explains, "if you follow them, you'll go to their Twitter page, click on the follow button, and then whenever they post something you'll see what they're posting about."

The dangers of Tweeting

But being able to read and write posts anywhere, anytime, can cause problems. Nunaley recently used her cell phone to tweet candid – and negative – comments about a convention speaker while sitting in the audience. Word of those posts got back to her boss in Nashville before the speaker's presentation was even finished. "We got calls in Nashville from Minnesota and one of the Dakotas about how bad the conference was going based on things I had posted," she says with a laugh. "So the next day at the conference we had a little lecture about proper Twitter behavior during conferences."

Twitter behavior has a lot of companies paying close attention as well. When Nunaley started tweeting about the trouble she was having with her cable service, a company representative contacted her within minutes and quickly resolved the problem. Cisco Systems, Dell and a number of other large companies have recently jumped on the Twitter bandwagon, not just to connect with customers, but also to promote professional collaboration.

Computer programmer Bryan Booth uses Twitter primarily for business, tapping into an online community of fellow techies for mutual support. "A lot of programmers use it to find other programmers, so that when you're knocking your head against your desk wondering why something isn't working you have somebody who can keep you sane by saying, 'Here, let me take a look… be happy to help.'"

International growth and growing pains

Twitter's ability to network people with common interests, without any sense of obligation or pressure, has propelled the service well beyond American shores. Booth notes that Twitter is very popular in Japan. "Japan, I think, has the largest number of subscribers of any country. It's also huge in Italy, Portugal, Russia… I think America's actually fifth in terms of participants."

That kind of growth doesn't come without cost, however. Complaints by Twitter users have also grown in recent months, due to slow service and frequent outages. Of course, Twitter is free, so perhaps it's in bad taste to complain.

In spite of the service's shortcomings, Bryan Booth admits he's just a little bit addicted. "There's a little bit of escapism in it. A lot of the people that I follow are just funny. Their tweets never make sense. They're never about anything. It's just to make people laugh. It's just a nice stress relief."

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Twitter is doing remarkably well. By some estimates there are now more than 100 similar services available worldwide. Some of the best known have equally inventive names: Pownce, Spoink, Plurk and Thumblog, just to name a few.