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To Wit: Twittering

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Politicians can have their message of the day, but on the Web, anybody can have their message of the hour -- or the minute.

Short updates on social-networking sites have become a new sort of public writing, the equivalent of text-messaging the Web.

As with texting, conciseness matters here; one popular site even limits updates to 140 characters. (See, this paragraph just hit that mark.)

The best-known example of the genre may be Facebook's "status update," in which you can share your latest tidings with friends.

For many Facebook users, it's their favorite part of the site, both reality-show entertainment and creative outlet.

These updates can be mundane, such as recaps of travel (everybody likes to complain about security lines!) and night-life agendas.

They can also be deliberately cryptic, part of the fun of quasi-public speech meant to enlighten close friends and puzzle others.

(What to make of one co-worker's declaration Tuesday that he "doesn't see what the big deal is"?)

Facebook's status updates have plenty of competition at other online social networks, each with its own style and grammar.

MySpace invites you to pick a word to label your mood; the business-networking site LinkedIn lets you describe your current project.

The site to make the most of this concept, however, doesn't offer much but status updates.

Twitter's home page ( http://twitter.com) simply asks people "What are you doing?"

Then this San Francisco start-up challenges them to say their piece in 140 characters or less.

That limit, tighter than even a text message's 160-character cap, forces brevity and encourages frequency.

So do the usual ways to post an update: cellphone texting, IM services, or a box on Twitter's site that counts down as you near that limit.

You can opt to write only for friends, but Twitter co-founder Biz Stone e-mailed that "80-90" percent of users choose publicity.

Follow their example, and others can search for you and click a "follow" button to get your updates, or "tweets."

You can then converse bulletin-board-style, posting new tweets to answer one another. You can also swap private messages.

Your reward for successful solipsism: a public count of how many Twitterers follow your updates.

You can further express yourself by adding a portrait and background image and changing the colors of text on your page.

And you can publish your tweets on other sites -- many Facebook users include Twitter updates on their Facebook profile pages.

Market researchers say relatively few users have taken up this two-year-old service's offer, but their numbers are growing rapidly.

Twitter itself won't reveal user numbers, and conventional Web traffic estimates ignore its phone and IM users.

But the New York-based research firm Hitwise reported that its "page views" in April were 900 percent higher than they were a year ago.

Twitter's users have interpreted its open-ended invitation as foolishly and as imaginatively as you might imagine.

Some have broadcast utter drivel, such as their latest snacks, and others have dealt with more serious matters.

At least one user has proposed marriage -- and received an affirmative answer back on the site.

Last month, another user used his phone to report his jailing in Egypt, after which friends successfully lobbied for his release.

Some jokers impersonate famous characters. "Darth Vader," for example, has some 7,500 followers reading his riffs on "Star Wars."

In a less mischievous vein, somebody has been posting Metro's service alerts to a Twitter page.

A growing number of businesses and organizations have taken the hint and began setting up their own presences on Twitter.

JetBlue, for example, answers travelers' queries and warns about weather-related delays.

The Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns also post updates on Twitter, though John McCain's has resisted the temptation.

And me? I've begun to use it as a mix of notepad and gossip column, sharing random observations with whoever may read them.

To date, Twitter users have not been troubled by ads or any other evidence of a profit motive.

An about-us page says Twitter "has many appealing opportunities for generating revenue" but wants to build its audience first.

My bet: Expect to see the same Google ads that you spot everywhere else, and soon. 1999's dot-com exuberance vanished long ago.

The real risk, though, is not the failure of this site or others like it. It's that the daily routine of zapping off these short snippets of text will erode your ability to think in complete paragraphs or read anything long enough to require a tap of a page-down key, much less a flip of a page. And as you spend ever-more time recording your exploits -- like a sociologist sentenced to conduct endless field research on himself -- you will abandon all hope of ever living in the moment.

That would be bad.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/

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