Living on Twitter Time
Monday, June 15, 2009; 9:48 AM
Is Twitter no longer an ultra-hip refuge for the perpetually plugged-in?
Now that Time's cover has certified it as part of mass culture, the quirky little Web site can hardly be dismissed as a mere oddity. And the masses who have jumped from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter might at any moment decamp for some hot new hangout.
But the site is less important than the way its users are changing the media culture. They are exchanging more than just 140-character bursts of blather about their daily lives: They are guiding their friends and followers to the latest news, information, gossip, snark and a pulsating, real-time debate. Old-style news outlets would kill for that sense of belonging.
When I mentioned on my Twitter page that I would be talking on the air about Conan O'Brien taking over "The Tonight Show," I got a flood of messages. Some called him a genius, others think he's a goofball. What I quickly learned is that O'Brien is a polarizing figure in the late-night world, loved and loathed with equal fervor.
The speed is often blinding as people tap updates from their phones. "If you're looking for interesting articles or sites devoted to Kobe Bryant, you search Google," Time's Steven Johnson wrote. "If you're looking for interesting comments from your extended social network about the three-pointer Kobe just made 30 seconds ago, you go to Twitter."
Twitter's 17 million monthly visitors -- up from just over 1 million a year ago -- are shaping their environment, such as making discussions easily searchable by including the hashtag or pound (#) symbol. They create an echo-chamber effect by "re-tweeting" -- that is, repeating -- noteworthy observations or links. But as with Facebook, whose redesigned news feed now resembles Twitter, the ultimate appeal is forging connections. USA Today last week lamented the sheer banality of most status updates, but even these provide a sense of someone's routine, interests and sense of humor.
The guilty pleasure of peeking into another person's life is heightened when said person is prominent, whether it's a network anchor, a politician or the likes of Shaq, Oprah or Ashton Kutcher. Oh look, Chris Cuomo's daughter is sick. Hey, Bonnie Fuller got drenched while lugging bags around Central Park and her hair got mega-frizzy.
Not everyone buys the notion that this is a step forward for mankind. "For celebrities, Twitter is a gigantic ego stroke," writes CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel. "It's a game of narcissist strip poker, and you're the thong."
Sure, the boldfaced names may provide carefully calibrated glimpses, but some actively engage with their fan base.
I became friendly with Mariel Hemingway when the actress began following me on Twitter. When I began checking out her page, I was struck by how often she shared the details of her life, from her hiking to her bedtime. Without any handlers or publicists, we agreed to meet for a CNN interview when I was in Los Angeles.
"I'm a very private person," Hemingway told me. "But I find it wonderfully comforting to know that there's just people out there to connect with that -- yes, they don't know me, but . . . I think you feel a closeness with people, and it's a great way to kind of get what your message is out there." In her case, that includes promoting her new cookbook.
The instant feedback is also having an impact on reporting. I asked my Twitter followers last week what they valued about the site, and was deluged with responses that would have taken days of calling to collect: