Webscout: Twitter: It’s real time at the same time

December 21, 2006 Los Angeles Times
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WEB SCOUT; It’s real time at the same time

BYLINE: Richard Rushfield, Times Staff Writer

A decade-plus into the Information Age, are you suddenly feeling like your trusty e-mail works a bit too slowly to really satisfy your needs, that blogs are looking a little formal, stodgy and, now that you mention it, downright old-media-esque? And your MySpace page — complete with pictures of your favorite TV shows, audio of that song you can’t get out of your head and the photos a friend snapped of you moments after that ill-advised ninth tequila shot last weekend — is even this page feeling somehow impersonal and remote?

Well, if these feelings are welling up, fret not. The Web’s early promises of absolute connectedness to the greater universe were not idle threats. A new generation of websites is bringing us ever closer to the electronic demolition of the I/thou paradox.

The folks at Twitter.com have built their site around the seemingly toothless but cosmically important question, “What are you doing?” Launched in July, the aptly named service aims to close the real-time gap between you and your friends when you are not e-mailing, instant- or text-messaging one another, by letting you send your nearest and dearest up-to-the-minute updates on everything you think and do.

Twitter works by hypercharging social networks such as those on MySpace or Friendster. A new Twitter user creates a very basic profile and then creates a mini-network by linking to his or her friends, family, acquaintances and pretty faces found through browsing the site. Then, whenever the mood strikes, the user logs in to Twitter.com (or sends it a note via text or instant messenger), answering the “What’re you doing” question in 150 characters or fewer. Once you chime in with your latest activity or pondering, your message is then radiated out to all the members of your circle, who can check in at their webpage to see what their friends are up to, or better still, receive flashing updates on their cellphones or instant messengers whenever a friend checks in.

The result, according to Jack Dorsey, the force behind Twitter, “brings you closer to everyone, because you know what everyone is doing, things you would never imagine.”

On a typical Sunday evening, a glance at Twitter’s public page, where its users’ collective messages are posted, does indeed reveal a cross section of what might be a moment in the life of the Information Generation. Among the updates posted within a one-hour period:

“watching cat videos on youtube”

“Trying to finish my senior thesis. Or start it.”

“Our guests have just leaved. They were all danes, who were over for a drink and danish cakes. Yummy :D”

“watching HOME ALONE with the Chris Columbus/Macauley Culklin commentary track.”

“making venison spaghetti. :)”

“shrieks at just receiving her dreaded student loan bill, which is larger than what she was expecting. Much larger”

“At Sushi Roku in Pasadena”

Staying in the moment

THE Twitter dream of omnipresent interconnectedness began, Dorsey said by phone, with a sense that the Web had not adopted a form of literature that was authentic to its users’ ever-growing appetite for connection. “The thing I really appreciated about blog journalism,” he said, “was it was a very connected community. But on the Web, blog messages are very composed, they’re not really, ‘What are you doing at this moment?’ or ‘What are you thinking at this moment?’ and that’s the kind of connection I wanted. It just seems realer.”

Dorsey’s Twitter colleague, Biz Stone, also on the phone, remembered that Dorsey was “haunted” by the concept that you could break through the stuffiness of blogs and create a more direct community. He said, “People say blogging seems self-important — you’ve gotta write a page. It seems like an assignment. With Twitter, the limits are down for all the people who wouldn’t normally blog, the barrier is much lower.”

For Dorsey, creating this community of linked microblogs has been “endearing, because you know what everyone you know is doing, things you would never imagine.”

Indeed, one avid user, referred by Stone and Dorsey, reports that Twitter has become his primary mode of communication with the people in his life. Tony Stubbleline, a 28-year-old Internet consultant living in the Bay Area, said by phone, “I never send personal e-mail, never phone, rarely IM. But the people who follow me on Twitter know as much about me as anyone ever did when I was making an effort to keep up contacts.”

He reports using Twitter to keep in touch with his high school-aged sister and gaining a privileged window into her life. “I see her and say ‘What’s up,’ and she says, ‘Not much.’ But now I find out all kinds of things about her.” He went on, “People my sister’s age have given up e-mail all together and just are IM and text messaging.”

Stubbleline also points out an interesting facet to this stage of hyper-connectedness; a distinct advantage he sees to Twitter is rather than creating a constant conversation with all of your friends, Twitter is creating a hub of simultaneous monologues. Of the price of e-mail contact he says: “There’s the overhead of you expect a reply. When you’re on the phone, you have to say hello. Even in casual text messaging there is an expectation of a reply.” In Twitter, you can simply speak, no response warranted and no need to respond to what your friends are saying.

While Dorsey and Stone are cagey about the exact number of people using their site, a peek around at the still-manageable flow of incoming updates to the main page suggests that it remains a fairly niche crowd. But its numbers appear to be multiplying quickly, placing its candidacy for out-of-control Web explosion of the month on the threshold of legitimacy. The Alexa ranking site, an imperfect but regrettably still-standard measure of Web prominence, states that in the last three months, Twitter has leaped from No. 217,282 on the Internet charts to 25,922. Dorsey and Stone say their user base more than doubled in November and nearly doubled again just in the last week.

While Twitter seems to be the website with the greatest buzz beneath its wings, it has company in the microblog community space. Dodgeball.com, a site now owned by Google, offers a variation on the hyper-connectedness model, with a service that alerts you when members of your charmed circle enter your real-world radius, sending out an APB to all friends in the vicinity to rush to the corner Starbucks.

Of course, every new leap in technology will be closely followed by a new school of grumblers, and this one is no exception. In a recent Washington Post column, Michael Kinsley fired the first harrumph across Twitter’s bow, labeling the service “the ultimate in solipsism” and mocking a day to come when people post online what they know “about what you were doing before what you’re doing now.” But as Stubbleline’s sister would no doubt retort, sounds like a guy who still uses e-mail.

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