Last week I wrote about Jott, a useful tool for capturing thoughts that occur to you when you’re away from your computer and unable to write them down. You call Jott’s toll-free number from your cell phone and leave a brief voice message; workers at an Indian call center transcribe your message into text and e-mail it to you or to specified friends or coworkers.
Jott made its first big splash at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference in Monterey, CA, in early March, and it has already gained thousands of enthusiastic users, who “jott” everything from shopping lists to song lyrics. But in the competition for consumer and media buzz, Jott has been up against another free service that also uses cell phones and the Internet to capture moments in time, this one with a social twist. It’s Twitter, which essentially turns the one-to-one channels of instant messaging and phone-based SMS text messaging into broadcast media.
Twitter members use the company website or their own cell phones to compose missives up to 140 characters in length, almost always answering the trademark Twitter question, “What are you doing?” Once a member submits a message to the site or texts it to the short code 40404 (in the United States), it goes out to the phones and browsers of the people who’ve joined that member’s social network–his or her “followers,” in Twitter lingo. Every four minutes, the accumulated messages are also posted briefly to Twitter’s public timeline, which anyone can read on the Web.
Twitter had about 100,000 members as of late March, and membership has been doubling every three weeks, according to Twitter engineer Biz Stone. Members exchange an astonishing number of updates every hour, ranging from the maddeningly trivial (“Just placed a bid on eBay for an auction I won’t win”) to the mildly interesting (“Portrait of a writer on deadline: Staring into my near-empty fridge. Peanut butter, no bread. Cereal, no milk. Bottle of Veuve, no party”).
In that respect, Twitterers resemble bloggers, except that most updates have a rawer, more dashed-off flavor–which is to be expected, since they’re also far shorter and more ephemeral than blog posts. Members like the service, in Stone’s view, because it lets them stay connected with friends without having to think about technical details such as their friends’ instant-messaging handles or which cellular carrier they use. Twitter is “a sophisticated, device-agnostic, social message routing system that nobody realizes they need until they try it,” Stone says. “We’ve lowered the barrier to keeping in touch such that the only thing that matters is what you and your friends are doing.”
The guts of Twitter is a system that quickly matches new messages coming in from members with the followers who have signed up to receive them, then retransmits them using each follower’s preferred channel: instant message, SMS, or the Twitter website. Stone says the company completed a working version of the software in only two weeks using Ruby on Rails, a programming language and a set of prefabricated software modules widely employed by developers of the new raft of Web services known as Web 2.0. The hard part, he says, was “navigating the business aspects of the mobile industry. It took us months to get a short code and figure out how to play nice with all the major U.S. and international mobile carriers.” (SMS messages to Twitter incur the usual carrier fees of $0.10 to $0.15 per message.)