The company is also grappling with its own sudden growth, says Stone. The unanticipated storm of Twitters has resulted in occasional slowdowns and downtime. “We’re looking for a senior engineer experienced at developing large-scale systems,” he pleads.
Stone is a longtime collaborator of Blogger cofounder Evan Williams, who owns Twitter’s parent company, Obvious. But “obvious” isn’t the word some onlookers are using to describe Twitter’s utility. While it has some high-profile users, such as presidential candidate John Edwards and former Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble, many bloggers have dismissed Twitter as a giant distraction, full of news flashes about which variety of latte a friend just ordered at Starbucks.
Dedicated Twitter users defend the service, suggesting that the daily minutiae actually add up to something significant. “Asking ‘who really cares about that kind of mindless trivia about your day?’ misses the whole point of presence,” writes Liz Lawley, director of the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology. “It’s about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you’re doing. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is, ‘What are you doing?’ Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they’re working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days.”
But Twittering became such a fashionable pastime at TED and at the following week’s South by Southwest interactive technology conference in Austin, TX, that other observers wonder whether it is more than a fad. “Twitter was impossible to escape at South by Southwest,” says Jamais Cascio, an independent “foresight consultant” and cofounder of futurist news site WorldChanging. “I think it went through the entire hype cycle–from nobody knowing about it to ‘What do you mean you don’t use it?’ to ‘Twitter? Do you still have that?’–in about four days.”
But at least a few independent Web developers are still enamored with Twitter, and they’re using the programming interfaces provided by Obvious to build mashups that give messages more context. If Twitter users send a specially formatted message to the service giving their current location, all their subsequent Twitters will include that information; Maryland-based developer David Troy took advantage of this feed to build Twittermap, which displays each new message above the user’s location on a Google Map.
Later, Troy introduced an animated version called Twittervision, which comes as close to embodying the phrase “global conversation” as anything on the Web. The Twittervision screen depicts the entire earth (again, using map data from Google) and slides east and west to highlight the latest geocoded messages from Twitterers around the world. Say you’re in Tanzania and you see an interesting Twitter pop up over Tokyo. You can respond via phone or the Web, and within 60 seconds your own Twitter will appear over Africa.
Nat Torkington, a New Zealander who runs open-source conferences for technology publisher O’Reilly Media, comments that Twittervision is “a hypnotic glimpse into the lives of people around the world.” He calls it “a complete waste of time”–but “in the same way that conversation, casual sex, and reading are wastes of time.”