Minutes before beginning this piece, I twittered, “At home in Boston, writing about Twitter one more time.” Robert Scoble, author of the technology blog Scobleizer, wrote in Half Moon Bay, CA, “Life with Milan is definitely nuts. He wakes us up at 3 a.m. and we both look at each other and say ‘good thing he’s so damn cute.’” In San Francisco, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams wrote of cofounder Biz Stone, “Talking about Biz’s need to get better at twittering.” In Tokyo, someone named Shiru said, “I’m getting better at surfing. Okay, time to get back to work.”
On Pownce, Michael Owens, a 22-year-old graphic designer in Chicago, addressed himself sternly: “I need a way to force myself not to check social media and blogs and webcomics and all the other things that I get distracted by.” A short time later, he posted, “Holy Crap. The Care Bears Movie is on. That’s freaking awesome.” And over at Facebook, Ed Vaizey, an old college friend who is now a member of the British parliament, told his 233 other friends about his professional reading: “Just read Robin Harris’s biography of Talleyrand–superb; and Edward Pearce’s biography of Walpole, not so good, far too arch.”
These notes–terse, obscure, and endlessly self-referential–are all examples of a new phenomenon in social media called “microblogs”: short electronic posts, sent to friends or to a more general community, that deliver some information about the sender. Sending microblogs broadcasts, “I am here!” Reading microblogs satisfies the craving of many people to know the smallest details of the lives of people in whom they are interested. Already, new-media intellectuals have coined a term to describe the new social behavior they say microblogging encourages: they talk of “presence,” a shorthand for the idea that by using such tools, we can enjoy an “always on” virtual omnipresence.
As Kate Greene reports in her profile of Evan Williams, “What Is He Doing?”, ever since Twitter was named best blog at the Web Awards at the South by Southwest festival in March 2007, the number of people using the microblogging service has expanded swiftly. In March, Twitter had 100,000 members, according to Biz Stone; today, TwitDir.com, an independent Twitter directory, says there are almost 500,000 twitterers. But the most obvious signal of microblogging’s importance is the swelling number of Twitter peers or imitators. Recently, a Chinese blog counted around 100 “Twitter clones” in at least 12 countries. They all have cute, telegraphic names: Jaiku, Kyte, Plazes, Pownce, Yappd. Even Facebook has joined the trend. The smartest of the social networks now allows its users to send their friends short posts that describe their “status.”
Two services merit attention: Twitter, because it was the first and is the best known, and Pownce, because of its many features and the personality of its founder, Kevin Rose.
Twitterers use mobile phones, instant-messaging software, or Twitter’s own website to send and receive 140-character messages, called twitters or tweets. Tweets–which mostly answer Twitter’s prompt “What are you doing?”–are routed to individual friends, to networks of friends, or to everyone who registers with Twitter.
Most twitterers (or twits, as they are sometimes inevitably called) communicate with small networks of people they know, but the most loved have thousands of people who “follow” them (to use Twitter’s own jargon). Paul Terry Walhus, a developer from Austin, TX, had 2,421 friends as of late September. Robert Scoble, the technology blogger, had 5,880. John Edwards–the John Edwards–had 3,528.