For those of you who have heard of Twitter but are afraid to go near it, Twitter is referred to by some as a microblogging service. But, from a technology perspective, it mashes the idea of broadcast & subscribe (a kissin' cousin to publish & subscribe) to SMS-based text messaging and puts it on the Web. With SMS text messaging on your phone, most "texters" send short messages (a 160 character limit) directly to specific recipients (a monocast model). With Twitter, you publish short messages (the limit is 140 characters) on the Twitter Web site and other people tune in by "following" you. Twitter offers a way to follow other members of Twitter.com or you can follow them using RSS.
Optional background: There are other microblogging services including Jaiku and Pownce. In the microblogging world, Jaiku is a bit of a sleeping giant that has yet to unleash its fury on Twitter. Jaiku was acquired by Google a little less than a year ago and they've been eerily content to let the Twitter community grow like a weed while Jaiku does, um, well, something. What? No one is quite sure. Earlier this year, the folks at Jaiku announced that the service was being ported to Google's App Engine. Then, late last month, Jaiku's Jyri Engeström blogged that Jaiku had finally been moved to Google's data centers but that the App Engine port was still somewhere off in the future.
I'm not sure where the vision ends, but today, Google has a great many parts that once integrated in a sensible fashion (and you just know that's coming), outfits like Twitter will need every bit of loyalty they can command in order to keep Google from spoiling their party. For example, it's only a matter of time before Google marries its ID management and tagging systems in such a way that everything you do as a Google Apps user, or a regular Google user, can have a common tagging system across all of Google's services. For example, as a user of Google Apps today, I cannot easily give the same tag to a Google-based search result, a Gmail-based e-mail, a Google Reader-based RSS item, a Google Docs-based document, a blog post on Google-owned Blogger.com, a post to Jaiku, and, well, you get the picture. What I'm describing is very much in the realm of what Yahoo's del.icio.us does. Given the depth of breadth of its taggable content and services, Google can only stay away so long.
A lot of Twitterers use Twitter to give up-to-the-minute updates on their whereabouts or ongoings. Something as simple as "I haven't eaten all day, so heading out for a bite." But, much like blogs, there's a whole separate class of tweets that were inspired by (and that link to) some other content on the Web. These could be news, videos, blogs, or anything. But it's what happens next -- the "retweet" -- when that content strikes a nerve that can stir up a genuine storm of dialog on the Web. A storm that can turn into a hurricane or a tornado (given how unpredictable the latter is).
Unlike with blogging where, for most, a bit of friction is involved in spreading the word about some other bit of content on the Web, microblogging services offer instant gratification. Particularly when a speed-enabling microblogging client like Twitterific (what I use) is at the microblogger's disposal.
In a political context, it goes something like this:
- Twitterer #1 points to Factcheck.org's fact-checking of what was said by Rudy Giuliani and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention.
- All of Twitterer #1's followers see that.
- Within seconds, some number of Twitterer #1's followers, including Twitterer #2, copy, paste, and regurgitate Twitterer #1's original tweet. But this time, a whole new set of followers see it because Twitterer #2 has a largely non-overlapping set of followers compared to Twitterer #1.
- Like telling two friends who tell two friends and so on, the original tweet multiplies itself exponentially, feathering itself out to PCs, cell phones (yes, there's a mobile client too), Facebook pages, etc. like an uncontainable contagion.
- Eventually, it draws the attention of the more influential media and suddenly, the original tweet enters the mainstream consciousness
When there are characters to spare, there is a certain etiquette to retweeting: you credit the original Twitterer by using the word "Retweet" or the abbreviation "RT" along with a link to the original Twitterer's Twitter page or to the original tweet itself. To see the degree to which retweeting is taking place (covering way more than just the political spectrum of things), one only has to perform a "twittersearch" on "RT" and "retweet". To give you some idea of how frequently people are retweeting, just sit there and watch one of those twittersearches and it will tell you when the query results are no longer up to date (in other words, there have been new retweets).
Microblogging is clearly very hot with the tech, blogging, and journalism communities and a few other communities that are peripheral to those. So, on the one hand, it's easy to question the influence it might have over something important like an election or a new product. On the other, it doesn't take too many degrees of separation in this increasingly connected world along with a fountain of interesting tweets from someone like NYU's Jay Rosen to get a wildfire started. If you ask me, the only question is, "Which way is the wind blowing?"