What’s the use of Twitter?

Last Wednesday, the Guardian had a feature from “inside Twitter HQ” based on interviews with the founders of the service. The article gave potted histories of the founders, two of whom were formerly involved in Blogger, and mentions the fact that Twitter isn’t making money. The following day, they printed a selection of comments from the Guardian website, some of whom objected to the article ever having been printed at all (“Twitter is the stupidest thing on the planet and if I read yet another headline about Twitter I am killing myself”, “it’s just text messaging for smartarses mixed with vanity publishing”). They also included one pithy reposte to these people:

To the usual “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” anger-prone naysayers: at which point did you not realise that clicking on the link “Inside Twitter HQ” would take you to a story about Twitter?

Twitter seems to provoke strong emotions; it’s a medium which lets you type, and broadcast, very short messages. There was a time when I thought it was just useless, and was particularly unhappy at the thought of friends cutting back blogging in favour of Twittering. The point is supposedly that you tell the world “what you’re doing” at any given moment — fine if you’ve got a mobile phone with, say, cheap SMS access (if you’re in the UK and on T-Mobile, you don’t have that). Although it integrates with web location shortening services like bit.ly and ow.ly, long usernames can take a chunk out of your message length when you reply to someone.

You don’t have to use it to tell your friends what you’re doing, however. It can be used as a means of broadcasting messages and updates for a blog, for giving brief details of an event or meeting, for flagging up an interesting article or even book, or anything else you might use a text message for, except that you can broadcast it rather than only sending the message to one person as with SMS. It can be used to update your Facebook status, and in conjunction with plugins for blogging systems which tweet whenever you post an entry, you can automatically have it announced on Facebook. Most of my own original Tweets consist of such updates.

I don’t believe it’ll replace blogging, though; you cannot express half as much in a 140-character message as you can in a blog entry. The whole idea that every new invention will make something else obsolete — first blogging knocking out the mainstream media, now Twitter knocking out blogging — is nonsense. Blogging, other than purely personal diary blogging, relies on the mainstream media to provide things to write about; Twitter is an SMS broadcasting system, and no more replaces blogging than it replaces email (you can send private tweets as well). Use it, but don’t believe the hype (particularly when they’re not making money).

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