Well out of sight of the SkyTrain station, I realized that I had no idea where I was going. In danger of being late for a party and discovering I did not have the host’s phone number on hand, I posted a message with my phone number on Twitter (www.twitter.com/), asking for help.
It was a shot in the dark, but after three minutes my phone rang and a complete stranger guided me back on track and to my destination.
My story is certainly not typical of Twitter, but increasingly the microblogging service is being used in inventive and incredibly useful ways.
Launched in 2006, Twitter is, when stripped of all the social-media, Web 2.0 jargon, a status-update service. The best way to describe Twitter is that it is like the status-update feature in Facebook—without Facebook.
Users can post messages up to 140 characters long, the same limit that applies to text messages sent from a mobile phone. These posts, also known as tweets, can then be read by all of Twitter’s users or by those who have chosen to follow a given poster’s output.
Tweets can be sent using Twitter’s Web site, third-party desktop applications like Twitterific (www.iconfactory.com/software/twitterrific/), applications designed for such smart phones as the BlackBerry or iPhone, and cellular text messaging.
It is the option to follow specific users’ posts that is perhaps Twitter’s most popular feature. While the vast majority of users focus their attention on its social functions—using it to keep their friends up to date on their activities—increasingly, Twitter is being seen as a powerful tool that can be used in a number of different ways.
Local blogger and social-media guru Rebecca Bollwitt, better known by her blog handle Miss 604 (www.miss604.com/), is one of those who have found another use for Twitter. She started using the service in March 2007, and it’s become a way not only to keep in touch with friends but also to promote her blog and drive Internet traffic to her latest posts.
Whenever she publishes an article on her WordPress blog, a plug-in application called WordTwit (www.bravenewcode.com/wordtwit/) notifies the more than 1,100 Twitter users who have chosen to follow her tweets.
“I find I have the most instant visitors to my site from Twitter,” Bollwitt said, noting that within the first hour of a blog post going on-line most of its direct traffic comes from her automated tweets, which link to the new articles.
While helping her to keep in touch with the community of readers that has formed around her blog, Twitter has also sent new visitors her way, when well-known Internet figures have mentioned her in their tweets.
“Once someone new discovers you and sends you an ”˜at’,” Bollwitt said, referring to the at sign (commonly found in e-mail addresses) that precedes any direct message between Twitter users, “all of their followers notice and want to know who was so ”˜at-worthy’ for that person. So, from there, it just grows like a grapevine.”
One notable instance of this phenomenon occurred when Bollwitt appeared in an episode of The Lab With Leo Laporte, a TV show on technology produced in Vancouver.
She noticed a significant surge in the number of her Twitter followers after Laporte mentioned her on his own Twitter account, bringing both her blog and her tweets to the attention of his followers, who now number over 54,000.
Others have found the microblogging service useful for more than just promotion. Darren Barefoot, a writer and the founder of the Vancouver-based tech-marketing firm Capulet Communications, uses Twitter to solicit aid, information, and opinions from other users.
“I needed a couple of marketing e-mails translated into Spanish the other day,” Barefoot said, noting that after posting a message to Twitter he had three offers of translation services from bilingual readers of his posts.
Keeping his Twitter posts work-related is important to Barefoot. “I try to avoid banal tweets like, ”˜I’m eating some grapes now.’ I don’t like reading them, so I can’t imagine that others would.”
For Barefoot, Twitter has taken the place of posting links on the social-bookmarking site Delicious, and of on-line telephone chats over Skype with members of Vancouver’s tech community. It’s become his preferred method for sending quick messages across the Internet.
Twitter’s uses continue to be explored, discovered, and expanded by its users. During this year’s U.S. presidential primaries, several candidates used Twitter to update their supporters. Right now, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is the most followed user on Twitter, with about 70,000 subscribers.
After it saved me from wandering aimlessly around an unfamiliar part of Burnaby for the rest of the night, I too am a devoted Twitter user. How else am I going to let people know when I’m eating grapes?