Surprise Hits: Twitter offers the profound and mundane in quick, addictive hits
For some, Twitter represents the end of the world -- or at least the death of human communication. In an increasingly "less is more" internet-writing trend, the incredible brevity of Twitter messages, or "tweets," leaves no room for deeper thought or connection. And the medium's ease of use notoriously encourages endless updates on the dull, seemingly meaningless events of daily life.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. Far from causing the death of communication, Twitter is revitalizing it. The sweet simplicity of 140-character messages makes it easy not only to enable bursts of urgent activism and journalism, but the medium's democratic nature theoretically makes it possible for unknowns to reach the rich and famous. Some celebrities appear to encourage this closeness: comedian John ("I'm a PC) Hodgman uses Twitter to solicit his fans' help, and horror writer Neil Gaiman offers fans intimate glimpses into his personal life.
For those who don't know the names Hodgman or Gaiman, there's always Ashton Kutcher, who famously likened Twitter to Morse code, TV, and the computer. Kutcher, of course, uses Twitter to endlessly update his followers with ruminations on the world and cutesy details of his relationship with his wife, Demi Moore. But it's not all dumb fun: the Barack Obama's presidential campaign used it as a tool to reach voters, and in June it became a powerful weapon for Iran's election protesters. Twitter helped U.S. tax protesters organize anti-stimulus tea parties, and chatty congressmen desperate to establish their techie bona fides love to send immediate updates -- especially as an efficient alternative to time-consuming meet-and-greets and slow-reacting constituent newsletters.
Twitter's creators have resisted numerous buyout offers, and like Facebook's founders, they still don't have an obvious plan for making the site financially viable. But it's generated large amounts of money (not to mention free publicity) for those who use it. Twitter in 2009 is where the World Wide Web was in 1995, when merely using the technology seemed to be worth noting. Restaurants, from the Burger King chain to local food carts, use Twitter to reach customers and promote new products; the FDA uses it to warn the public about recalls.
In the end, Twitter's biggest influence may be on culture as a whole, with many users discovering ways to Tweet their human creativity. DailyFinance's Jeff Bercovici argues that Twitter may be heralding a new wave of online courtesy, and Steven Johnson in Time suggests that it may presage an age of multiple-platformed, multiple-level, simultaneous human interaction. In Johnson's imagination, you might silently nod at a speaker in a meeting, even as your Twitter alter-ego shakes its head vigorously to the outside world.
It remains to be seen if Twitter will achieve even a fraction of its potential. But the platform's possibility boggles the mind. The irony, of course, will be if a tool once touted as the end of intellectual depth allows us to plumb a richness we never knew we had.
Bruce Watson has fallen in love with Twitter. In fact, it has gotten to the point where he composes everything in short bursts of 140 char-
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