All That Twitters

SURELY, some Twitter users are on there solely to get their ego fix. There’s also lots of publicists on there trying to shill their company’s products (cheers, @Starbucks!). But once you start following the right people, Twitter can be useful, converging some of the best aspects of the Internet into a customized message board, news service, gossip blog and email client all in one.

According to Twitter’s Web site, the first prototype of the microblogging platform was built in two weeks in March 2006, as a side project of Jack Dorsey, a St. Louis native, who attended New York University and worked in Manhattan as a software engineer before moving to California. He built Twitter based on a simple interest: What were his friends doing? What are they seeing, reading, listening to? Facebook and instant-messaging status updates provided some insight, but most people aren’t specific enough. Blog entries can be too long and time consuming. What about something simple and easy to manage?

Mr. Dorsey developed Twitter alongside co-founders Evan Williams (who launched the Blogger blogging platform) and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Biz Stone, and introduced the site publicly in August 2006. In May 2007, Twitter Incorporated was founded.

Facebook attempted to buy Twitter last November for $500 million in stock. Twitter declines, and still hasn’t come up with a business model that satisfies the technorati; the site has very little advertising.

Many describe the Twitter experience as an online water cooler (or happy hour, depending on the kind of people you follow) where friends and coworkers can check in on each other during the day and find out what everyone is doing or interested in. It’s also kind of like a personal RSS feed, updating you on acquaintances’ lives in short headlines. If a friend “tweets” that he’s at the Guggenheim, you can tell him to check out your favorite Kandinsky painting on the second floor. If one of the users you follow tweets that they need a Thai restaurant recommendation, you can respond to them with a “Direct Message” (kind of like an email service on Twitter) or just put an “@” symbol before their account name in an update, and the response will be public. You can also check out what his followers recom mended, and try a new place next time you’re in the mood for pad see ew.

Twitter also works as a genuine news aggregator. Lots of tech blogs have been hyping Twitter’s potential since its inception. It became a source for emergency coordination and disaster relief during the San Diego fires in 2007. In November, on-the-ground reports of Mumbai terror attacks also put the idea in motion. CNN reported that an estimated 80 messages, or “tweets,” were being sent to Twitter.com via SMS every five seconds, providing eyewitness accounts and updates. In some cases, Twitterers were able to be on the scene long before TV and newspaper reporters could get there.

Sure, Twitter has its problems. Sometimes the site crashes from too much traffic and you can’t update your blog. Sometimes it feels like a creepy, text-based GPS friends-tracker (lots of people download a LoJack-like iPhone application, posting the device’s global coordinates in real time on their Twitter page). And hackers are on the attack. On Jan. 5, a bunch of high-profile accounts, including CNN’s Rick Sanchez, were invaded. Britney Spears’s had this update: “HI Yall! Brit Brit here, just wanted to update you all on the size of my vagina. Its about 4 feet wide with razor sharp teeth.” It was later removed.

At its worst, Twitter is an addictive annoyance that could just end up being another fad in the ever-changing tech landscape. But at its best, Twitter provides a vast array of often informative, sometimes hilarious, updates from the Web into one place. And crafting tweets is a daily practice in pithy precision. My account is @gillianmae. Come follow me.

greagan@observer.com