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BW Businessworld

You’re On Twittervision

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As if it weren't enough that we have to tackle our daily load of e-mail, be pinged with messages popping up on our busy desktops, update our Linkedin profiles, respond to pokes on Facebook and be constantly beeped on our mobile phones — we now have to contend with Twitter as well?

The answer, in one short word: yes.

As someone whose father had the whole house rigged up with intercoms long before the average person knew what intercoms were, and had the kids being beeped with their own Morse code signals, I don't find new technologies alien. Neither does Twitter's growing number of users surprise me. But many millions absolutely hate it and are wondering why there be a Twitter at all. Not only is this ocean of streaming micro updates completely incomprehensible to them, it has spawned a strange language full of tweets and tweeps that is yet to be figured out by most people. I remember someone saying that Twitter can make new users feel like they've fallen into an alternative universe.

But whether you choose to be a Twittizen or opt to have nothing to do with this nonsense, it is a reality to which one must adapt. Because the truth is the world has been Twittered — and it will never be the same again.

What is so monumental about a plain looking website that asks you what you're doing and expects an answer in 140 characters? Anyway, who wants to know? The phenomenal thing about Twitter is really what its users are doing with it. I doubt Twitter makers Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone visualised the ways it is being put to use now from when they first started it.

On the face of it, all you really have is 140-character updates. But consider this: thanks to those updates, news is beginning to break first on Twitter. Because you can tweet from mobile devices, you could be on the spot when something newsworthy happens and micro-report it through your instant tweet. The ability to stream news out in this way is so powerful that the media has quickly got on to Twitter. So now it is a mix of micro news from recognised news sources, real time reports from people around the world, and a melting pot of rumours. Recently in Iran, Twitter became the medium for the average citizen to start a whole protest movement. It even played a significant role in our own 26/11. Journalists have started to stream news, make expert comments, share raw videos and even conduct Twinterviews.

But back to those updates. Why would anyone want to know what someone had for breakfast or what he or she thinks is the best thing to read? The point is, they do. Keeping up with friends, family or people you admire without an effort is meaningful. For most, it does not take away from real life interaction, but gives it a new dimension. Take that a step further, and you can choose people to follow and be followed by those interested in what you have to say. This allows you to build your own network or community and it is what opens up new opportunities to position yourself, your work, your views. Or, to learn from someone else's. It is because of what people are able to share that Twitter is being evolved further by its users, who are busy creating thousands of applications for it. Twittervision is one such example and it allows you to see tweets around the world in a unique 3D format.

Twitter being so popular at the moment doesn't mean that it is free of the problems that plague the rest of the online world. Twitter is not as clean as it looks. Far from it. There's Twitter spam, phishing, porn, and some serious viruses. As we speak, a worm called Koobface is attacking Twitter (and Facebook), resulting in the suspension of some accounts. That is where inexplicable messages land up suggesting visiting a link.

Another point that goes straight to the sceptics: Twitter (and other social networking sites) don't have a way of making much money yet. All the same, many web companies that did not have a business model ultimately did do well. Youtube is one example. Meanwhile, Twitter is becoming more and more valuable to a massive community of users.

American broadcaster Tom Ashbrook gives us this communication timeline: "Once there was slow talk and silence. Then came letters — delivered by horse or sailing ship, months in coming, deep in thought. Then came the telegraph, telephone, cell-phone, e-mail, Palm Pilot, Blackberry, texting, instant messaging, and now — Twitter."

Twitter, or something else like it, will be what you make of it. But either way, it is not going away anywhere soon.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.

mala at pobox dot com
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 03-08-2009)