Josh Carrico was ahead of the curve by about two years.
When the Wesley Chapel man signed up for Twitter.com on Aug. 9, 2006, he couldn't exactly use the site to keep up with his friends. They weren't on it.
Instead, Carrico followed messages from Adobe and Fast Company.
"I started finding a lot of people who were prominent figures in the tech community and saying, 'Wow, I have this one-to-one relationship with them that I never would've had before,' " said Carrico.
Carrico, 32, is what's called an early adopter. As a Web developer, he's forever trying to sell his friends on the latest Internet sites and gadgets. He told them they could use Twitter to send instant messages without being chained to a computer. He told them they could vent to the masses. He told them they could keep tabs on their favorite celebrities and athletes.
"Then again, I couldn't get anyone to use it," Carrico said.
That was then.
So, what are you doing?
Twitter, in case you haven't heard, is a microblogging site that asks users to answer the question "What are you doing?" Users post updates, or "tweets," of 140 characters or fewer, which can be seen by all the "followers" who sign up to view the user's feed. They can also send public or private messages to individual Twitter users, or "tweeters." To reply to someone's message, followers use @username. Even with its add-on applications and widgets — for instance, a program that allows you to sync your Twitter and Facebook statuses — the site remains relatively uncluttered.
But that hasn't stopped more than 7 million unique visitors from logging on to Twitter since it launched in March 2006, says Silicon Valley Web strategist Jeremiah Owyang. But why do we care? According to USF sociology professor John Skvoretz, the explanation is simple: "To interact with people takes time, so it's a way of passively keeping up with people." But why do we ourselves tweet our every move for others to read?
"It gives you a sense of self-worth," said Skvoretz, who specializes in social network analysis. "You sort of say, 'If I find what they're doing interesting, then maybe they'll find what I'm doing interesting. Maybe, therefore, it is interesting.'" And once you start tweeting, Skvoretz said, you can't stop. "You now have an audience, and now you have to perform for that audience."
Two guys who know this well are deejays Ratboy and Staypuff from 93.3 WFLZ-FM. The evening show co-hosts got a Twitter account (@ratandpuff) three weeks ago and already have more than 750 followers.
"We only talked about it one time on our show, and then out of nowhere we had like 100 people following us," Staypuff said. Now they interact with listeners, post photos of the crowd during a live broadcast at Green Iguana or Shephard's Beach Resort, and take pictures of themselves when fans tweet to ask if it's really them.
Ratboy called their following an "ego boost" but added, "You feel more pressure to update it more often, 'cause you know people are looking and paying attention now."
People like Soulja Boy (@souljaboytellem), Dane Cook (@danecook) and Tony Danza (@tonydanza) have all responded to Rat and Puff's mass tweets, even though they don't know each other personally. And whenever a celebrity writes or follows them, it leads to even more followers.
Tweet and meet
Eventually, all this online interaction makes people want to meet in person. Last March, Carrico, the Web developer, attended his first Twitter meet-up, or "Tweetup." Owyang (@jowyang), the California Web strategist, had tweeted that he was coming to Tampa and invited his local followers to have dinner with him in SoHo. About 18 people showed up that night, tweeting, blogging, texting and shooting video of the dinner. When Carrico realized how many like-minded techies lived in Tampa Bay, he founded tampabloggers.com to aggregate their Twitter feeds.
Since the dinner, Carrico has also organized informal Tweetups nearly every month. In December, 48 people squeezed into The Bunker coffee and wine bar in Ybor City.
"It was just packed," Carrico says of the small shop. "It looked like you walked into the most popular club on a Saturday night." He's held other gatherings at Starbucks, Channelside and MOSI, which attracted his biggest turnout with 118 Tweeters. Tweetups are also a growing trend in Orlando and Sarasota.
It may seem pointless: a bunch of strangers getting together to ignore each other while they play with their gadgets. But Carrico says Tweetups can be productive. Participants bring laptops to share their Web sites and blogs. Some get job leads.
"I hate to use the term networking because we have the idea that it's just people handing out business cards," Carrico said. "It's not that at all."
Contributing: Luis Santana